“Our ultimate goal is to build unbreakable relationships,” says Heidi O’Neill, president of Nike’s direct-to-consumer business. “Providing consumers experiences and services beyond a transaction, it becomes essential.”

O’Neill says the idea came from Nike’s previous experience with the new coronavirus in China. It doesn’t have a premium version of the app there, but it saw how popular its free version became after Nike employees in the country began sharing it with friends, family, and on social media channels such as WeChat. With most of its stores closed, Nike leaned into that momentum, adding new workouts and features such as livestreaming. By the end of March, weekly active users in China were up 80% across all its activity apps, which also include Nike Run Club, versus the beginning of the quarter. It has used the experience as a playbook for navigating the crisis as it’s spread to other regions.

Food companies have similarly released recipes so consumers can make some of their items at home. Car insurance companies are refunding premiums to customers as they stay off the roads. Utility providers and phone and internet companies are offering free service and waiving fees.

But the support a company extends to its customers doesn’t have to relate directly to its core business.

Levi’s may make its money selling jeans, but it has also built connections in music as part of its marketing aimed at positioning itself at the center of culture. So in March, it launched a concert series using those connections to entertain those stuck at home while also aiding charities. The 5:01 Live series features live performances at artists’ homes every weekday at 5:01pm PST. Artists such as Questlove, Snoop Dogg, Doja Cat, and more have taken part.

“It’s not directly related to what Levi’s provides, but it’s providing entertainment, which is in high demand right now because people don’t know what to do with themselves at home,” Ukanwa says. “Again, it is something that goes beyond, ‘We’re thinking about you.'”

In the same vein, several of luxury fashion’s top names have been hosting online chats, live performances, and other programming with celebrities and creatives.

Immediate responses with long-term returns

Before the pandemic, Nike had been working to increase the services it offers, in stores and through its ecosystem of apps. Nike’s O’Neill says the most important measure of their success isn’t necessarily revenue; it’s engagement. But she adds consumers who work out with Nike and shop with Nike do become more valuable customers over time. “There’s definitely a business play in services and experiences,” she says.

By supporting their customers now, companies can strengthen those relationships. If shoppers get into the habit of using a service in this moment, they may continue using it even after life returns to normal.

“It starts with the relationship,” O’Neill says. “What we know is that if you’re building a relationship and you’re building it for the long run, consumers will transact with us. But they need more.”

Whatever companies decide to do, the most important thing is that they do something. ”People will look back,” Ukanwa says. “Were you a brand that actually did something to make a difference, to help the world, or did you sit on the sidelines? Or did you take advantage, which is definitely the wrong space to be in.”

Eventually the coronavirus crisis will end. In all likelihood, shoppers will be cautious with their spending, at least for a time, meaning companies will find it harder to earn their dollars. If they want their customers to be loyal to them in the future, they may need to be loyal to their customers now.

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