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Brands Building Community During COVID-19

A collection of icons symbolizing brands cultivating community amidst COVID-19.

This post was written by Jamie Levy, Merchant Engagement Lead at Shopify Plus.

No matter what your privilege or position is, you are feeling the brunt of this pandemic. Yet, I’m seeing brands coming together in creative ways to help their communities and one another.

As the Head of Merchant Engagement at Shopify Plus, I have conversations with brand leaders and connect them to each other, facilitating small and intimate group discussions. I speak with interesting people, make introductions, and then stand back. I love hearing what founders and executives have to say to each other about the ins and outs of their work, successes and failures, and what they hope to accomplish. I sincerely believe that I have the best job in the world.

Typically, once I initiate these conversations, they are filled with excitement. But today, they have a less than positive feel to them. 

Across the board, brands are struggling with new realities and challenges amplified by COVID-19. Yet, there is a genuine curiosity in how other industries are working toward solving these problems and a desire to hear from everyone about their unique challenges. The universal fight against COVID-19 has unified would-be competitors. There is a vulnerability in conversations now that likely would not have happened before. We're seeing underdogs shoot up in sales and popularity, and some legacy brands struggle to maintain relevance. The playing field has been leveled, and brands are eager to share insight and knowledge in the interim. 

We’re encouraging brands to build community by leaning on each other’s learnings and advice. We want to maintain and amplify connection throughout this period, whether it’s us at Shopify Plus communicating and engaging with our customers person-to-person, or brands connecting with their customers and communities. There is a constant and consistent message that we’re all in this together, and that fact alone carries momentum. 

Here are some insights on how to further that commitment to unity. 

How Shopify Plus is facilitating community with brands

I see two fundamental ways in which we can show empathy and help our brands.

First, we need to listen. We must listen to how the current climate is affecting our community —brands themselves, their businesses, and the individuals within them. Some conversations I have had with brands focus on the impact this pandemic is having on their brand identity. Other discussions dig into how individuals within organizations are affected and handle the crisis. There are always questions. I will not have all the answers, and perhaps Shopify Plus doesn’t either, but—person-to-person—being heard, given space to ask more questions, and acknowledged goes a long way in maintaining trust and finding solutions together. 

Shopify Plus helps our brands build community with one another by facilitating digital conversations. We have an amazing portfolio of brands that are interested in sharing what they know. While we typically—and would prefer to—host these in-person, we're facilitating conversations at this peer-to-peer level vertically and regionally through virtual assemblies. With these assemblies, my team and I help brands discuss and learn what is working, what isn’t, and other insights gleaned from retailers across multiple verticals of varying sizes.

From there, brand leaders can talk to each other in ways they may not have before. In these conversations, I've heard leaders connect others to their fulfillment and manufacturing partners and consultants. Leaders are eager to share insights across their entire business, not merely in certain areas. 

We know there is inherent value in having conversations with other brands going through challenges, especially during this unprecedented time. My team focuses on creating opportunities for you to share what you are seeing and trust that this vulnerability is helpful for everyone.

On a positive note: the conversations I’m having aren’t all doom and gloom. 

Let’s use Rothy’s as an example: The sustainable shoemaker recently formed the Open Innovation Coalition with several other brands, including Third Love and Marine Layer, to collectively channel their resources toward relief efforts. Individually, Rothy’s is sourcing and donating masks, and the coalition aims to have PPE available to 1 million people in the U.S. within three months. And then there’s Rhone: it started an initiative called brandsxbetter, which is a coalition of businesses donating proceeds to COVID-19 relief efforts. They've now raised over $1.1 million with over 100 brands involved, many of which are on Shopify Plus. 

There are also brands banding together to keep small businesses open. There’s United By Blue and Amour Vert and their I Stand With Small campaign, offering online discounts in support of small, mission-driven business. Allbirds, the sustainable shoe brand, also posted about standing with small businesses, encouraging customers to seek out other retailers that might normally be its competitors. 

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Before the pandemic, discussions during assemblies included concrete questions like, “What steps did you take to migrate to a new fulfillment partner?” Now, those questions are more like, “Are you able to use fulfillment partners, or have you had to take on the initiatives internally?” Some questions are more rhetorical to help make sense of a situation that is very difficult to understand the impact of. 

Insight sharing can, and does, impact public perception. During a recent call with some of our larger brands, a founder shared that their initial announcement regarding a buy one, donate one mask campaign was met with public distaste. The campaign was perceived as the brand profiting rather than helping the public during the crisis. They quickly pivoted away from this perception and donated in bulk 10,000 masks, apologizing for their misstep. Two different brands on this call were about to go to market with a similar BOGO mask initiative. By connecting these leaders and other employees, these brands got a real-time, first-person account of why they should not make the same mistake. 

This understanding trickles down to internal culture and employee relations. A topic I’ve heard discussed often is how leaders are standing tall for their teams. It has been amazing to hear them share in part as an effort to crowdsource an approach to help everyone be more comfortable during this uncomfortable time. One CEO spoke about the importance of reaching out to every single person at the organization (a global company of about 40 employees) and how that act superseded any previously scheduled meeting or event. Two founders talked about the importance of speaking to every single employee and continuously making that effort to reach out. Human connection has risen to the top.

How brands are building community with their shoppers

Now let's get to the part about how brands are building community with their customers. Buyers are people craving connection in a time when they are forced to be physically distant. Whatever community initiatives and actions a brand established with their buyers before COVID-19—maybe through in-store experiences and events—that need is still very much there. 

A community is defined by the people who are a part of it, not necessarily exclusive to those who established it. At Shopify Plus, we connect brands and watch them share resources. Those brands similarly do that for their customers. They are creating space for conversation, not always determining how that conversation looks or sounds. 

Leveraging each other’s insights is important, but how are brands feeling about talking about this situation with their customers? Overall, brands feel that striking a tonal balance is unattainable. This is difficult for everyone, even Shopify Plus. There's no playbook for maintaining a brand in a pandemic.

I have heard leaders say marketing is more of an art than a science now. They are looking to nurture relationships with their consumers and plan for that being long-term. Messaging looks different, and some CEOs are even directly communicating how they really feel. They present a genuine face for their brands—even inviting customers to reach out directly to them if they have any questions. Soko Glam founder Charlotte Cho, for example, tells their Instagram followers about her favorite Korean dramas, engaging in conversation about the films and asking for recommendations. This is an opportunity to humanize the brand-customer relationship.

Others are creative when it comes to facilitating and amplifying community. Chubbies, the menswear brand known for its shorts, launched a competition for the Stay-Influencer. The campaign plays with influencer marketing as an incentive for the very serious and real concern of social distancing, adding levity to the situation without mocking it. In the case of Gymshark, although they previously offered conditioning classes on their app to engage their community, they are now hiring personal trainers to run virtual fitness classes. This encourages people looking for new ways to work out at home to stay home and engage with personal trainers currently out of work.

Some brands are reaching communities you’d never suspect they could easily reach. The restaurant chain Denny’s created multiple accounts on video game platforms to connect with customers, as well as offer discounts on food. Dennys247 account is on Nintendo's Switch, Microsoft's Xbox and Sony's PS4. Other brands are experimenting with social media platforms like TikTok or IGTV or IG live. Social media has always been a massive vehicle for brands to connect directly with their customers, but now it’s integral in building a collective while social distancing.

There is an effort to keep up customer spirits by sharing good news and charitable developments to frontline workers and some of the most impacted people of this pandemic. There are communities created by brands, and then there are the communities buyers are a part of. Frontline workers are some of the most impacted by COVID-19. By amplifying causes and issues consistently cropping up because of COVID-19’s rapid tear through the world, it’s a reminder that we are not going through this in a vacuum. 

Thrive Cosmetics created the Thrive Causemetics COVID-19 response fund, committing to $1M through giving in funds and products to women impacted by the virus. Soko Glam and Murad are sending donations to No Kid Hungry, a nonprofit working to help feed kids affected by school closures. Kotn is working with Canadian luxury retailer Holt Renfrew to make masks

Not all of these examples of community building can be replicated or scaled, but each brand can experiment based on what they know of their customers. Having a strong sense of what they want from their retailer offline is a key insight into what they may want online. 

What’s next

I have spent the bulk of my career nurturing relationships. I have been fortunate to hear directly from brands on how they are navigating this situation. We can amplify what others are doing to get through this particularly trying time and connect brands to each other to help, but we must remain honest that what will happen in the future in commerce is entirely unknown. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but it’s crucial to understand.

I try to look at this whole situation through the lens of my kids, who are 4 and 7 years old. How am I going to assure them and keep their connection to the world? They are at home with me in Los Angeles every single day. While that in and of itself is an incredible struggle, it’s helpful for me to combat what the future may look like by seeing it through their eyes. We take everything a day at a time—sometimes even one hour at a time. They miss the human connection. They want to know if they will see their friends today. And while the answer is consistently no, they’ll ask again tomorrow and the next day. One day, I tell them, we’ll be able to make that plan to actually see their friends. 

While we’re living with ambiguity, still trying to maintain whatever normal is, we can slow down and understand that plans are just sketches, not a full portrait just yet. It’s extremely rare to experience something like this pandemic on a global scale that truly almost everyone understands. What I know we have, and what we’re trying to build at Shopify Plus, is a relationship in commerce that you can observe with other brands, with your neighbor, with your kids, and your community to get through this together.

This article originally appeared in the Shopify Plus blog and has been published here with permission.

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