Even During Crises, Marketers Have a Job to Do
By Héloïse Chung
It’s a confusing time for everyone. None the more so than advertisers and marketers. If you have something to say, it’s critical to get it right, because the world is paying attention. But also, did you get that? The world is paying attention.
With no more offices, gyms, restaurants, bars, and national parks to visit, the whole country is spending more time online and in front of TVs, soaking up news and information. The Wall Street Journal reports that Facebook usage has surged by 50% since the crisis began.
This means marketers have a unique opportunity to chime in and speak up about their values. Brands who can maintain relevance are well-poised to grow their audience, and resonate with customers far into the future.
For messaging that adheres to CDC recommendations, there’s already a template being made for you. AdAge reports that:
Ad Council is teaming up with the White House, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to “provide critical and urgent messages to the American public,” the group said in a statement.
…“That script, developed by Group SJR, will also be made available as a template for media companies to create assets with their own local and state public health officials.”
It’s a long tough road ahead, but we’ve survived catastrophes before. Most recently, after 9/11, General Motors quickly rolled out its highly effective “Keep America Rolling” marketing plan to advertise its zero interest 84-month loans to get Americans back on the road.
Their campaign offers a good lesson for our current situation. In a time of uncertainty, the right messaging (with the right actions in place, to back that message up) can give customers assurance that brands are there for them.
How can you or your clients be there for your customers? One thing is to try and recreate some semblance of normalcy while we remain socially distant. Brands can shift their attention to social spaces where communities are congregating (if they aren’t already there) and provide entertainment, humor, or a breath of fresh air. Or they can take meaningful action that supports their community like these three have: Allbirds offered free shoes to healthcare practitioners. Lyft expanded into delivery partnerships to support their drivers. Target announced pay raises, bonuses, and paid leave.
Meanwhile, entertainment companies like ViacomCBS, Walt Disney, ABC, and iHeartMedia are at work on campaigns centered around the importance of physical distancing.
Understandably, not every brand can make grand gestures. The key is maintaining a dialogue with customers that is sensitive to the current climate and the emotional state of customers, while being mindful of government, World Health Organization, and CDC guidelines.
There are lessons to be learned from brands whose best intentions backfired. We all remember the Kendall Jenner Pepsi scandal, Dodge Ram’s dodgy use of MLK’s voice, and Bud Light’s cringey “up for whatever” campaign. And just this week, Reese Witherspoon’s brand Draper James was faced with backlash after offering free dresses to teachers — but not all teachers.
It’s no secret that brands want to sell their products, and agencies want to get paid to work on advertising those products — but you also don’t want your marketing to come across as pandering or insensitive. Ensure your message is saying the right thing, at the right time. Think before you send, pay attention to the here and now, and don’t forget to run any and all marketing efforts past many people, to gauge their reactions and ensure that your efforts don’t backfire.
Moral of the story: customers are paying attention, now more than ever. But countless people are struggling, and your message needs to be respectful of customers’ various situations. So tread lightly. When done correctly, marketing during times of crisis can build brand trust and help propel your brand into the future. But there are many cautionary tales that must be heeded, to avoid a marketing nightmare.
About the author.
Héloïse Chung is writing the great American science fiction blockbuster in the moments between her day job as a copywriter and creative director. Non-screen activities include rock-climbing and making ceramics.