Asset management: responding to COVID-19

As the COVID-19 crisis develops, we are all in uncharted waters when it comes to our response – whether that be as an individual, a society or a business. But one thing is clear, as businesses face unprecedented threats to their survival, it will be crucial to learn and adapt quickly.

An Edelman Trust Barometer special report on Brand Trust and the Coronavirus Pandemic, published 30 March, investigated how this crisis is changing the relationship between brands and consumers. Whilst not targeted at investment professionals, it does offer some key insights for an industry that is built on relationships of trust – especially during these emotionally charged times.

The report suggests that a brand’s response in this pivotal period will play a significant role in a customer’s decision to start, stop or continue a relationship with them. Notably:

  • Nearly two in five consumers have recently started using a new brand because of the innovative or compassionate way they have responded to the virus outbreak.
  • One in three consumers have already stopped using a brand they felt had not responded appropriately to the pandemic.
  • Two in three consumers agree that how well a brand responds to this crisis will have a huge impact on their likelihood to buy that brand in the future.

If investors follow this trend in anything approaching the same numbers, it’s clear that asset management brands need to pay close attention to their own response.

How should brands respond to COVID-19?

Edelman’s survey’s 12,000 respondents were remarkably united in their expectations of brands:

  • Nine in ten consumers agreed that brands should shift to producing products that help people meet the challenges of the pandemic.
  • Nine in ten consumers agreed that brands should partner with the government and relief agencies to address the crisis.
  • Seven in ten consumers agreed that brands and companies who are perceived to place profits before people will lose their trust forever.

Are these expectations unrealistic? It would seem not, if we look at how many famous brands have reacted to the crisis in these past few weeks.

We’ve seen brands such as Dyson, Airbus and others shift their focus to the production of essential ventilators. Fashion brands including Yves St Laurent and Gucci are using their factories to manufacture and donate surgical masks and medical overalls. IBM has announced a partnership with the White House to make their supercomputing resources available to help fight the virus.

It might seem hard to see how asset management brands could mirror this kind of activity. But there are those who have already taken significant steps, likely to be well-received by investors, on the basis of the Edelman research.

COVID-19: how is asset management responding?

As a first observation on the response of the asset management industry to the crisis, these are some of the players who are already making their mark:

Generali

In the context of all the consumer expectations listed by Edelman, Generali’s response sets a high standard.

Generali was among the quickest off the mark to respond to the crisis, establishing an Extraordinary International Fund on 13 March, dedicating up to €100 million to fighting the pandemic in Italy and internationally.

Donations to the fund have already financed the delivery of lung ventilators to intensive care units in Lombardy and contributed to the purchase of 20 million masks in partnership with the Dipartimento della Protezione Civile (Civil Protection Department). As well as addressing the medical component of the crisis, the fund aims to boost the economy by providing financing to small Italian companies.

Generali’s media communications at this time are almost entirely COVID-19 focused, reflecting the public’s limited capacity for unrelated news.

Given that 84% of consumers in the Edelman report felt that brands should focus their messaging on how they are helping people to cope with pandemic-related life challenges, Generali’s approach is likely to resonate well with their clients, and reward the company in future.

BlackRock

Another strong response has come from BlackRock, who recently committed $50 million to pandemic relief efforts, aiming in the short term to meet the most immediate needs of vulnerable people. Their first tranche of funding has been deployed to organisations including food banks, and a $2 million donation to the National Emergencies Trust in the UK.

While this approach feels less tailored to the specific ‘medical’ demands of the current crisis than Generali’s, it too sends a strong message to clients that BlackRock believes in ‘doing the right thing’. For 81% of respondents in the Edelman survey, this was a ‘deal breaker’ or ‘deciding factor’ in their brand buying decision.

In a recent letter to shareholders, chairman Larry Fink also acknowledged how completely the coronavirus has ‘overtaken our lives and transformed our world’. The letter detailed the actions BlackRock is taking to support investors, by keeping close contact and providing answers to urgent questions.

While it’s difficult to know if this entails any specific enhancements of their service, it does meet a consumer need, in that 65% of respondents to Edelman’s survey stated that ‘hearing from brands I use about what they are doing to respond to the pandemic is comforting and reassuring to me.’

Robeco

Robeco is among the 275 asset management companies who have signed the Investor Statement on Coronavirus Response, an initiative from the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) calling on businesses to protect their workforces and communities through the crisis.

The statement has five requirements for companies: to provide paid leave for employees, prioritise health and safety, maintain employment, maintain supplier/customer relationships, and financial prudence.

Signing it sends a clear public message that the business is ‘protecting the well-being and financial security of their employees and their suppliers’, something that 90% of consumers believe they have a responsibility to do, even if it means suffering some financial losses during the pandemic.

The asset management response. Next steps?

Now is the time for innovative thinking from companies wishing to harness their power and apply their expertise towards minimising the devastation of the virus.

Asset management brands have worked hard to evolve brand purposes to differentiate beyond just product, price and performance and now is the time to dig deep into these values and interrogate exactly how they are applied in the face of events like Covid-19.

In practical terms, asset management brands could consider how they might be able to fund products or services that are needed now by those affected by the crisis. Or, how they can support businesses through a difficult period, either financially or through the application of their expertise. They might also look at how they can fill gaps in the government’s capacity to combat the economic, environmental and social issues that will arise as a consequence of spending to fight the virus.

In playing their part to help combat these and other challenges of the pandemic, asset management brands could emerge from the crisis with much clearer public perception of the genuinely vital role they play in all our lives.