Generosity in the Time of Coronavirus

How Disaster Can Bring Out the Best in Brands & Individuals

Welcome to the first edition of the Framing newsletter, where I’ll take a broader lens to look at culture and assess lessons we can learn as marketers. I’ll kick off with the Quarantine Series, a set of posts about the lessons we can learn as individuals and companies as we move through times of disaster. Sign up for more here.

To note, I’m presenting on this topic at Social Media Week One on May 19th. If you want to attend my session or hundreds of other sessions throughout the month of May, use “SWM1speaker20” to get 20% off. If you’re a business in need due to the pandemic, put a note in the comments and I can connect you to get even more affordable access.

In order to get the mail at my Los Angeles apartment complex, I don a cloth mask and latex gloves, put on closed-toed shoes and a long jacket, and walk a path shaded by eucalyptus trees and banana palms to the old-fashioned little mail slots grouped together for the whole building. It’s a lovely walk, but one I do rarely and with trepidation. Who knows who has touched those mail slots, and what’s in there besides bills and catalogs for events that will never happen?

But in the last two weeks, my mailbox has become something else — a source of surprise and wonder. In lieu of dinners, coffee, or drinks, friends are sending me things. 

I received a bag of coffee beans from someone I write with, a little zine from an artist, chocolate bars from someone I met on a Slack channel, a letter full of snipped out articles from my mom (ok, that’s not new). One of my communities organized a gift exchange, and I received a box full of Brooklyn bagels. One friend sent masks that she made out of batik from my native Indonesia. 

Each little gift is a reminder of a human connection distilled into a thoughtful item. If there’s anything I want to bring into the future from this harrowing time, it’s this — an economy that works on the premise of generosity, in which giving takes precedence over taking. 

The Generosity Economy.

This is not a new idea. Every holiday, a frenzy of consumption is built on giving. Other moments of disaster, like the hurricanes, have brought out the best in us. And businesses like Tom’s Shoes started on the premise of giving.

The recent pandemic has made it more visible. The desire to give is super-charged when we face collective disaster, and in our worst moments we also see the best of us. During the coronavirus, the rise of mutual aid societies, the rallying around small businesses, and the creation of handmade PPE for health care workers are all immediate responses to a global threat.

Artist Wiena Lin fabricating PPE shields out of her studio for her local hospital

On an individual level, being generous is well-documented to improve happiness and well-being. Taking generous action also gives a sense of control and agency in a world where there is little certainty left. It reminds us that we belong to something bigger than ourselves, as we see collective action to take care of the vulnerable.

Generosity & Brand Behavior.

It’s not just individuals dusting off sewing machines to make masks, checking on neighbors, or donating.

Companies are stepping in and championing the generosity economy. This may hurt their bottom line short term, but it’s impossible not to hurt in the short term along with the rest of us. Before the coronavirus knocked everything off course, the idea of a brand purpose was the talk of marketing, with purpose being a rallying cry and an expression of differentiators based on deeply held values. After the coronavirus, we all have one purpose — to survive and help others survive, physically, mentally and emotionally.

This is where generosity comes in for brands. In this moment, it’s necessary to act rather than advertise. It’s necessary to give selflessly, without doing somersaults to tie it back to your brand tagline or cleverly worded value statement. As the world moves towards reopening, it’s important to maintain an ethos of generosity moving forward. 

To maintain generosity, give more than you receive. Brands large and small have taken action on behalf of others challenged in this world, largely along four approaches.

  • PIVOT: Usually a pivot in business is a shift of your business model, but today the pivot is a fast and temporary shift to using your assets to provide for a different need, like the luxury conglomerate LVMH using perfume factories to make hand sanitizer for French hospitals, or the Los Angeles apron brand Hedley and Bennett making masks, or Dyson making ventilators. These brands have pivoted what they’re making, based on the assets they have that meet the current need.
    For some companies, the pivot is a temporary shift in what they offer, and for other companies, the shift may be more permanent. New business models will need to arise to address the change in consumer behavior. As the stay at home orders lift, the demand for extra space, extra hygiene, and extra precautions will continue to evolve, and smart brands will be a step ahead of consumers to reassure them that their needs will be met. 

  • PROVIDE: Providing what you currently offer but in a way that is tailored to the needs of staying at home or other safety measures is another approach to generosity. Many companies simply donate money, food, or other items to those in need. ClassPass is providing their classes online, sustaining the livelihoods of fitness instructors. Hyundai has suspended six months of payments for their leases. RideAlong, a service for transporting children to school, has shifted to providing rides for essential service workers. Countless restaurants have shifted to providing grocery, take-away, or meal boxes.

  • PROMOTE: Companies are using their platforms to promote the good that others are doing. One ad agency Zambezi created Coronavirus PSAs to put in the empty toilet paper shelves of grocery stores. Many brands are creating online spaces for conversation. P&G used their marketing partners to do the Distance Dance. Corkcicle has allowed online buyers to support local shops that carried Corkcicle before the shutdown. Vans has partnered with beloved small businesses across the country, with custom designs that support them.

  • PROTECT: This is less a question of generosity because it is essential to protect workers and customers; however, I’m going to add it in because brands need to go above and beyond on this front. When the enemy is microscopic, protecting those at the front lines becomes key. Hilton has announced new intensive cleaning protocols to protect workers and guests. Many small businesses that are open for grocery are protecting their workers with plenty of sanitization and masks, and must continue to do so as we enter a precarious reopening phase. But the lowest wage employees are often at the front lines, in warehouses and on delivery routes. This is absolutely necessary, and most companies are not going far enough to protect workers, leading to strikes at Amazon and other companies. It’s key to listen and provide what’s needed to make a safe living for those on the front lines.

As the pandemic continues its waves through our health system, our economy, and our world, we’ll see additional acts, sometimes of extreme generosity and sometimes of extreme greed. Millions from the Paycheck Protection Program fund intended for small businesses went instead to funding some large, publicly traded companies — some of whom saw the backlash and returned the money. The stock market continues to trend up even as millions lose their jobs. The hallmark of the pandemic economy may not be generosity, but it’s up to each of us, as individuals and as companies, to determine how to engage with this disaster.

Coming next…Patience in the Time of Coronavirus. Sign up for the next newsletter here.

Ways to be generous right now:

  • There are too many ways to count. Give to your food bank. Check in on your neighbor. Donate to causes you believe in. Everyone needs help right now—the issues plaguing us prior to this crisis didn’t just get put on hold. A couple things I’ve donated to: A GoFundMe for artists fabricating face shields for healthcare workers. Doctors Without Borders, who are helping in areas already at risk.

  • Support small businesses over large. I’m obsessed with, which supports independent booksellers and book lovers too. Here’s a link to some of my reco’s.

  • Share small business recommendations so they stay afloat. If you happen to be in LA, here’s a list of small businesses providing groceries.

  • Send a gift to friends. I’ve been sending gifts from Etsy and other small businesses.