A Fresh Perspective

Date: 6 May, 2020

From Tunnocks Tea Cakes to Tesla; how will Covid-19 change brand voices?

Darius Pasalar

By Darius Pasalar

Senior Strategist

What’s this all about?

If you’ve never had a Tunnocks Teacake, or sat in a Tesla, may the cockles of your heart be warmed that there is still so much out there for you to enjoy. Now, I wouldn’t recommend eating one of those delicious tea cakes in a Tesla. Trust me it won’t go down well.

This piece will outline the importance of brand voices with the impact of Covid-19. How will the content, tone, and language of brands and organisations change after the world was silenced by a pandemic none of us heard coming? To explore this topic we’ll be looking at the relationship between how legacy brands and innovation brands’ voices are affected by this nasty virus.

Brand voice? Is that a tone of voice document? Yes and no.

Brands and organisations are in a constant form of engagement with people. Be it demonstrations, language, product design, user experience, and even staff. It should be a consistent voice that runs through the brand and makes it identifiable from others. It’s how we all encounter brands and build memory structures around what they are (SHARP 2012).

Why this matters now

We’re at a point of historical change. Covid-19 has a voice that’s spoken over everything. From our media to social circles, its drone is ever-present and insidious.

Yet we know from Mckinsey that brands that act well during a crisis come out with a far stronger voice in the aftermath. (Mckinsey 2019).

The knife-edge of history is pointing the way to a new world, and will it be the legacy brands of old or the fresh kids on the block that own tomorrow’s conversation?

Let’s start with legacy brands

Full disclosure I’m a big fan of legacy brands. I take comfort in things that have been around forever. Tunnocks Teacakes are the example I used to open this piece with but there are plenty of others. Brasso is a shining example, Golden Syrup is really sweet, and Pears Soap cleans up. I could do that all day.

We’ve all grown up with these brands and they own a space in our collective consumer vocabulary. They adhere to distinctive and consistent brand identities that ease consumer decision making though prioritising key brand assets (brand colours, logos, story, etc.) and safeguarding them (WARC 2019).

These brands’ long lives have also allowed barnacles of culture to cling to them as well. From appearing in popular culture; for example how Reece’s Pieces will forever lure an unexpected ET by Elliot. To brands becoming cultural symbols of change, look no further than Warhol’s Brillo series.

Covid-19 has stirred up cultural changes in nationalism, and it’s playing out in legacy brands. Politics and pandemics are expected bedfellows, we’ve seen this through the closure of borders and questions around PPT. Rachman (FT 2020) speculates the mass closure of borders will struggle to reopen to a globalised world.

But will nationalism play out in our shopping baskets as well? Will we reach for the products and services that have survived the previous crises? Time will tell on that one, but there is an interesting early signifier from the UK worth referencing. The UK delivers government-issued food parcels to vulnerable people. I have an intimate knowledge of this because I organised the service for my grandparents in the UK. The brands included in the weekly supply provide a view into what the country feels these people need. The branded products include Fray Bentos (that’s a pie in a tin – it’s got a real wartime vibe off it), Heinz, and Baxters.

To thousands of people, these brands now have new cultural barnacles that will affect the timbre of their brand voices. These already established brands have, in effect, had a mass-sampling DM campaign during a period of fear and anxiety. Even here at home the HSE, An Garda, and An Post, are legacy brands that have indexed most on being highly visible in helping the nation (Empathy Index 2020).

The big learning: Covid-19 can rise the rank of establishment on legacy brands, but with that can come associations around being the nation’s choice, altering a brand’s voice for good or bad.

What about innovation brands?

Classifying an innovation brand/company can be a subjective topic, so for the sake of this piece I’ll be referencing the 2019 Fast Companies World Most Innovative Companies. Let’s not forgot this list was made in a world before Covid-19 and looking at it now you can’t help marvel at how well-placed some of them are.

Let’s take the top of the list company; Meituan Dianping, a company that makes transactional super apps. Here’s a little snippet of what they do:

Meituan, which views food as its core offering, is skilled at leveraging its data regarding users’ consumption habits, including price sensitivity, to recommend other things they’ll like. “Our strategy in integrating different businesses,” says Xia Huaxia, Meituan’s Chief Scientist, “is to attract a large volume of users with high-frequency services, and then push forward some low- and medium-frequency ones, like haircuts and marriage services.” “We’ve been bringing users to these businesses,” Tan says. “Now they can come to you.”

The current pandemic has seen Meituan spike by about 10% (Bloomberg), and you can see why. This is a company that was founded a decade ago, and is now the world’s fourth most valuable start-up (Bloomberg 2020).

Most of us reading this have most likely never heard of Meituan. It’s an Asian brand that we just don’t share any space to engage with. To the audience that does engage with it, the brand voice stretches across multiple services and offerings and has touchpoints throughout their lives. Where legacy brands may engage in one conversation with their audience, all of the innovation brands have the capacity to say so much more. Their adaptability has paid off during the pandemic. Here are just a few brands that when viewed through the lens of Covid-19 seem remarkedly well-placed:

  • The Walt Disney Company for diving into streaming.
  • Twitch for live streaming the revolution in gaming.
  • Peleton for turning home workouts into must-see TV.
  • Domino’s for picking up the pace.

Interestingly, innovation companies’ brand voice can take on a markedly political angle thanks to the crisis. Now get your tea cake ready, we’re about to talk Tesla.

Tesla has a very defined brand voice, from its product design, logo, and most importantly brand Messiah Elon Musk. The virus has had a huge impact on automotive sales across the world, and although Tesla has been sitting on a third consecutive quarter of profit, the business will be radically affected by the pandemic (BBC). Understandably poor Elon is a bit hot under the collar about the effects of lockdown. So much so that on April 30th he labelled the lockdown as fascist and sided with Trump to, “Free America”.

Like him or not, he’s an asset within the Tesla brand, and political siding affects the brand’s voice. I can’t tell you the result this will have going forward on the brand, but it’s clear politics is good at one thing, and that’s polarisation.

The big learning: Covid-19 has shown the fluidity of how future-focused brands can profit from a new future, but their voice can’t be underestimated for the impact it can have for better or worse.

So what can brands take away from this?

Pitching innovation and legacy brands’ effect of Covid-19 on their brand voices allows us to recognise different impacts the virus is having on them. Interesting, but too binary, for the real world which doesn’t operate under “or” but “and”. Brands can be legacy and innovation-focused, and of course most are. What we build today is the history of tomorrow, just as only knowing our past allows us to know how to adapt.

Looking at them at their extremes does pose a big learning that is true to both.

A brand voice is only worthwhile when acted on. Silence in both action and articulation is just that, nothing. The pandemic has shown us that inaction and silence won’t lead us to whatever our new normal will be, and nobody will remember the quiet type.

This piece does present a few rules of thumb though.

1. Have something to say, based on what you’ve done.

People are looking for brands to help, be that that large or small. So if you’re helping, let people know about it (GWI 2020).

2. What are the assets in your brand voice that are most valuable?

Assets are wide-ranging when it comes to a brand, during Covid-19 some may have more value than others.

3. Think about the echo

The way brands act and behave now will leave an echo into the future.


Sharp: 2012. How Brands Grow

Warc: 2019. Koh Liane. How to create a consistent yet dynamic brand personality

Mckinsey & Co: 2019. Performance Index

Rachman. Gideon: 2020: FT. Coronavirus and the threat to US supremacy

Lidskey. David: 2019. The Fast Company: The 2 most innovative companies in the world today are changing how hundreds of millions of Asian consumers buy food, book hotels, and (a lot) more

Bloomberg: 2020: This little-known Chinese startup just hit a valuation of $30 billion

BBC: 2020. Tesla warns on shutdown as Musk calls for end to lockdown

Adworld: 2020. HSE, An Post & Gardai Top Empathy Brand Index During Covid-19 Crisis

Global Web Index: 2020. Covid data set. Global.