Brands of all sizes, in every industry, are facing major challenges. Aside from mandatory closures, navigating the new virtual landscape, and bracing for financial strain, brands also need to be mindful of their messaging.
Customers are paying attention.
In this article, we’ll talk about how to avoid coming off as insensitive, avoidant, or guilty of ‘virtue-signaling.’ We’ll talk about how to talk to customers, offer support in an appropriate manner, and share some examples of how different brands are approaching pandemic messaging the right way.
Why Your Pandemic Messaging Matters
Over the past several weeks, brands have been flooding our inboxes with coronavirus communications, pulling campaigns that might now come off as tasteless, and updating their messaging to something a bit more empathetic.
The problem is, it’s difficult to strike a balance between being sensitive to job losses and the severity of the virus and well, making money. Even the most well-intentioned brands risk coming off the wrong way.
While for some, the impulse is to go about business as usual, customers actually want brands to respond. According to a special report from Edelman, 71% of consumers say that if they perceive a brand as prioritizing profits over people, they’ll lose trust in that brand forever. Another study found that those brands that opt-out by “going dark” stand to see a decline in at least one key brand metric.
Which brings us to this point, what does an appropriate response look like?
Aim for Empathy and Focus on Intent
As CXL’s Peep Laja points out in this tweet, it’s not business as usual and brands shouldn’t pretend otherwise.
So, answering the question of how to rework your messaging in the midst of a pandemic isn’t easy.
However, there are a couple of key things to think about, here.
The first is empathy.
Demonstrating empathy should come easy, but it’s not as simple as it seems, particularly if you’re used to writing content as “the brand,” using “we” instead of “me.”
You might move toward sharing personal anecdotes, customer stories, or offering actual support for those in need. Empathy also extends to how you treat your employees and the community.
While not every business has the resource to put a million dollars toward feeding hungry families, they do owe their audience an explanation as to how they’re handling lay-offs, time off, and what they’re doing to keep people safe.
Secondly, as is the case in “normal times,” intent matters. The challenge is, customer intent is changing.
Consider what you hope to achieve with every newsletter, blog post, or social campaign.
Are you trying to get your audience to take action? Are you trying to provide information? Be clear about what you’re offering and what you’re not right now. That might mean explaining that you’re now selling masks or that shipping times aren’t as predictable as usual.
Finally, avoid being overly promotional--pretty self-explanatory.
How Real Brands Are Handling the Crisis
Below, we’ll look at a range of responses from several different types of brands--industry giants and smaller companies alike. One thing we should point out here is despite the differences between these brands and their campaigns, there are some similarities.
For one, most of the “hashtag” campaigns we’ve come across pair their marketing savvy with an actual effort to help others.
In some cases, you’ll see brands using their resources to make masks, hand sanitizer, or other in-demand medical equipment.
In other cases, brands are donating money to those in need--be it feeding those who are financially struggling, supporting front-line workers or small businesses, or contributing to medical research.
We also noticed that many of the charitable efforts were related to the brand’s usual offerings--i.e. food & beverage companies donating to local food banks, clothing companies making masks, etc.
Now, let’s move on and check out some of the brand responses getting their pandemic messaging right.
Ford has weathered its fair share of crises from the Great Depression to World War II, where it used its manufacturing equipment to create medical supplies for the war effort.
Today, Ford has once again pivoted toward being helpful--new ads center around the themes, “Built to Lend a Hand” and “Built for Right Now.” The company is supporting those impacted financially by COVID-19, offering payment assistance through the Ford Credit relief program. Additionally, they’re making ventilators.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have clothing retailer, Reformation, a brand that doesn’t have anywhere near the resources that something like Ford has. The brand sells $200 sundresses--it doesn’t necessarily make sense to dive into the ventilator business.
What we like about its messaging is, it gets right to the point--the brand isn't sure how to address this situation and its transparent about it. This Instagram post lays out what itsdoing in response to the outbreak--closing brick-and-mortars, following WHO/CDC/NHS guidelines, canceling factory tours, and so on.
Additionally, the brand does a nice job embracing empathy--it acknowledges the stress and anxiety people are experiencing right now and lets the public know that its giving customer-facing workers paid time off, as opposed to laying off or furloughing workers.
This just goes to show that doing the right thing doesn’t require massive donations or a big COVID-19 pivot--sometimes it means supporting your people.
Toilet paper brand, Cottonelle directly addressed the panic buying situation by launching the #ShareASquare campaign.
Sure, the initiative comes with a catchy hashtag but goes beyond angling for the retweet. The brand is donating $1M to United Way’s COVID-19 response fund, as well as donating 1M rolls of toilet paper over the coming months.
Johnson & Johnson
According to AdAge, the brand has actually improved its image in the wake of the outbreak (social media sentiment is reportedly up 61%), in part because the active ingredient used in the over-the-counter heartburn drug, Pepcid AC may have some potential to reduce the severity of coronavirus symptoms.
The problem is, J&J has had to combat misinformation, as well as issue statements telling the public not to panic-buy Pepcid AC in an effort to fight the virus DIY-style. The drug giant has done a nice job staying ahead of this challenge addressing the publicity.
Additionally, J&J’s social accounts highlight a live series, “The Road to a Vaccine” in which researchers discuss how they’re leveraging their experiences fighting Zika and Ebola to develop a vaccine for COVID-19.
Oscar Mayer’s #FrontYardCookout campaign takes on the issue of social distancing. The hot dog/bologna brand is currently encouraging people to post photos of themselves (and their neighbors) BBQ-ing in their front yards on May 2nd.
The brand is donating a million meals to Feeding America, and up to another million meals based on how many times the hashtag is used.
Today, brands have a big opportunity to show the public that they care more about people than profits. The priority right now should be communicating with empathy, being useful, and giving consumers clear, accurate information.
Brands need to acknowledge and adapt to the current situation, while also planning for what comes next--whatever that may be. In other words, what you do now will set the tone for how your business performs in the future.