If you’ve logged onto the internet at any point between March and today, you’ve seen the onslaught of COVID-19 emails inundating your inbox, ads on social media and commercials on your chosen streaming service. Most of this content sounds similar — some version of “Here’s what we’re doing to keep you safe.” (What were they doing before, anyway?) Companies are navigating the delicate balance of keeping employees and customers healthy but also staying in business.
Some brands are walking the line beautifully — their marketing copy says “The world is hurting. We hear you. We’re going to keep doing our thing because it’s the best way we know how to help.” They’re taking the victories and mistakes of other historical crises and applying those lessons to the current pandemic.
Some brands are not navigating this so gracefully, sending out tone-deaf ads, lumping all of their employees and customers into one big group or assuming everyone is experiencing the world events in the same way. Or not acknowledging the situation at all.
Though brands are looking toward a might-be recession, Forbes reports that pulling advertising spending does not benefit the brand. Don’t pull the budget but pivot the message.
As brands deal with the fallout of COVID-19, they’re not only adapting to the physical limitations like employees working from home, closed or abbreviated office schedules, social distancing restrictions and intense new cleaning standards, they’re also having to adjust the tone of marketing and the copy and visuals that go with it. Turns out, this is no easy feat. Here are a few do’s and don’ts and some good examples as you massage and adapt your brand’s strategy going forward.
Do’s for messaging during COVID-19:
1. Do relate with sensitivity.
Brands like Dial or Charmin can easily pivot their campaigns to be COVID-centric. The products lend themselves so naturally to this marketing bend. But not all brands’ products fit so effortlessly into a new COVID-19 campaign. What if your company sells air fresheners or cars or pool floaties? It’s harder to relate these back to COVID-19 and there’s nothing worse than trying to force a marketing campaign into a box it doesn’t belong in or promote something unnecessarily and insensitively during a global crisis.
The good news is you don’t have to stretch your product or service to be something it’s not or try to fit into the lives of people who are now experiencing a very different world. All you have to do is acknowledge the situation somehow and keep your language sensitive. So long as you’re sensitive, you can try to relate or provide relief appropriately.
When September 11 happened, ‘Friends’ was in the middle of taping it’s eighth season. At the time it was one of the most-watched sitcoms on TV commandeering a viewership of around 34 million every Thursday evening.
A month after the attack, an episode where Monica and Chandler travel on their honeymoon was changed drastically last-minute. In the original cut, the couple gets detained in the airport because Chandler makes a joke about carrying a bomb. The showrunners had the good sense to change this storyline and it gave way for a bigger discussion about how the popular show would navigate the aftermath of 9/11.
Ultimately, the cast and producers of ‘Friends’ felt it was their responsibility to make the country laugh and be a needed distraction during a time of crisis. They chose not to do a “special issue” or pivot the whole plot to reflect the world happening around them, but they didn’t ignore what happened to the country either. They put in subtle acknowledgements to the event and its heroes sprinkled throughout the show — a newspaper sitting on the coffee table, characters wore NYFD t-shirts, an American flag hung in Central Perk, and notes appeared on the famous Magna Doodle door decoration.
Not every part of your marketing has to be COVID-focused but it does need to convey an awareness of what is an all-encompassing issue today. If your brand’s not aware and sensitive, Jodi Harris on Content Marketing Institute says “you can bet it is affecting your audience’s perception of your brand. It could even undo any goodwill earned from your crisis-response initiatives.”
Take a lesson from ‘Friends.’ It’s ok to distract. It’s ok to sell pool toys or air fresheners, but don’t be overly promotional, and do it sensitively.
2. Do prioritize trust and communication.
It’s wild that brand confidence comes down to just these two attributes but in a world where people aren’t sure who to turn to and don’t want to be exploited by those they do turn to, trust and communication are the only things that matter.
Dan Blank, founder of WeGrowMedia calls this duo “heart-centered marketing” and encourages the writers he works with to create a clear stream of communication with readers and clients. Even when news is bad, as long as communication exists, customers are likely to keep business right where it’s at.
Scott Reitzel, writing on crisis management for ClearVoice’s blog, says: “Honest, straightforward and clear communications that are rooted in your company’s values will come through as being authentic.”
Part of this communication and trust algorithm is to tell customers how you’re taking action. Customers want to know what you’re doing to keep them healthy but they also care about what you’re doing to keep your employees healthy and their communities safe.
Baker Creek Seed Company sold so many seeds it was running low on inventory. Instead of overselling and then having to break it to customers later that their orders would not be coming or would be delayed, they paused orders completely. No sales during this time likely impacted their business. But while customers were disappointed to not purchase seeds, they were met with good, genuine communication and left with the feeling the brand was doing right by them.
3. Do stay true to your values.
A brand that changes their tune in a crisis is like the company equivalent of a fair-weather friend. Brands that operate by a set of values should stay the course, take actions that are on brand and make decisions in-tune with their customers values.
Take a look at Costco for example. They might not have a flashy logo or slick, modern advertising you often associate with good branding, but they live and breathe by what their brand is: quality, bulk products, discounted prices, clear and concise information. And they’ve stuck to these attributes as they’ve adapted to COVID-19.
Many trust Costco to feed their families. With a markup cap of 15 percent on products, there is never any market-based price gouging or inconsistency with pricing. They sell what they deem quality and their generous return policy allows customers to return what they aren’t happy with. Unless it’s toilet paper.
Today, they’re sanitizing carts, not handling your receipt on the way out the door and ensuring everyone who enters is wearing a mask — all clear-cut actions to protect the customers and workers they’ve stood up for since Costco’s beginning.
Don’t abandon what you are as a company when bad weather hits. Your values — and if you stuck by those values — are what customers will remember when this is over.
Don’ts for messaging during COVID-19:
1. Don’t assume everyone is in the same situation.
Positions in marketing often have the luxury of working from home during COVID-19 simply because the nature of the job involves sitting at a computer. Because the people writing and executing the marketing plans are experiencing COVID-19 from the inside of their homes, it’s easy for them to assume that’s how everyone is experiencing it, and many ads and emails currently reflect this narrow view.
“As we spend more time at home…” one TV ad says. Or “Need to get out of the house?” another asks.
Consider all the ways your customers could be experiencing this pandemic. Some purchased a Peloton bike and membership when their gym closed so they could exercise at home. Others spend hours each week waiting in line at the local food bank. Some work in an essential service where they are still bringing in a full income. Others fall into the group of 40 million who are now unemployed. We’re “all in this together” doesn’t mean everyone is experiencing COVID-19 the same way.
College Hunks Hauling Junk & Moving saw an opportunity where they could reach out to a group many weren’t reaching: victims of domestic violence. The pandemic has produced an uptick in domestic violence calls, presumably because of both financial stressors and the fact that more people than usual are home together. The company offered to move domestic violence victims to safer locations free of charge.
By not assuming everyone is able to or enjoying working from home, you can reach a broader swath of your audience effectively.
2. Don’t act like nothing is happening.
Everything about our day-to-day lives has changed. Some of us are social distancing and wearing masks, others are trying to go about things as normal, though are experiencing the wipe-down-the-cash-register in between every customer just the same as the rest of us. If everything is affected, why should your marketing and copywriting remain the same?
Elizabeth Elfenbein, a partner at The Cement Bloc, told Media Post the story of an advertising pitch. She and her team presented a new business pitch on 9/11. That day changed everyone’s life, but because it’s hard to see something big when you’re in the middle of it, the firm kept working on the project — late nights and all weekend. Elfenbein says “we lost the pitch, and we lost as human beings.”
COVID-19 is not 9/11 but it is a hinge event, a point when everything changes and a point where humanity’s true colors air. Harris says “it’s not the best time to deliver algorithm-driven content, bland boilerplate statements or vague, impersonal advice. Capture the reality and give it a human voice.”
Add some humanity to your copy. You don’t have to talk about COVID-19 in every piece you write but don’t be aloof by completely avoiding it either. Acknowledgement goes a long way. Times have changed; reflect them.
3. Don’t use the usual vocabulary or visuals.
Customers don’t expect you have a huge cache of images where people are appropriately social distanced and wearing masks. And they certainly don’t expect you to hold a photo or video shoot now to produce them. But that doesn’t mean everything should proceed like it was pre-COVID.
Using words like clean or plague or sanitize are strong verbs and harmless on their own, but put them in the cultural context of COVID-19 and suddenly you’re associating your brand language with something people are pretty negative about right now.
Work with what you have. Choose photos where people are waving instead of shaking hands, for example. Comb your brand language for any words that could trigger in the current context.
The insurance company Progressive cut together old footage, added a voice over from the CEO, and produced a new campaign that was more relevant for the time than the ads they were running pre-COVID-19. This resourcefulness meant they didn’t have to hold a new video shoot, but they also had relevant and timely new content to use.
Examples for messaging during COVID-19:
1. For how to write to your audience…
CB2 sent out an email in March advertising desks. The copy read: “Because one week at the dining room table is enough.” This hit right because of two reasons.
First, the timing. It was just one week into the shelter-at-home orders and reality that quarantine could last months had not set in. It was still surreal. Second, CB2 wrote to their specific audience (which were the only ones getting the email) — those wanting sophisticated, high-design, quality furniture and who are willing to pay the price for it, which also happens to overlap with the demographic of those working from home. CB2 read the room, then determined lightheartedness was appropriate here.
2. For how to say “we’re in this together” authentically and with action…
Many companies have found creative ways to show their customers their true colors and show they’re thinking about something other than their bottomline.
- Liberty Mutual cut checks to auto insurance policyholders because most people are driving less.
- EOS Fitness suspended billing until they reopened even though they were still providing video content for working out at home.
- Walgreens created drive-thru testing for first responders.
- Harbor Freight donated its supply of gloves and masks to hospitals.
How brands treat others in a crisis is indicative of how they really thing. Authenticity is a good long-term strategy because at the end of COVID-19 people will remember the good brands were doing more than they will the ones trying sell them more stuff.
3. For how to rise above the noise…
Thousands of brands sent out emails. They each read similarly — a compilation of the same bullet points. We’re sanitizing surfaces. We’re providing masks to employees. We put tape on the floor so you stay six feet away from the lady in front of you.
But some companies, like Brawny, did things differently. They looked toward the community spirit garnered during COVID-19 and executed a campaign called “Giants Take Action.” People can nominate those who are helping others in their communities and those people are featured in their ads.
Since news and recommendations are changing literally every day — avoid opportunistic promos that you might have to walk back if news changes tomorrow. Being human in your messaging tends to age well.