Review of 2020: The year society needed brands to pull their weight

As part of Campaign's 'Not Normal' series of essays about 2020, we look at how brands stepped up as Covid took hold, from tackling food poverty to supporting NHS workers and producing life-saving equipment.

Review of 2020: The year society needed brands to pull their weight

"A career highlight” is how Kraft Heinz’s Olivia Hibbert describes her work this year with food poverty charity Magic Breakfast.

Like many marketers operating during the pandemic, the food company’s director of brand building for Northern Europe, has found herself facing unique challenges but living through some rewarding times.

Kraft Heinz, through its Heinz brand, is a year into a five-year partnership with Magic Breakfast, which has a founding principle that hunger should never be a barrier to learning and provides healthy breakfasts to children affected by food poverty.

When Covid struck and it became clear that schools were going to close and mass unemployment and reduced family incomes loomed, Heinz committed to providing 12 million breakfasts to ensure that children that usually had access to breakfast clubs could still enjoy a nutritious start to the day.

In September, the brand rolled out an animated film to promote its partnership with Magic Breakfast. Created by Bartle Bogle Hegarty London, it brings to life how hunger affects a girl’s ability to concentrate at school.

Explaining why her involvement in this was a career highlight, Hibbert says: “This wasn’t about simply looking to drive more demand for a product, but rather doing what we could to support the one in five children at risk of being hungry on a daily basis.

“If you spend more than five minutes with any of the team at Magic Breakfast, you realise the importance of what they are doing, and their passion is contagious,” she adds.

In the early days of Covid, brands’ purposeful activity cranked up a gear, filling in the holes left by the state; a decade ago it would have been held up by some as the Big Society in action.

Formula One motor-racing teams switched to ventilator production, while fashion brands from high-street favourite Zara to haute couture Gucci churned out PPE. The owner of The O2 handed over the keys to its flagship east London venue to allow the NHS to use it for staff training purposes, while Samsung distributed thousands of phones to frontline workers stationed at the temporary Nightingale Hospitals. Alcohol companies, meanwhile, including LVMH, BrewDog (pictured, top) and Pernod Ricard transformed overnight into hand sanitiser producers.

William Grant & Sons was part of this effort, pumping out sanitiser across its sites in Scotland, Ireland and New York, some of which it donated to organisations supporting those affected by coronavirus. The distiller also turned its attention to helping pubs and bars, an industry that has been devastated by the lockdowns and tiered restrictions. Its Monkey Shoulder whisky, alongside digital creative agency Tommy, won £250,000 of outdoor media space in a competition run by Ocean to use for the brand’s “The rules of mixing” campaign. This supported small, independent bars with hyper-localised ad placement and creative designed to build awareness and drive footfall.

Jane Ashley, senior brand manager for Monkey Shoulder, says it was “so rewarding to develop a campaign that was not only highly relevant but had real purpose behind it”.

“As a marketer, we had a prime opportunity to show our support and take real action. We weren’t just reflecting on the challenges facing an industry we are a part of, but we could directly support the talented individuals and small business owners who drive our industry forward,” she says.

"This wasn't about simply looking to drive demand for more product"
— Olivia Hibbert, Kraft Heinz

At the other end of the spectrum in terms of scale was the work undertaken by Mondelez International-owned Cadbury. This spanned everything from manufacturing PPE (plastic visors made using 3D printing machines that would usually make chocolate sculptures) through to linking up with charities such as FareShare and The Trussell Trust.

The brand also renewed its relationship with Age UK that started last year, reprising its “Donate your words” campaign with an ad, created by VCCP, that ran on Sky Cinema and social channels.

Benazir Barlet-Batada, the Cadbury UK and Ireland marketing activation director, says it felt right to continue this tie-up: “Covid has been a challenge to many of us, but in particular the old and vulnerable have suffered exponentially. Because they’re most at risk it’s led to even more sorrow and isolation.

“Brands can play an important role here to both financially support these organisations and groups, and to give them much needed visibility,” she says. For her, this was the year that society needed brands to “step up and pull their weight in the world”.

Monkey Shoulder supported small, independent bars

Barlet-Batada adds: “It’s not about seeing opportunities for your brand in a time of crisis, it’s about asking: how can this business, which is a part of the community like the rest of us, help people get through this?”

According to a special Covid edition of Edelman’s regular Trust Barometer, consumers are watching these actions carefully, with 65% saying how brands respond to the pandemic will have a “huge impact” on their likelihood to buy their products.

If this is the case, then marketers can look back on 2020 as the year they not only found their purpose but strengthened their brands’ equity, leaving them well placed for when better times return.