Unless you're LVMH and are able to convert Christian Dior, Givenchy, or Guerlain perfume manufacturing factories to pump out hand sanitizer, or a 1,000-year-old mill in England dusting itself off and returning to bread-making after 50 years as a tourist attraction, you may be feeling a bit lost as to how to promote — or even talk about — your brand in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chances are, you have neither the resources of LVMH nor access to an ancient but serviceable flour mill. More likely, you're hunched over a laptop at your dining room table juggling kids or a Zoom-bombing cat while mulling over how to create ads or other communications that, as the Washington Post put it, don't come off as "insensitive or as if they're from a different time, when people took beach vacations, ate in restaurants, and wore shoes."
TIME Magazine points to research from Advertiser Perceptions, showing that close to half of advertisers surveyed had either yanked or delayed a campaign because of the pandemic. Understandable, but don't jump on that bandwagon just yet. The article goes on to note Nielsen data showing that when people shelter in place, they watch some 60% more content than usual. Smart brands are taking note and creating campaigns and communications that encompass coronavirus-centered content.
The timetable for reopening businesses following COVID-19 remains a moving target, and even more unknowns surround how people will be willing (or even able) to spend money in a recession. The future feels unpredictable for all of us right now. But there are several key actions your brand can take to manage that uncertainty today — while preparing for what comes next.
1. Don't sell aggressively
If you've got a credible COVID-19 treatment ready to go, by all means sell away. Otherwise, take to heart Vanity Fair's observation in late April that "the brands getting the most attention as the pandemic drags on are doing something different: They're selling nothing." The article points to ads offering emotive music and images "of empty cities, hands touching hands through plates of glass, and/or essential workers wearing masks, before the spots end with words of support. Walmart: 'Here for you.' Facebook: 'We're never lost if we can find each other.' Uber: 'Stay home for everyone who can't.' Actual products are nowhere to be seen."
That being said, don't overdo it. At some point, reassuring platitudes will begin to sound shopworn, so keep your eye carefully trained on the line between "duly earnest" and "nauseatingly sentimental" — and definitely don't go anywhere near "taking advantage of collective feelings of vulnerability".
2. Stay true to your brand
This next one has no expiration date — you should always be doing this. The trick is to not make the mistake of thinking that extraordinary circumstances call for fundamental positioning or branding pivots. Don't become someone else because conditions change; just weather the conditions as your brand's truest self.
To be clear, just because you're not pushing a specific product or service, doesn't mean you're not selling your brand and the value it offers. AdAge points to Apple's "Creativity goes on" campaign, which features "scenes of people both famous and unknown making stuff — really good and interesting stuff — as they're in lockdown." To illustrate: John Kransinski producing an episode of his YouTube hit "Some Good News" on his Mac.
HuffPost offers up other examples of companies pivoting their message but staying true to brand — Hotels.com's Captain Obvious declaring the obvious: Just stay home; Hershey's advising people to spread love from a distance; Ikea encouraging us to embrace our abodes. "Marketing pretense and fabrication will be sniffed out in seconds," Jason Bagley, an executive creative director at ad agency Wieden+Kennedy Portland, told the publication. "But if brands know who they are, then all they have to do is respond authentically and courageously to whatever is currently happening, and it will connect. That's a brand's best insurance."
3. Listen to your customers
Staying true to your brand also means staying true to your customers and understanding what they need in a moment when they're searching online for answers more often than ever.
We're all facing a "new normal". (Is anyone else getting tired of that expression already?) The questions your customers are asking right now might be about things you don't expect. Maybe you're used to communicating key business information, like store hours and product offerings, on your website, but you're not set up to answer questions related to cleaning protocols.
It doesn't matter that you're getting new questions. What matters is how you listen and how you respond, which makes the need for comprehensive search management more important than ever. Yext Answers allows you to see what questions customers are asking as soon as they're asked, so you can make sure your website is up to date with the most accurate information and relevant answers for the moment. (Have we mentioned that you can try Answers for free right now? Just saying.)
When the future feels uncertain, it's more important than ever to listen to what your customers are asking you online. It's the only way you'll be able to hear their concerns and meet their evolving needs. That helps you create a better customer experience and win their loyalty in the long run.
4. Do the right thing
TIME writes that "Americans, particularly younger ones, have increasingly been looking to companies to be moral leaders that reflect their values. That sentiment appears to be, if anything, amplified during the outbreak." LVMH switching operations from perfume to hand sanitizer fits the bill, as do grocery stores reserving the first hour of the day for older shoppers, banks waiving overdraft fees, and Ford stepping up as the first carmaker to run ads offering financial relief programs to customers affected by the pandemic.
Indeed, a recent Edelman study revealed that 71% of those surveyed reported that if "they perceive that a brand is putting profit over people, they will lose trust in that brand forever." Especially important, then, is not appearing as if you're trying to profit at the expense of others. Elon Musk didn't do his image any favors by insisting that Tesla's Fremont factory should remain open and at full capacity for nonessential work, even as the rest of the California region shut down. Similarly, Charter Communications took heat for demanding that workers show up at offices after many tested positive for COVID-19.
As Patrick Strother, founder of Minneapolis-based communications firm SCG, told TIME, "overwhelmed, stressed-out consumers may have a long memory for how those companies make them feel in this moment… Brands are really going to be judged for a long time by how they behave through this."
5. Invest in high-ROI sources, like search
None of us have a crystal ball to see how the next year (and beyond, if our stressed-out minds will allow us to think that far ahead) will unfold. But we do know that in times of macroeconomic uncertainty in general, marketing budgets are often slashed first, frequently by as much as 10–30%. Brands are always looking to maximize ROI, but past trends show us that doing so matters now more than ever.
When the future is unpredictable, it makes sense to invest in proven high-ROI sources. This means that as brands feel the economic ripple effects of COVID-19, we'll see many of them shifting ad spend from low-ROI sources, like display or TV, to high-ROI sources, like organic search.
This refocusing of marketing spend can help your brand weather the financial crisis in the short term, but it will also set you up for future success. Prioritizing your search experience helps you meet your customers in the moments when they already need you, and optimizing your search performance now will help illuminate what strategy you should be employing all the time.
6. Look to the future — even when it seems scary
With COVID-19 related restrictions yet to be lifted in much of the United States, many people are — understandably — still in complete hunker-down mode. That said, research indicates that consumers are shifting to a future-focused mindset. Brands need to do the same — or risk getting caught in the wrong phase.
As reported by Adweek, data from Pinterest suggests that "future optimism" search and discovery is on the rebound. This means that consumers are doing things like looking for future travel inspiration, doing long-term event planning, and returning to searches about summer activities, weddings, and more. Consumers are making it clear: they're down but certainly not out.
While your brand must address present concerns and deliver crisis-related communications when necessary, the fact that the future is unpredictable hasn't completely dampened the consumer spirit. So don't get stuck solely in the day-to-day. Make sure you're looking to the future and giving your customers content and inspiration where possible — without being tone deaf to the current circumstances of your audience.
We may not know all of what's coming, but we do know that brands have the opportunity to be a light in uncertain times.
"Your audience is starting to get restless, bored, or lonely," Andrea Mallard writes for Adweek. "People are escaping the present by turning to the future. It might surprise you to realize that we think much of the U.S. is already here, joining users in some European and Asian countries who've been in this stage for longer. Shift messages from support to inspiration and give people something to look forward to tomorrow, like future travel and ideas related to postponed life events."
Make sure your brand keeps up with what your customers are asking for right now, whether that's practical questions or this new type of dreamy inspiration. That way, you'll be as prepared as possible to meet their needs in the next phase of consumer life — no matter what the future holds.