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Alexis Ohanian on what brands should—and shouldn’t!–be saying right now

Investor and Reddit cofounder Ohanian says now is not the time for brand self-promotion.

Alexis Ohanian on what brands should—and shouldn’t!–be saying right now
[Photo: Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images]

At the beginning of March, healthcare startup Ro—parent to brands Roman, Rory, and Zero—launched a free tele-health coronavirus risk tool, where people who may be experiencing signs or symptoms of the virus can get an online assessment, that’s reviewed by a physician. The company then connects patients in need with a medical provider for a free consultation.

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This is a prime example of a company seeing an opportunity to help during this crisis, in a way that plays to its brand and product strengths.

Investor and Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian is a Ro board member. He says for Ro, the free tool isn’t a self-serving move. “The free assessment tool is the right thing to do, and that’s a sensible way to be able to talk to people about it, because diagnosis is a key part in helping to curb this,” says Ohanian. “If we aren’t doing that well, we’re all worse off for much longer.”

As managing partner at Initialized Capital, Ohanian and his firm advise a wide range of startups, including Instacart, Patreon, Atoms footwear, Opendoor, Coinbase, and AdQuick. He and his partners have been talking constantly to their partner companies about how to communicate with customers and the public during this crisis.

“This is not the time to try to get the vast majority of stories out,” he says. “Both from a sensitivity standpoint but also the futility of breaking through. It’s not the time to announce fundraising news, not the time to announce most things. It’s only appropriate if you have something where your business naturally aligns with what’s going on, and Ro is the obvious example there.”

For companies doing well before this hit, Ohanian says they’re going to more easily see opportunities to help emerge. Those struggling have bigger priorities.

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“It just comes back to, is there a clear line to either how the business itself materially helps people at this time?” he says. “If yes, then make sure that the messaging is tactful and tasteful. If there’s not a clear line, then you absolutely have to make sure your messaging is still tactful, tasteful, and not opportunistic.”

He cites Nike’s PSA-style ad from the other week as a good example of a brand with no clear line between its business and an opportunity to help, but one which found one in its vast cultural reach. “You know I’m biased,” he says, nodding to his wife Serena Williams’s long-running relationship with the brand. “Showing off the virtues of staying at home with some of the greatest athletes in the world was a nice message to have.”

Late-night talk shows like Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, and Stephen Colbert shooting abbreviated shows from their homes are also good examples. “Those are decisions they’re making that maintain the brand and core audience of that show in a way that feels empathetic,” says Ohanian. “The perfect opposite example was David Geffen Instagramming the shot of his super yacht in isolation. Those are the two opposite sides of the empathy spectrum from the entertainment world.”

Most importantly, before even thinking about talking to the broader public, companies need to make sure their efforts to help start at home. Instacart, for example, has faced criticism from its workers, over personal protective equipment and its sick leave policy.

“This is really a time to sort out and really take care of your folks internally, and your customers,” says Ohanian. “If any CEO’s reaction to this news is wondering how to make it a win for their company, that’s bad and not going to turn out well.”

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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