Thoughtful Brand Communication During COVID: Takeaways from Jay Howard

In recent weeks, you’ve likely seen this commercial: Somber piano music plays, over scenes of people doing business against all odds, and a message: “We’re here for you” or “we’re all in this together.”

“These messages are well-intentioned, but they’re all the same,” says Jay Howard, executive producer at Atelier, Inc. and faculty member of UW’s Communication Leadership program. 

Jay recently shared his insight on how brands can break the mold during the COVID pandemic as part of the Communication and Connection During COVID series put on by UW Communication Leadership’s COVID Consultancy.

“This is the time to stand out,” he says. “Think about how you can be authentic as a company, show your brand values and do something unique that people really feel.”


Thoughtful Brand Communication: Lessons from Baseball and Airbnb 


Jay kicked off his talk with two examples of creative and thoughtful brand communication during the pandemic. First, he highlighted the Rakuten Monkeys, a Taiwanese baseball team. The team was allowed to start their season under strict precautions, and no fans were allowed in the stands. They made headlines when they filled their stadium with mannequins sporting team gear. 

“It was weird, but it was memorable,” Jay says. “The baseball team found a way to take something sad and lonely and found a way to inject humor and humanity.”

When Airbnb recently had to lay off a significant number of employees, their leadership took finding their people new jobs into their own hands: CEO Brian Chesky pivoted internal recruiters to help laid-off employees and created a talent book for companies that are hiring. 

“It’s not just saying that you care,” Jay says. “It is putting your brand values into action to help people.”



How To Communicate Differently and Thoughtfully Right Now


Jay shared the following tips for communicating thoughtfully and making your messaging standout during the pandemic. 


Start with your community’s needs 


To build thoughtful messaging, think first about who you’re communicating with and how you can help. 

“We should be asking what we can do for our community, not just what we can do to serve ourselves,” Jay says. 

This means thinking critically about our ever-changing world and the role you can play in serving your community. Think about what your audience is experiencing right now and what you can do to help them. 


Focus on what you know and what you have to offer


Every organization offers its community something unique. When shaping your communications plan, think about ways to showcase that. This could mean anything from bakeries holding bread-making tutorials online to universities hosting live Q&A sessions for prospective students over Zoom. 

“Focus on your brand values and things that won’t change,” Jay says. “Then think of how your business exists in the current environment and try new and innovative approaches to communicating about it.” 


Use words and actions


Many brands are using this time to talk about how much they care. But not all of them are putting those words into action. 

“Customers won’t forget what Airbnb is doing,” Jay says. “You need to show that you’re not just talking, you’re contributing.” 


Have a plan, but be nimble


These days, creating a plan for anything can be difficult. Jay recommends creating a forward-looking communications plan, but being open to change and ready to pivot. 

“You might even consider making a phased plan similar to how states are reopening,” Jay says. “When we’re still at home, communicate in one way, as things start to reopen, shift your plan to reflect that.” 


Don’t be afraid to lead the way


It’s easy to do what everyone else is doing during these unpredictable times — but Jay challenged attendees to lead the way, finding creative ways to communicate about their organization’s work. 

“It’s more important than ever to show that you’re thinking differently and finding new ways to help,” Jay says. “We see a lot of followers, but in times of crisis, we need leaders.” 

This event was part of the UW Communication and Connection During COVID Speaker series, put on by UW Communication Leadership’s COVID Consultancy, which is offering pro-bono communications consulting to small businesses, nonprofits and UW departments during COVID-19. Learn more about the consultancy and sign up for future events.



Written by Megan Herndon


Megan leads content creation, editing and strategy for UW Communication Leadership’s COVID Communication Consultancy. She also consults with clients about storytelling and content marketing. She’s a part-time student in the Master of Communication in Digital Media program and works as an editor for Message Lab, a healthcare communication and content marketing agency. She is passionate about storytelling and all things outdoors.

Megan HerndonThoughtful Brand Communication During COVID: Takeaways from Jay Howard
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