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Marketing sans empathy during COVID-19 can be a brand’s worst mistake.

The pandemic has uprooted the old ways and a new normal is being created where the way people think, behave and buy will have changed. Beyond how you look as a brand, what you do matters. And people will want to see considerate, purpose-driven actions.

How to optimize your marketing plan during COVID-19

There has been an influx of promotional emails, social media ads, and web pop-ups trying to ride high on the pervasiveness of the current public health emergency. As someone who has been on both sides of the marketing and product equation, the opportunistic approach of many of these marketing campaigns has left me deeply disturbed. While I understand that as a marketer, you have immense pressure to meet budgets and goals, this is one of those times when you simply can’t afford to go wrong. A pandemic of such scale is not something that any brand with a legacy less than 100 years has experienced before, there is still no window for trial and error here. Customers, stakeholders, suppliers and the entire world have their eyes on you. Like it or not, your every move is being judged. And how you respond right now can leave an impression in the minds of the people for a very long time to come.

Whether that’s going to be a good one or bad is in your hands.

Unfortunately, if you are looking for a marketing-during-a-pandemic playbook, guess what? There is none.

Cringeworthy or thoughtful?

Suddenly, every emailer and every ad on the web – which are, currently, the two most accessible avenues for marketers – have a COVID – twist to it. Some are informative, some are helpful but most others are plain insensitive or opportunistic. Receiving relevant information from the bank on how to manage finances during these times is well appreciated and so are emails from airlines that talk about relaxed cancellation policies or from food delivery apps that give out details about the steps they are taking to ensure safety during these difficult times or offering food to the frontline healthcare workers and emergency doctors. But ads that prompt you to buy a certain flavored drink to stay hydrated when infected by the virus or discounts that urge you to shop for date nights that may not happen in a long while are inappropriate, to say the least.

For marketers, the cue here is obvious and if it isn’t, this is it – YOU HAVE TO STOP MARKETING IN AUTOPILOT MODE.

It is pretty normal for brands to pick up on the latest occurrences and tune it into their marketing messages. Say, for instance, Gillette very tactfully addressed the #MeToo movement in its Super Bowl commercial. When it comes to tragedies and natural disasters though, brands need to display immense sensitivity. If not managed thoughtfully, things can go south pretty fast. Mind you, whether there is sincerity in what you say and do or if it is a mere opportunistic move will not go unnoticed.

Don’t try to look good, be good.

Brands are walking the tightrope. You do not want to appear like you are ignoring coronavirus or cashing in on an opportunity. KFC, for instance, pulled off air ads showing people licking their fingers after a KFC meal and replaced it with “contactless” delivery. Same with Hershey’s whose ads featured lots of hugs and kisses. On the flip side, McDonald’s choosing to separate the golden arches in its logo or Volkswagen creating distance between the V and W have both been passed off as a PR stunt.

So what are people expecting to see their favorite brands do during COVID-19?

In a survey done by Edelman recently, 71% of respondents agreed that if during this time “they perceive that a brand is putting profit over people, then they will lose trust in that brand forever” while 77% also said, “they want brands only to speak about products in ways that show they are aware of the crisis and the impact on people’s lives.”

Evidently, this is the time for brands to take off the revenue and profit hats and don the caps of empathy, care, and authenticity. Questions like: how can we help? How can we show up? And, how can we be human in our approach? are more significant now than ever before.

Trailblazers and the others.

Clearly, some brands have emerged to be trendsetters during these times. To start with, a number of them have shifted gears to help out during the crisis. Ford has moved its production from cars to ventilators. Luxury brand LVMH has replaced its perfume production with hand sanitizers. So have a number of alcohol brands including Brewers Brewdog.

But not every company can afford to take such steps. And not every brand needs to make large scale transformations to stay relevant right now. In small mindful ways, several other brands are showing the world how to do marketing right during a pandemic. Now is the moment to go beyond pure-form selling and bring the ‘human’ back into marketing and ask what your customers need to hear the most from you.

One way to do it is to proactively provide solutions to help people cope with this public health emergency. At Home, a home goods retailer has closed the stores but have kept curbside pickup available for people who might need tables and chairs for working from home. Communicating a separate time window for senior citizens to shop for utilities is a step some supermarkets have communicated to its large customer base.

Or, simply share the feeling of community and being in this together. Hotels.com which is expected to take a huge financial hit as travel and tourism come to a standstill used its mascot Captain Obvious to encourage everyone to stay at home. Similarly, on a parade-less St. Patrick’s Day, Guinness aired an ad that showed people toasting at home, letting viewers know that we’ll all march again soon.

Several subscription-based businesses are offering flexibility and other alternative solutions to its customers. A number of gyms including ClassPass have rolled out the options of pausing memberships and rollover of credits. Assessing the need for its clients to continue staying fit even within the confines of their homes, Planet Fitness paved the way for online classes letting their members sweat it out even as they self-isolate.

Some efforts by brands are straight-up caring and empathetic. In view of industries shutting shop and people having lost jobs, Piedmont Gas has waived off fees on late payments while Violent Grey is reaching out to its customers to know how they can help.

On one side are the brands that are making the crisis bearable with new services or tweaking old ones to meet the current needs. And on the other are ones who seem to be using the public health emergency as an opportunity to ‘sell’.  Ads like that of Pottery Barn and Peete’s Coffee that are talking about the best desk or best coffee during WFH can sound more exploitative than thoughtful.

Given the current situation, experts seem to agree that the focus right now must be on action. How can you help mitigate the situation is the direction your marketing must take. This could mean a shift in production or a rearrangement of business operations, introduction of a new service or merely reaching out to offer help.

Check the right boxes

While there is no ‘how-to-market-during-a pandemic’ playbook available, there are a few things we can learn from the ones who seem to be doing it right. Of course, the risk and stress of ‘are we doing it right?’ isn’t one that you can bypass. But like they say, the pandemic is offering a unique opportunity for brands to connect with people in a way that’s probably never been possible before.

1.  Start with the context:

Look at the big picture and be aware of what’s happening around the globe and how people are responding to the virus as a collective. Yet when it comes to your own response, localize your marketing. Identify what is working and not working for your local markets and tailor marketing as per the identified needs. To be able to give far more liberty and flexibility to local marketing teams while the direction continues to come from the centre is crucial.

2.  Reassess as if everything depends on it:

Things are changing fast and in a dramatic manner. Until a few weeks ago, going out was still a possibility and social distancing was the buzzword. Now, people are staying home and self-isolation is the trending word. What you planned a few weeks ago might not fit the current scenario. Which is why if you have to be on your toes at all times.

3.  Sensitive creativity:

Even if your overall strategy is on point, a wrong imagery, tone or content for your ad can be a major slip. Say, for instance, using words like handhold, virus-checks, or images of people holding hands or eating pizzas at an Italian holiday can bring every effort crashing down. Be cautious and weigh your efforts against the backdrop of the current situation before you proceed.

4.  Shift gears thoughtfully:

Uncertainty is not a new thing for marketers. But a pandemic definitely is. Nevertheless, prioritize what is helpful to your customers at the moment. If it means focusing on a single product, introducing a new service or changing business operations, lead the way for such shifts. Marketing budgets will continue to be a top deciding factor for what and how you can approach marketing at this time. But it can never be an excuse for a mindless, insensitive falter if you end up making one.

5.  What ‘contribution’ have you made?:

The ultimate question your marketing efforts need to answer is this: what is the contribution that you have made. Brands need to realize that contributions needn’t always have to come in the form of donating your property to set up accommodation for healthcare workers as Hyatt is doing or producing ventilators like Virgin Group or Tesla is. Contribution comes in all forms – anything to help, mitigate or show care to any population matters. It can look like HP donating 3D printers or a food delivery app continuing to serve people. It can be free access to a software or like HubSpot discounts and free access for a 90-day or 6-month period. Ask yourself every now and then ‘how can you help?’

Finally…

The truth is, there is no going back to what once was. The pandemic has uprooted the old ways and a new normal is being created where the way people think, behave and buy will have changed. Trust is expected to emerge as an important factor in the relationship between brands and consumers. This means that any brand that shows care towards its employees, consumers, stakeholders, and society will get ahead of the competition. Starting right now is when brands can redefine their approach and actively practice compassion in marketing. Beyond how you look as a brand, what you do matters. And people will want to see considerate, purpose-driven actions. And this does not just need a rejigging of your creative practices but an overall shift in the marketing mindset.

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