Off Brand

When a Pandemic Becomes a Company’s Ultimate Branding Opportunity

Zoom, GoNoodle and Domino’s are treading carefully as the coronavirus hands them a rush of captive, willing new customers

Illustration: Fran Caballero

A month ago, Zoom was a hot startup offering its videoconferencing tool to a solid and growing base of corporate clients.

Today, Zoom is pretty much a household name — as in quite literally almost every household in America. The product is being used by companies trying to unite suddenly dispersed working-from-home labor forces and has been “dramatically repurposed” by customers it never sought: as a platform for “quarantini” group drinking sessions, preschool classes, board game nights, birthday parties, coffee klatches, group meditation sessions, dating, and pretty much all variety of social gatherings — including branded events like “Chipotle Together” Zoom meetups. The New York Times Style section, ever obsessed with what it suspects the youngs are up to, flatly declared, “We Live in Zoom Now.”

Zoom is experiencing a truly singular branding event — which happens to be a pandemic.

That’s the great news for Zoom. The less great news is that this didn’t happen because the company introduced some game-changing, head-turning set of features or capabilities. It happened because the world has been overtaken by the spread of a deadly virus, forcing huge swaths of humanity to replace physical connection with screen connection.

In short, Zoom is experiencing a truly singular branding event — which happens to be a pandemic.

An event as profound and transformative as the spread of Covid-19 is bound to have surprising side effects that, indirectly, boost certain businesses and brands (not to mention anything involving elderberries). And Zoom is far from the only example. One Wall Street analyst, playing off the idea of FAANG (shorthand for dominant tech stocks Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google), recently proposed that we’ve entered the DAWN era. This time, the shorthand signifies companies well suited to a hunkered-down moment: Domino’s, Activision, Walmart, and (once again) Netflix. “All the stuff you do when you don’t want to leave your house, and right now, that’s where we’re headed,” said Mark Tepper, president and CEO of Strategic Wealth Partners. Domino’s, for instance, just announced that it’s hiring 10,000 new workers.

The pandemic has also given a fresh attention boost to more up-and-comer tech brands. Dealing with the double punch of homeschooling while simultaneously working from home has been good for the newish and decidedly kid-focused Disney+ streaming service. But it’s given a whole new level of visibility to lesser-known apps and subscription services like GoNoodle, which makes games and videos designed to encourage exercise and physical activity. Most notably, GoNoodle introduced a free home version of its “good energy” curriculum used in many elementary schools. The brand is now mentioned in practically every advice-for-homeschooling roundup, which have practically become scripture for beleaguered parents.

With gyms closed, the fancy home-exercise Peloton bike is probably getting some fresh looks, as are delivery-focused brands like Instacart, DoorDash and others. Even Blue Apron, the beleaguered home meal kit company, recently announced “a sharp increase in consumer demand” and that it would be “increasing our capacity for future orders.” (Just weeks ago, Blue Apron shares had sunk below $3, far below its IPO price despite an unusual reverse split last year; recent speculation about its business improving led to a dubious surge.)

At a time when massive chunks of the economy are getting crushed, it’s obviously preferable to see your brand enjoying new awareness and engagement. But nobody wants to come across as a “crisis capitalizer,” swooping into a global tragedy with self-interest in mind. And this brings us back to Zoom and how it serves as a useful example of the tricky business of navigating a pandemic branding event.

Founded in 2011, Zoom allows anyone to download and use its video software service for free for modest get-togethers. A “small teams” business package costs about $15 a month, and prices ladder up from there, depending on how many people in an organization will host meetings, how many attendees, and so on. (There are other features, such as meeting recording and transcripts and the like.)

The company was already doing extremely well with its core market, doubling its revenue in 2017 and 2018 and growing about 95% in 2019. But by late February, it had already added more users this year than in all of 2019, growing to 13 million users, according to CNBC at the time, “amid corporate concerns about the spread of coronavirus.” Even so, Wall Street was actually disappointed with Zoom’s last quarterly results, announced in early March, when the company conceded it was “too early to tell” if the pandemic-fueled user spike would last.

But nobody wants to come across as a “crisis capitalizer,” swooping into a global tragedy with self-interest in mind.

That was before much of the country entered lockdown phases and the phrase “social distancing” became commonplace. And as Zoom momentum has grown in unexpected ways in more recent weeks, the company has embraced it in ways that probably diverged from its original business plan. As the coronavirus crested in China, Zoom removed the 40-minute limit on meetings of more than two people for users of its free version. “Zoom is doing everything we can to provide resources and support to those navigating the coronavirus outbreak,” Yuan told CNBC at the time. It has since done the same in other markets as the virus has spread and usage has picked up. More recently, the company has also granted free accounts to K-12 schools.

A Zoom spokesperson, while declining to make a formal comment on how the company is processing and strategizing around its curious fortune, provided some additional background. Maybe most notable was the emphasis on Zoom’s back-end infrastructure, which the spokesperson said was “built to handle these growing levels of activity.” Yuan has said that the coronavirus experience has “broadened my view on what it means to be a video communications technology provider in times of need.” That attitude, combined with an infrastructure that can apparently back it up, helped Zoom lean in to its newfound popularity.

Inevitably, that popularity has also meant scrutiny that isn’t always welcome — like critiques of Zoom’s privacy policies or dropped jaws at Yuan’s massively growing personal net worth as his firm’s stock explodes. And in the ultimate proof that a branded product has gone mainstream, people have figured out trolly ways to misuse it — “Zoombombing” events by, say, adding hardcore porn imagery to a Chipotle meetup.

Zoom has offered some tips on that last issue. But in general, it has struck an above-the-fray pose. And this matters, not just in easing past the inevitable sniping but also in embracing what comes its way without appearing opportunistic. This is the only right move for a brand benefiting from — let’s be blunt — total calamity: Accommodate new attention generously; don’t get caught seeming to invite it. Hope that this success proves lasting — but hope, too, that the circumstances that created it prove fleeting.

Author The Art of Noticing. Related newsletter at https://robwalker.substack.com

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