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  • Pat Browne

Brands are being judged. Marketing during a pandemic is wrought with danger.



Consumers react to all events based on emotions, that includes pandemics. Although it is too early to know what the long-term effects of COVID-19 may be, or how, or if we will ever return to “normal”, there are a number of ways to recognize and understand the behavioural biases always in play:


Availability bias: COVID-19 dominates our thoughts and conversations. Media and business are fully engulfed; either reporting it, dealing with it or even denying it, people’s minds are consumed with specific things. They want to know about the brands, products and services that will help them and their communities manage the situation.


Habit Loops: emotions drive discretionary consumption whether its identity, belonging, or status. Over the last 8 weeks, consumer habits have changed exponentially. The New York Times ran an extensive article on changes in consumer spending. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/04/11/business/economy/coronavirus-us-economy-spending.html


According to the ROI Revolution Blog, the pandemic had defined a new category of goods called “new essentials”. Accounting for almost 40% of all current consumer spending, these products help consumers feel more comfortable while staying at home. The main winners are office supplies, fitness equipment, cosmetics, housewares, home improvement, toys and hobby related products. What the future of consumerism looks like, we don't know.What we do know is that more consumers have moved to online spending and will continue to do so for a greater percentage of their purchases.


Reciprocity bias: this is where the “golden rule” comes in. In short, we tend to behave towards others as we perceive them to behave towards us.


So what does this have to do with marketing, especially during the current environment?


It means you have to be very careful on not just what your brand says to the consumer, but also how and when. The initial response from brands was somewhat easier and straight forward to do. It’s the longer term that may seem more difficult. Now, more than ever, brand trust, relevance and credibility are essential for the foundation of an effective strategy.


Step 1: Communicating with empathy and support (but not in a self-serving way). This is where communication gets tricky. It’s important to let your consumers know that you understand what they are going through, your business is going through it too. They’ll also want to know what you are doing, how you are making them feel safe.


This is a time to use emotion. It is not a time to sell. It’s a time to give back, but not a time to boast about your philanthropic activities. You need to get your message strategy right: provide information about what you are doing to help maintain safety and normalcy. If you are giving back, integrate this into the overall message – don’t make it the message.


Hotels.com, like everyone else, had debuted their 2020 campaign at the end of 2019. Based on Captain Obvious, the whole strategy suddenly became wrong with COVID-19. So Hotels.com stopped the campaign mid-flight, quickly put together a new spot that encouraged everyone to stay put and ran that for the duration of the purchased airtime. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dimCZCfGMI Others have been just as quick. IKEA produced an ad highlighting the positives of staying at home #StayHome. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zg0Hei0cjl0&feature=emb_logo


Other brands like KFC’s “finger-lickin” good campaign was thought to be irresponsible and was pulled from rotation. Cruise lines were condemned for continuing to advertise as news stories covered cruise ships in quarantine with COVID-19 outbreaks. Even Lysol was criticized for advertising when its products were in short supply or out-of-stock.


Step 2: Know your business category and permissions. If your brand will be perceived as a helpful product during lock-down, then talk about it. Not all products are equal in this arena.


At this stage you can support your brand awareness through real understanding. This is where customer knowledge is key. Getting the product, offer and message right is dependent upon understanding your customer segments expect from your brand.


Marketing during this time can build brand credibility, but it can also destroy it. US Postal Service celebrated their service with credibility and empathy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uuNLLZcSTKE Launched February 28th, P&G’s new Microban 24, a competitor for Lysol, has been able to continue to advertise without noticeable issue.


But getting the tone wrong can do serious damage to your brand value. At the beginning of the pandemic, brands jumped to send messages of reassurance through emails. These emails, all suspiciously the same, talked about how brands were safeguarding employees and customers, and trying to comply with government shutdowns and changing edicts. Initially this was reassuring, however it quickly appeared to be more self-serving. Customers started to realize how many email services they had signed up for and began unsubscribing on mass.


Other businesses, such as banks, retailers, restaurant are emphasizing their online and mobile service portals. Even hospitals and doctors are promoting remote diagnosis and enabling video chat services.


Automated messaging my backfire at this time: Automated CRM messaging needs to be closely monitored. CRM programs are good and may be the driving force behind most of your business revenue—but that was before the pandemic. Keeping those automations active without updating them to reflect changes caused by the pandemic might make you appear insensitive and more focused on profits than people. Make sure you review all automated copy.


Step 3: economy. This is a slightly different concept. Millions of people are unemployed. They economy has taken an unprecedented hit and there is no way this is going to be an easy return to business as usual. Going forward, providing low or lower-cost options may be required to stay in any market. Low cost DTC models may have an unexpected advantage in the coming months.


Now is also a good time to switch to, or increase, your content development. Many of your competitors have drastically reduce the amount of content they create or stopped creating content altogether. This may actually present an opportunity for you.

Some of the best messaging to date delivers truly compelling content about how businesses have changed. Both Galen Weston from Loblaws https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7U_N13lrFNc and Sharon White from John Lewis are on point in their emailed videos telling their customers and partners what’s changing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uq6aT5A-RIM. It’s not business as usual, there are some new pain points, but we’re all in this together.

Tailored communication and content production for your customer base is of the utmost importance. Dig deep to find the pain points they are experiencing and communicate solutions addressing their key questions.

Unsplash photo/SmartBrief illustration

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