Thought Leadership

Lessons from outside brands shifting amid COVID-19

Christian Barnett
By Christian Barnett
posted Sep 11, 2020

The obvious starting point for a subject like this would be the big or newsworthy brands, the ones that have been agile enough to adjust to what’s happening. For some, it’s resulted in amazing business performance, like Zoom. For others, significant reputation boosts by donating money, products, or services to fight the pandemic — such as Lush donating $10 million to high-risk people and thousands of scent-free soap bars to hospitals, airports, and front-line workers. For others, it’s creating an elevated sense of brand empathy by understanding and empathizing with the human condition over the last six months, like the brilliant and quite atypical Apple short film, “That Working From Home Thing.”  

Another direction this could go would be visiting the big business brains — seeing what they have to say about lessons learned during COVID-19. McKinsey’s article “From surviving to thriving: Reimagining the post-COVID-19 return,” lays out a blueprint (through the acronym SHAPE — as in, “shape up”) about how to get businesses back performing after the pandemic, and it draws upon the themes that got companies through the last six months, throwing them into the future.

In short, SHAPE stands for:

  • Startup mentality. Action over research. Testing over-analysis, brisk cadences, and agility all-around.
  • Human at the core. Working out how the staff work best. What is the best blend of new remote models versus traditional office-based structures? The switch to total remote working has not been as bad as it could have been for many companies. There have been some unexpected benefits — in early April, 60% of companies the McKinsey surveyed said their new remote sales model was as or more effective than traditional channels.
  • Acceleration of digital, tech, and analytics. Leveraging the shift to digital.
  • Purpose-driven customer playbook. Understanding what consumers/audiences want.
  • Ecosystems and adaptability. Getting businesses back post-COVID-19 and being flexible with business models, initiatives, and partnerships.

So there’s your dose of big business brains and big brands. For me, I thought I would go local. And in no small part because my experience of the COVID-19 crisis, like millions of others, has been intensely local.

Without further ado, here are three local brands that seem to have really SHAPE-d (ouch!) up during the past six months:

Vui’s Kitchen

Vui’s Kitchen has become the staple Friday night take out. Delicious fresh Vietnamese food. My favorite is the Lemongrass Beef Rice Bowl with a couple of eggs on top. I highly recommend it.

For Vui’s, three things stand out in terms of their response to COVID-19.

  1. The speed at which they responded to the changing situation. Decisions were clearly made and implemented quickly. It gave customers the reassurance that the pandemic was being taken seriously and acted upon without prevarication.
  2. The focus was on the customers. The restaurant quickly pivoted to a curbside pickup model where staff were masked and delivered food to the car. The food was, in our case, always ready on time. They made a potentially complicated situation easy. It was very impressive.
  3. Their communications were very clear. There was never an issue about ordering, picking up, and general procedures. And as a result, it made at least one thing a lot easier during a time of great frustration.

The only shame is that no one from Vui’s wanted to talk to me about it. Anyway…

Trader Joe’s

The second local brand is arguably not a local brand at all: Trader Joe’s. But arguably, our Green Hills store has felt so local and is so much part of what is happening; it certainly feels local. And it’s been an intensely local experience to shop there — so huge kudos to them.

The staff has been more than helpful — they have been positively upbeat. I’ve left the store feeling like they are a group of people who are managing to overcome very trying circumstances and winning. And in doing so, they are inspiring me to do the same. They are a  staff who are genuinely happy to help — not just getting customers to the right products, but also to the shortest lines, providing sanitized carts with music and happy chat, enforcing protocols that limit the number of people in-store at any one time, installing plexiglass for the checkout, and creating all sorts of fun to keep the customers in line outside entertained.

I spoke to Kenya Friend-Daniel, the National Director for Trader Joe’s public relations, about what made Trader Joe’s so special during the pandemic. It was a great conversation. The themes that emerged were:

  1. The importance of listening. It was clear that senior corporate leadership was listening and acting very quickly and carefully upon the feedback coming from the stores. Kenya said that Trader Joe’s considers itself to be “a neighborhood grocery store,” and in Green Hills, it was just that — in no small part because its (and the wider Trader Joe’s) ethos was to listen to the stores.
  2. Taking care of each other. This was the main theme of our conversation. Kenya returned to this theme repeatedly. Taking care of each other meant “everyone” — staff, customers, and people in general. It was heartfelt and compelling. In practical terms, it meant giving workers increased “thank you” pay from March until the end of the year, increased employee discounts, options for staff who felt uncomfortable with the situation, health benefits for employees taking leave or working less than 30 hours per week, and discounts for telehealth calls. But the emotion was more. And it certainly rang true in my experience in the Green Hills store.
  3. Empowering creativity. The store leaders are empowered, and therefore, the regular crew members are likewise: Entertaining the lines of customers with music and performances, creating art pieces in the store that remind customers of their social etiquette, and just good old-fashioned friendly talk as crew members sanitized carts for the customers. It turned the visit into something of an occasion. And the result, a far more polished performance than the chief grocery competitor in Green Hills (shh, say no more!).


The third local brand is Revive. Yes, I know, this is a Revive blog post boasting about Revive, but bear with me. Stay with it.

The company has actually thrived during the pandemic in ways that were quite unforeseeable during the panicky weeks in March and early April. But the worries about remote working quickly disappeared as people adapted. And in doing so, local employees had a much better understanding of their colleagues who have been working remotely for years. It was like a great level-setter. The strength of the culture created over the preceding years kicked in as staff worked like crazy and did their best to support each other. And leadership did its utmost to make sure people were OK. In the words of Brandon Edwards, CEO,

“We focused on our people first because there is no Revive without them, and the only way we can consider taking care of clients is if we take care of our own. We sent everyone home on March 13, and the office remains closed until it’s safe to return. We have communicated very heavily during COVID-19, including weekly video messages and multiple all-staff open forums, and even small group poolside open forums. We sent a care package with food and other goodies every 3-4 weeks on average. And we have worked 1:1 with any staff facing anxiety or mental health challenges. Our people have been incredibly resilient and hard-working.”

The company was quick to adapt to the shifting sands in the market and within days, put together a program called “Rapid Recovery” to help clients quickly recover revenues that had been lost as a result of COVID-19. Not only were programs successfully sold to clients, but the creation of the program itself demonstrated to the staff a determination to always stay relevant and agile. There was also a daily podcast, hosted by Chris Bevolo, the Daily Briefing Live, which kept health system marketers abreast of developments and points of view on a daily basis. The Daily Briefing has since become the weekly No Normal podcast (another move marking timely relevance and agility).

As we look forward, it’s hard to know or plan for what next. But what we do know is that these three companies have put themselves in an advantageous position because they have SHAPEd up during the past six months. And it’s the best anyone can do.

It feels appropriate that the last words go to Brandon:

“I think the No Normal period we’re in makes it difficult to know what will stick and what will be a symptom of the times. I know we will take a more flexible view of WFH after COVID-19 is long gone. I believe we will rely more on remote connectivity with clients and prospects, so our people don’t have to travel as much, missing time with friends and family. I know we will keep a more intense internal communications schedule. And I know we will celebrate being together more — all the little things that happen that you gloss over when you take being together for granted. I think we will never minimize the value of being together ever again.”