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Marketing to a Country in Crisis

BY Diane di Costanzo and Dan Rubin

How COVID-19 is forcing marketers to adapt their content and campaigns.

Although the coronavirus is immensely challenging, seasoned marketers can call upon the lessons learned from similar situations. Simply put, brands who continue with (potentially tone-deaf) pre-crisis messaging do so at their peril, cautions E.J. Schultz, assistant managing editor, on the Ad Age Marketer’s Brief podcast, from the episode “How Marketers are Handling COVID-19.”

There is no playbook for a disruption the size and (as yet unknown) duration of COVID-19. That said, here are four commonsense steps to help guide brands away from embarrassing gaffes and toward truly supporting their customers and communities.

1. Review Outbound Messaging

Before taking precious time to dream up new COVID-related activations, your team should vet all content that’s in flight or queued up to deploy. Schultz cites Guinness as a brand that planned to celebrate its Irish heritage on St. Patrick’s Day—which fell on one of the first days of mass shutdowns and calls for containment. He commends Guinness for its eleventh-hour “Don’t Worry, We’ll March Again” messaging—a reference to both cancelled parades and the heritage brand’s 260 years of having “seen it all.” Across the Emerald Isle, Jameson Irish Whiskey is marketing not its spirits but a program that pledges $500,000 to the Bartender Emergency Assistance Program and an additional match of every dollar donated by others, up to $100,000.

2. Put Health & Safety First

Brands can win by modeling—and rewarding—safe and healthy behaviors. Starting March 20 and through April 6, Burger King is promoting its takeout and drive-through services by giving away two free kids meals with any purchase made on the BK app. Chipotle is making its takeout meals fun, even while we’re all social distancing. “Chipotle Together” is a program that lets diners mingle with celebrities via virtual lunch parties on Zoom (a video-conferencing app). Sports and outdoor gear retailers who have closed shop doors are serving their quarantined customers with online workouts (Equinox) and advice about how to keep kids fit and active (REI). Nike is putting its money where its mouth is: On March 18, co-founder Phil Knight announced that his company is donating more than $15 million to COVID-19 response efforts.

3. Support Your Community… 

You say your name’s not Nike and you don’t have $15 million to pledge? Smaller and non-profit companies are devising meaningful ways to do good while they (secondarily) market themselves. Adobe Creative Cloud is giving away two free months of its apps and service. The Body Shop is donating 30,000 cleansing products to local shelters and senior communities throughout the U.S. and Canada. And, Travel & Leisure has aggregated a list of 12 museums that are offering free virtual tours that are both entertaining and educational.

4. … But Stay in Your Lane

Unless you work for the CDC, no one is looking to your organization to solve this crisis. Brands are well advised to avoid vague platitudes (“we’re here for you”) and, worse, initiatives that appear to capitalize on the crisis. Instead, marketers should rise to the challenge by adhering to the fundamentals that make content successful in the first place: Be customer-first and authentic, and give back to your community in whatever ways you can.  

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