Now that most of the U.S. is at least a week into “social distancing” and self-quarantine for the COVID-19 pandemic, there are a few brand tropes that everyone is tired of seeing. We were all laughing a few weeks ago from the sprawling, self-indulgent emails from brands we hadn’t interacted with in years, telling us their plans for continuity during the outbreak. But there have been reactions that haven’t been laughing matters.
As opportunist as it may seem, there is a right way to go about marketing during a global crisis. What your company does during this time can make or break how you come out of this on the other side. People may not remember exactly what your business did during the pandemic, but they will remember how you made them feel. Try to avoid making people feel confused, taken for granted, or annoyed. Here are some of our best tips for being a better brand during the pandemic.
Approach everything with empathy
We assure you: you aren’t the only person whose business is in trouble right now. Everyone is afraid about the possibility of 30% unemployment and what “normal” will look like after this is over. Your customers may be short with you, and angry from the start. You’re probably going to want to respond defensively. Pro-tip: Start by asking how you can help, and then listen to what your customers are saying. The biggest part of good customer service (and, actually, marketing) is just giving someone a space to be heard. Once you allow them to experience their emotions, you can move on to the rational work of identifying things you can really do to help them.
Be flexible with your regular terms and conditions
Everyone is going to want a refund right now. Yes, you may have every right to enforce those harsh “no refund” policies, but your brand will be better served if you can come up with a way to be flexible. Giving people partial refunds, rain checks, or the ability to reschedule can go a long way toward making a bad situation better for everyone. Smart businesses are making concessions where they can, including airlines, sporting events and concerts, and even public transit. Many subscription services are pausing memberships until their utilities are back open, such as gyms, movie theaters, and even coworking spaces. Obviously, not everyone can give refunds, and there’s a good chance your clients won’t care to hear why you can’t. But be upfront about it and answer their requests in the best way you can, rather than burying your head in the sand.
Communicate clearly and regularly
Be direct, concise, and clear in your communications. State exactly what is going on with your business and, more importantly, what that means for your consumers. How many emails have you received from restaurants this week that started with a long and sprawling prose poem about how sad they are about the state of the world today, but never got to the point of whether they were going to be offering delivery or curbside pickup? Update your Google Business hours; send a statement to the local news; put a post up on Facebook or Twitter. If you have a brick-and-mortar store, post a sign on your door that says exactly what you’re offering given the current situation.
Pause your scheduled social media and display ads
Whether it’s a regularly scheduled ad you’ve had running for six weeks or a post that you wrote a month ago that appears to be ignoring the current crisis, seeing those posts in a social media feed or between YouTube videos can be incredibly jarring for your audience. What people need is help and comfort, not a sales pitch, and not a reminder of the way things were just a week ago. The tone of everything you put out should also be reverent and thoughtful rather than jubilant or overtly humorous. If you don’t have a clear social media communication plan that is 200% helpful for your customers during this time, pause all posts and wait. Also, edit your ads to match current cultural sentiments, or, better yet, pause them until the crisis is really over.
Don’t take advantage of peoples’ fear
Now is not the time to run a “coronavirus special”. It’s also not the time to overcharge for items that people need or are worried will run out. If you have extra face masks or toilet paper, don’t sell them to the public; donate them to a place that needs them. If you run a grocery store or box store, impose limits on the number of items people can buy to reduce panic buying. If you are price gouging or selling “cures” that aren’t verified, even as a joke or unintentionally, people will ask the authorities to step in and stop you, which is the very worst sort of public relations crisis you can be in.
Extend kindness and understanding to your employees
Our social news feeds are full of overworked employees spilling the tea on how poorly their companies are treating them right now. Paid time off for illness, work from home policies, and help with finding unemployment benefits are no longer an option; they are the very least we expect from companies that are leading the charge. Your employees should be your champions, even if you have to lay them off during this time. Companies that are showing their employees no empathy or kindness cannot hide this fact anymore, thanks to social media. And the public is definitely keeping track of which companies are doing the right thing.
Humanize and sympathize
What the world needs now is organizations that are willing to help, not organizations that are looking to make a buck. By putting your bottom line on the back burner during a crisis, you can generate more goodwill (and earned media) in your community than you could ever earn by pinching pennies and lashing out. Before your company does anything right now, make sure every member of your team first agrees that it’s going to be helpful to the community in some way. Everything else can wait.
When you make a mistake, apologize and change course
People will remember brands who changed course, like Target eventually did, as being brands that listen to their customers. And the mark of any successful brand is that it listens, especially in times of crisis.
Most of this advice is part of any good marketing strategy and communications plan, especially when it comes to crisis communications. And if you didn’t have a crisis communications plan in place before, you’re probably having to make one up now, fast. If you need help with crisis communications, or with communicating your brand’s response to COVID-19, please get in touch. We are happy to provide guidance, free of charge.