The Business of Photography: Building Your Brand During COVID-19
Last September, Matthew and I moved to inner-city Baltimore. A “transitional” neighborhood, we’re blocks from John’s Hopkins University Medical Center on Baltimore’s East side. Our neighborhood is economically deprived with lots of struggling people.
The primary mode of transportation in our neighborhood? City bus. The second most dangerous way to travel in the age of COVID-19? Bus. Our house sits at one of the major stops for the North / South route — the pink bus (how appropriate!) –is directly outside our living room window. As we’ve been quarantined at home, we’ve sat and watched the people at the bus stop during the last difficult months.
Hundreds ride the bus. Sometimes it is so crowded, they can’t board and have to wait for another. Face masks are required.
Many in our neighborhood don’t have face masks. They can’t afford them, and there aren’t tons of places even selling the PPE. Hopkins Medical Center is about four blocks from our home, straight down Madison Ave., and they have paper masks they give to their patients. There’s a Walgreens a few blocks away; they don’t have masks. There’s a Dollar Tree at the end of the block, and a Save-A-Lot grocery store around the corner. I don’t see a lot of masks coming out of either location. The culture in our neighborhood tends to be: this won’t touch me. I have other things to worry about than wearing a damned mask that’s unavailable, anyway.
Let’s rewind to March. Just as the pandemic started to hit, and hit hard — even while the WHO and CDC were downplaying the need for masks for the general public, my mom decided to get busy making masks. Originally, she thought she’d sew them for the hospitals and first responders, but they quickly lined up other sources for more advanced masks. As the hospitals struggled with the PPE shortage, both the WHO and CDC revised their recommendations for the general public to use face coverings. More, governors and mayors across the country started requiring the public — when they left the confines of their homes — to use face coverings. Including when riding the bus. Now, months later, it’s a national mantra: wear a mask when out. Most people comply, except our President. Whatever. Hold that thought.
With an exploding pandemic as a backdrop, mom started making masks in March, and we began handing them out in our neighborhood. If we saw anyone in a paper mask, we asked them if they’d like a mom mask. People began requesting masks when they saw Matthew and I on the street. Mom kept sewing. We’ve given away hundreds of masks. As I write this, I can hear Matthew out on the sidewalk offering people at the bus stop a mom mask.
If you drive around the blocks surrounding our house, you’ll see her distinctive fabric masks. Even panhandlers have asked for masks when they discovered people won’t stop to give them money if their face isn’t covered.
Here’s the thing. Not only did mom see it as her civic responsibility to make these masks, Matthew and I view it as one way we can make a real impact in our neighborhood. By the way, mom is a recruiter: she enlisted the help of my sister, Shelly, her best friend, Pat, and my Aunt Jean in the mask making campaign. Together, they’ve sewn hudreds.
We view every thing we do as a reflection of who we are as a business.
Like every neighborhood, every business has a soul. How you define what’s important to you creates a spirit with your staff, your community and your clients. What’s another name for businesses spirit? Brand. It’s your brand. That brand guides you on every major and minor business decision. It determines the answer to hard questions. Your spirit and how well you uphold your core principals is what lets you sleep at night without worry — even as the country faces another spike in cases.
Before I was an event photographer, I worked as a Team Relations Leader for Target. Target is a company that understands how a company’s soul grows the business. In fact, every major company is concerned about giving back. Why? Because it’s smart. Beyond just building trust and good will, it creates the foundation for how the business responds during difficult times.
And, baby, wow! Meet difficult times. That rainy day is here. In fact, it’s monsoon season.
When COVID-19 exploded in March, we figured we were in for a rough few months. As things started to improve in May and the middle of June, we expected some business to return by Fall. That was optimistic. Now COVID-19 has exploded again, Florida and Texas (two of our major event states) are shutting down, Arizona is in a panic, and California is still struggling with record new infections. Business, if we are lucky, may resume by the beginning of next year. And that’s assuming a vaccine or effective treatment.
With the lack of a national plan, creating a reopening strategy is difficult.
The president punted the decision to reopen to governors, and they, in turn, passed the ball to mayors. The result? Event leaders don’t know how to begin to plan events. Even the Republican National Convention, pulled dramatically from Charlotte by the President to a less social-distance, mask forgoing Jacksonville is in trouble. That decision to hold most of the convention in Jacksonville was made A FEW DAYS before the current Florida spikes began. What’s going to happen, now? How do you plan? One thing I do is check daily infection rates HERE. Have coffee first. It’s updated every day at 4 am.
We were ready to kick off a return to business and our green screen photo booths at the Dallas Travel and Adventure Show in August. With COVID-19 spiking in Texas, that show is now cancelled until 2021.
In the past, I used Europe and Australia to model a prediction of how we would reopen. Italy shut down, got the virus under control, and then methodically reopened. While large Italian events are still off the table, you can see industry slowly ramping up. In Australia, events are beginning again. Photo booth companies are reporting record bookings starting the first week in July.
However, in the United States we can’t use that bit of good news to be optimistic. Without national guidance and a unified effort, COVID-19 spikes continue. Without a vaccine or effective treatment, I’m not sure how large events will restart.
Meanwhile, about the only thing an event business can do is build their brand. For us, we’ll continue to support our community as we all wait for a treatment or vaccine breakthrough.