It’s COVID-19’s world right now. Consumers – and marketers – are just living in it.
The virus is having a palpable impact on how consumers shop and consume media and goods, and marketers need to figure out how to communicate with people in a new way.
Or not communicate, as the case may be.
“The first thing brands have to do is not think about today, but about how they want their brand to be perceived when the world starts to return to normal,” said Jim Nail, a principal analyst at Forrester. “The last thing you want to do now is appear tone deaf or opportunistic or otherwise taking advantage of the situation in any way.”
New rules, new plan
Media plans that made sense two weeks ago might come off as dissonant today. Set-it-and-forget-it is never a good idea, but especially not now.
Spirit Airlines learned that the hard way when it sent promotional email messages last week with the cheery subject line “Never A Better Time To Fly” – the day after President Trump announced that the United States was instituting a 30-day ban on travel from Europe. “The perfect time to treat yourself? Right this minute,” the email chirped.
According to the airline, the messaging was created months ago and sent accidentally.
That was an automated mishap and evidence that the safest thing for some categories to do is to pull all of their advertising during a quarantine.
But marketers will also have to review their media strategies for a scarier reason: the rapidly deteriorating economic situation, said Andrew Frank, VP of research and a distinguished analyst at Gartner. Organizations are going to have to start prioritizing cost cutting alongside escalating concerns about fulfillment capabilities and employee welfare, Frank said.
Some sectors, however, "might have a case for increasing media spending,” Frank said, pointing to movie studios planning digital releases or political campaigns forced to abandon rallies and traditional canvassing tactics.
Retailers with ecommerce sites are also keen to let consumers know that they’re open for business, even though their brick-and-mortar locations are not.
For obvious reasons, clients are quickly reallocating investments toward digital and ecommerce and away from out-of-home, events and drive-to-store campaigns, said Tim Lardner, a client strategy partner at digital agency PMG.
With fewer channels at a brand’s disposal, the messaging and creative become that much more important. It’s about striking a balance between staying top-of-mind without appearing to capitalize off of a global health crisis.
“Brands can stay relevant by telling stories about what they’re doing to have a positive impact on their communities, their store associates and their customers,” Lardner said. “Some examples include why they’re being proactive about store closings in order to contribute to efforts to ‘flatten the curve,’ showing how the brand is supporting employees and their families and being a positive voice among a sea of chaos and confusion.”
There are also opportunities to align the message with consumer sentiments and desires for specific products and product attributes, such as immune health, said Frances Zelazny, CMO of Signals Analytics.
"A crisis is temporary, but displaying the sense that you are in tune with your customer and providing specific messages can instill a sense of trust and value that will be long lasting," she said.
In that vein, it’s less about advertising and more about trying to be helpful, useful and informative, said Brian Wieser, global president of business intelligence at GroupM.
“And that could even lead to new and different consumer behaviors in and of itself,” Wieser said, pointing to Chipotle’s coronavirus strategy as a prime example. “They’re providing a distraction with custom entertainment for people who need it.”
There’s a lot going on rn. If anyone wants to hang we’re going live on Zoom here: https://t.co/BveZZGXSeH
— Chipotle (@ChipotleTweets) March 16, 2020
In addition to announcing free delivery on orders of $10 or more through a partnership with Uber Eats, Chipotle is hosting a series of virtual “lunch parties” on Zoom this week featuring interviews with celebrity guests and the chance to win free food. Up to 3,000 people can join each hangout at a time.
Other brands are also rising to the challenge in ways that go beyond run-of-the-mill corporate social responsibility.
Ford, which temporarily halted all auto production this week, is offering payment assistance to vehicle buyers and existing owners through its financing arm, Ford Credit. The car manufacturer is also in talks with the government, along with GM, to potentially produce medical equipment, including ventilators, at its now-idled auto factories.
Louis Vuitton’s parent company, LVMH, converted three of its perfume and makeup factories into hand sanitizer production facilities with a plan to produce around 12 tons this week alone, all of which will be donated to French hospitals.
“We’re seeing a lot of marketers genuinely trying to do good deeds where they can,” Wieser said. “Companies are realizing that they need to be good corporate citizens.”
And marketers that take a long-term view on their media strategy will also be well positioned down the line.
“Sales will be lower all around during an economic downturn, but the advertising you do today will help you over the next year, the next five years and beyond,” Wieser said. “This is actually a good time to build trust.”
And the … not so good
But not everyone got that memo.
The Miami New Times reported last week that Norwegian Cruise Line managers were encouraging their salespeople to share falsehoods about the coronavirus in order to drum up bookings, including that the disease doesn’t spread in hot weather.
A whistleblower leaked emails in which a manager shared talking points for sales reps to use if potential customers expressed concern about COVID-19, such as “The only thing you need to worry about for your cruise is do you have enough sunscreen?”
After the story broke, an executive sent an internal memo with the statement: “One of our own ratted.” That email was leaked as well.
“Hard to imagine a situation worse than that for a brand,” said Forrester’s Nail.