Marketing in the Time of Coronavirus
March 26th, 2020 | By Melyssa Brown
Like the rest of the world, I’ve been keeping a very watchful eye on the rapidly evolving coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. As the Head of Brand Strategy at Dragon360, I’ve been on videoconference call after call with our team, clients, and local business owners, who were all voicing the same concerns: the disruption they’re facing, and anxious doubts about keeping their brands even-keeled amidst layoffs, school closures, stressed resources, and shuttering businesses.
How can companies approach the profound need to rapidly—even drastically—pivot their marketing, communications, or business model during this crisis to protect their teams, customers, bottom lines, and reputations now and in the long-term?
Strategically evolve. After all, as Darwin said, those who thrive “are not the strongest or the most intelligent, but the most adaptable to change.”
If your business can adapt to this crisis while staying true to itself, you will strengthen brand perceptions (which ultimately creates long-term loyalty and value) and reinforce relationships with your customers.
One spot of good news in all of this: though there’s a downturn in consumer spending, there’s been a steep increase in the number of customer touchpoints and length of attention spans. As people practice social distancing and stay home, they’re online in unprecedented numbers looking for valuable content to help them stay connected, informed, and weather the isolation. They’re looking for brands to put their values into practice.
So, in a time of uncertainty and risk, don’t go radio silent or overcorrect in your marketing. Instead, embrace adaptation:
- Be empathetic and direct with messaging
- Brand actions speak louder than words
- Become a trusted source
- Embrace strategic marketing evolution
- Get free digital marketing backup
be empathetic + direct with messaging
Your brand only exists in the minds of the consumer, and we’ve entered a proving ground that can either strengthen or weaken your brand’s reputation. Be strategic, and be people-first. Now is not the time to market, but to communicate.
First and foremost, all messaging should be purposeful, meaningful, and on-brand; respond in a way that’s authentically aligned to your company’s product or service offering, positioning, values, and tone. In fact, 4A’s research shows that consumers want to hear from your brand right now, and have positive sentiment towards COVID-19-related communications (sustained positive sentiment builds brand affinity).
But, what should your brand communicate, and how? Both your internal and external messaging should:
- Demonstrate the strong, transparent leadership your team, customers, and community need right now: be clear, honest, and decisive as circumstances continue to develop.
- Send a unifying, emotionally resonant message, as people are feeling uncertain, and are likely experiencing emotional and financial strain.
- Be factual, realistic, and kind. Don’t resort to false optimism, “sugar-coating,” or misinformation. Consider using positive, calming, or happy images (nature, illustrations, comfort food, animals, etc.) if brand-appropriate.
- Inform your team and customers of important updates as needed, but no more than once a day, if possible (steps you’re taking to keep everyone healthy, operational logistics, how you’re helping and how customers can participate, etc.).
- Tell customers how you’re taking care of your most important asset—your team (people want to hear that you’re taking care of your own).
Secondly, brand messaging should be extra sensitive to stressed and anxious consumers. Flex your empathy muscle: put yourself in the shoes of laid-off waitstaff unsure of how they’ll cover rent, under-resourced healthcare professionals on their second month of double shifts, parents who are struggling to feed their kids without school lunch, those with sick loved ones, people working remotely or quarantined at home. How will your message impact them? Could it be framed or packaged in a way to help make their situation a little bit better?
Lastly, prevent unintentional brand gaffes by proactively considering possible negative associations with coronavirus. You definitely don’t want to risk outrage that could spur a negative news story or boycott. Go through all of your marketing and advertising copy and initiatives immediately, and take down or update to maximize appropriateness, timeliness, and relevancy. Pause previously scheduled emails and social media or blog posts and publish manually, moving forward. As the time comes to post, review each one for appropriateness, as the situation is evolving by the hour. Overall, avoid:
- Messaging that can be seemingly opportunistic (don’t appear to be capitalizing on a pandemic)
- Pushing overt sales generation messaging without nuance or timely context (Instead, align communications so that they’re in the public interest as well as your bottom line’s.)
- Marketing with fear or raising alarm
- Campaigns relying on depicting types of physical contact (hugs, kisses, handshakes, etc.), or unhygienic behaviors (not social distancing) that health officials are warning people against
brand actions speak louder than words
Messaging is crucial, but even more so are the actions your brand takes. Work with your team to examine how your business can be useful to those impacted by the crisis. How can you give back in a way that’s a natural extension of your brand mission, values, positioning, and product or service offering?
To make up for demand lulls, some businesses are even retrofitting their supply chains to make sorely needed medical supplies or other must-have goods, in addition to their usual products, to help build brand awareness and fill gaps in other ways. Regardless of the steps you take, empower your community through a unique social good effort, and encourage your customers to get involved: how can they help your brand assist those in need?
Once you’ve determined how you can help, don’t be afraid to be open about what you need. People are actively looking for ways to support vulnerable businesses. Do you need your customers to purchase giftcards or vouchers for later use, order takeout, or buy online? Here are a few inspirational examples from our own Hudson Valley New York community of brands standing up and standing together with their customers:
- Shop Ulster Saturday: residents are encouraged to buy online to support Ulster County small businesses whose brick-and-mortar doors are closed
- Project Resilience: a community relief fund, meal distribution via participating local restaurants, and partnership program for businesses and community groups to provide critical services
become a trusted source
Now, more than ever, people are looking for content to consume. Use this time to lead with your expertise and build up your audience to potentially remarket to in the future. Become a trusted source of thought leadership content that reassures, entertains, inspires, or educates your customers. Creatively show them the value of your product or service, and how it will benefit them when they’re ready to purchase in the future.
- Hold proactive brainstorms to identify and anticipate content themes and formats best suited to help people navigate through this time, or gain timely insight into your product or service without a hardsell.
- Can you help them learn something new, replicate something at home, or virtually experience something that was traditionally IRL?
- People are stuck at home, likely dealing with hardship. How can you lift their spirits? Be careful with potentially tone-deaf humor, but think of ways to make your readers feel better.
- Can you comfort, entertain, or distract them for just a few minutes?
- Analyze existing content to see if you have pieces you can resurrect and make relevant again, or repurpose.
- Consider un-gating valuable content that was previously restricted by form-fills or only available after a call with your team
Trust goes both ways. Ask your customers to leave positive reviews for your brand on Google, Facebook, Yelp, and other social media and review sites as a way to support your business during this time.
embrace strategic marketing evolution
Change is scary, especially when your business and the livelihood of your team could be on the line. But adjusting business as usual is something every brand will need to evaluate right now. No one-size marketing plan fits all, but there are several thought-starters or tactics we’ve recommended to our clients that you could consider when developing the best strategic marketing pivot for your brand.
As most Americans will be spending much more of their income online for the next several months, could your business shift to direct-to-consumer tactics? Can you virtualize your product or service or offer contactless delivery options to tap into the “homebody economy” surge (increased media consumption, videoconferencing, online shopping, at-home cooking and fitness)? Ad spend from eCommerce sites has actually doubled since February 2020, according to MediaRadar, reflecting this anticipated consumer behavior shift. However, for some businesses in heavily impacted verticals like tourism or hospitality, it may make sense to rein-in or totally pause customer acquisition spending to help to maintain marketing ROI for the long-term.
Now is not the time to market, but to communicate.
With reduced consumer spending, we’ve recommended that many consumer-focused brands shift advertising strategies to become more top-of-funnel for the time being. Pushing hardsell calls-to-action right now will most likely not be as effective as before, and could actually alienate potential customers.
It’s almost certain that your brand has experienced sudden changes in your advertising campaign performance as a result of the pandemic. If you can, stay consistent with your highest-performing ads (assuming they pass the situational appropriateness test), especially when considering that several platforms (Facebook, etc.) have warned advertisers of possible review delays when new ads are submitted or edited, due to the circumstances. With more people spending more time online, reduce ad frequency caps to prevent oversaturating and annoying viewers.
Examine your advertising mix and reallocate spend to the best-performing and most fitting channels for this new normal. For example, we’ve seen shifts away from OOH and TV to search and other online channels. Consider running small ad tests on channels seeing heightened traffic right now—programmatic, retargeting, social, audio, or OTT—to gauge efficacy and further optimize your channel mix.
get free digital marketing backup
If you can adapt, stay authentic, and offer customers value and positivity in this time of uncertainty, you will be rewarded with their business and loyalty when the light appears at the end of this tunnel. And remember, we’re all on this train together.
If your brand can adapt while staying true to itself, and offer customers value and positivity in this time of uncertainty, you will be rewarded with their business and loyalty when the light appears at the end of this tunnel.
Since we’re all on this train together, Dragon360 is here to help. We’re offering free digital marketing and customer engagement consultations, starting today.
- Need to make a strategic pivot?
- Looking to take proactive steps towards planning for the future of your brand?
- Want help crafting messaging or developing content for your customers?
- Unsure of how to best approach your digital marketing or advertising right now?
Bring us your digital marketing challenges and concerns, and we’re happy to offer advice or be a sounding board free of charge.