We don’t need to say that COVID-19 and the health and economic crises devastating the world are unprecedented. That people have lost their wages and health benefits, their businesses, their sanity and life as we all knew it. In the U.S., we shut down in a way most of us would not have been able to fathom prior to it happening. Quickly, swiftly, as surely as we could, March Madness was gone, SXSW cancelled, Spring Break plans broken, then gatherings of smaller and smaller numbers banned, schools closed, offices moved to “work from home,” gyms and small businesses shuttered, and ultimately most municipalities implemented social distancing and/or shelter in place protocols, all to prevent the millions of deaths that COVID-19 was capable of inflicting.
And even as we have changed our routines and continue to improve, tens of thousands of lives have already been taken, and thousands more face what could be lifelong complications as this disease continues to ravage the world. We don’t know how long this will go on, what the ultimate death toll will be, or how long it will take to recover. The only thing we do know is that it will get worse still before it gets better.
It’s hard to think about it as the days in quarantine feel so long, but this has all happened in a mind-bogglingly short amount of time. One day people were at restaurants talking about vacation plans, and the next day they were buying all the toilet paper and checking whether their ski lift tickets were refundable. They probably weren’t refundable for a few days, businesses and brands have had a hell of a time keeping up with the room, much less getting a read on it, in the face of this disaster. Navigating it is so difficult that some platforms have banned all COVID-19 advertising.
On the other hand, some brands and businesses have managed to read the room perfectly, acting quickly and inspiringly as community leaders in the midst of a very confusing and bleak time for everyone. We at MODIV think it is important to learn from them.
Below are some observations we have made about messaging in this unique media landscape. We’ll take a look at what is resonating best with this universally affected audience and what seems to fall short.
- Messages that are hopeful or helpful shine brightly in bleak circumstances but could fall short of action. For most in the U.S., even if they were following the world stage, this began “for us” in March. That was when we all saw the train barreling down the tracks toward us for the first time. Before most of us even realized the bars were closed, Guinness released a touching, inspiring St. Patrick’s Day message reminding us all that we would “march again” after we save the world by staying home. The timing was perfect and as most people who later lost their jobs were still employed at that moment, there wasn’t much blowback. Just four days later, however, Nike launched its “Play Inside, Play for the World” campaign. While it was generally well received, there was much more blowback on social media calling for the $29.6 billion company to contribute more than a tagline. Nike seems to be working on it.
- Acknowledging and taking care of economically struggling consumers is good. Acknowledging and “taking care” of economically secure customers comes off as flippant. Like Guinness, Ford was one of the first brands to hit us straight in the heart with COVID-19 messaging, but their ad included an action as heartwarming as their “Built For America” tagline: temporary loan relief for struggling Ford owners. More recently, the luxury auto brand Land Rover posted an image on social media of a Land Rover parked at the Grand Canyon with the line “Practicing Social Distancing since 1948.” The ad, which struck the wrong chord with consumers facing disease and economic hardship, has since been taken down.
- Brands that go the extra mile to repurpose factories for masks, hand sanitizer, ventilators and other needed items are inspiring, and much more when they donate. Louis Vuitton is now making hand sanitizer in its perfume factories and will donate it directly to French health facilities. They expect to make 12 tons of sanitizer in one week alone. According to Business Insider, many other designer fashion brands are repurposing their resources to making much-needed medical masks and gowns. Tesla, Ford, GE and other companies are developing and/or donating ventilators.
- Focusing on the quarantine and not the disease should be left to memes. While funny images circulate on social media about the trials and tribulations of quarantine and social distancing, brands must remember they represent something bigger than our daily lives. Popeyes was reminded of this when their campaign “Fried Chicken and Chill,” offering their Netflix password to the first 1,000 customers, received harsh criticism. People are dying and losing their jobs, the levity is lost when it comes from outside the trenches.
- Publicizing generous business decisions such as hazard pay and continued benefits for workers despite closures is acceptable and inspiring, but it can backfire. Microsoft has continued to pay hourly workers who may not be able to come in to work. Amazon, Cisco, Uber and Salesforce will pay workers even as business scales back and the labor is not needed. Costco, Walmart, Target and others are paying hazard pay for employees putting themselves at risk to continue working in their stores. This is all admirable, and the worst anyone can say would be, “That’s great, but those brands could do more.” For the giants listed above, that’s light blowback. But when it was announced that Texas Roadhouse CEO Kent Taylor was contributing his “$500,000 base pay” to workers, many commenters felt that this was the bare minimum of what the millionaire could contribute and that it “wouldn’t cover” most of the fallout.
- Everyone likes a scenario where everyone wins. One grocery item that many consumers are hard pressed to find is bread. One kind of business that is struggling for sales with dining area closures and fear of spreading COVID-19 through food prep is restaurants. Jimmy John’s ingeniously decided to start selling its supply of bread to consumers, and everyone wins. Many local restaurants are also using this strategy and selling groceries that once supplied their menus (and bathrooms).
- Campaigns reflecting pre-quarantine culture will not resonate. In general, major brands are catching onto this issue quickly, though it might not be obvious to the world preemptively: Ads that feature pre-quarantine culture all feel insensitive now. For this reason, Cadbury pulled a campaign featuring a grandfather hiding Easter eggs for his granddaughters since depicting young kids being close to the older generation goes against social distancing recommendations. Kentucky Fried Chicken pulled its “Finger-lickin’ Good” campaign for obvious reasons regarding the pandemic, and Coors replaced their March Madness “Work from Home” ad with a tip jar to aid out of work bartenders.
Brands are communicating with what is possibly the most unified audience they will ever speak to. Most of the world is dealing with the exact same crisis at the same time. Everyone is affected in some way; whether they are homeschooling for the first time, living out of a car or struggling to live at all, we are all aware this is all happening to all of us.
That has not happened in any of our lifetimes. It may never happen again. Ironically for marketers who might have thought life would be easier under these “universal” conditions, it is more difficult than ever to “sell” anything. But it is a wonderful time to inspire hope, to contribute to the community, to let creativity thrive and to remember we are all human and in this together.