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Brand Messaging Evolves as Virus Crisis Worsens

Brand Messaging Evolves as Virus Crisis Worsens

In an apparent desire to stay top of mind with customers suddenly not visiting brick and mortar stores, calling to schedule appointments, or just bunkering down through the current crisis, brands jumped to send messages of reassurance. Initially, brand messaging during the COVID-19 pandemic took the form of emails about how brands, companies and businesses were safeguarding employees and customers, and trying to comply with government shutdowns and changing edicts. Many avowed to continue services, but on digital channels. Others are simply continuing their usual push messaging without mentioning the crisis at all. I was astounded at how many brands and companies thought I’d want to know what they are doing to cope (including a few businesses I’ve never heard of and had no idea they had my email address). The business world is worried about all of the brand-starved, work-from-home people suddenly on lockdown and panicking about not having their lives filled 24/7 with brand availability.

LOL. (I'll take the humor right now...)

Brand Withdrawal and a Shift in Tone

Some brands acted to immediately to withdraw current campaigns deemed inappropriate, or in the case of KFC’s UK “Finger-Lickin’ Good” campaign, “irresponsible” in the moment. Norwegian Cruise Lines was slammed across social media for running a heavy ad schedule on news programs covering cruise ships quarantined with COVID-19 outbreaks. Hershey’s pulled ads involving sharing candy bars and hugging in light of CDC advice to practice social distancing. Even Lysol, maker of disinfectant sprays and wipes, was criticized for advertising its products when supplies are widely unavailable or out-of-stock. (Microban, a Lysol competitor, has been pitching their surface sanitizing spray consistently on TV without noticeable blowback.)

Only a few weeks into the expanding crisis, we’re seeing brands tailoring their messages to assist contributors and customers. For instance, Shutterstock, one of the web’s largest image, video and music licensing sites, curated an image collection for businesses shifting from offline to digital services on the fly; offered an editorial collection for people producing online content around the crisis; and suggested guidelines for selecting licensed images to illustrate stories and sensitively customize messages.

Content sites have shifted to news feeds focused on the coronavirus’ impact on relevant industries. Emarketer has been talking about brand opportunities to boost consumer trust, and how ad spending and investment is likely to be greatly altered as the crisis continues. Adweek has a coronavirus update feed sharing how agencies and brands are facing the virus and dealing with the new normal of remote working and self-isolation. News organizations have pushed coronavirus coverage in front of pay walls to help make factual information widely available. Leading social media sites have collaborated to combat misinformation about the virus, fake cures and rumors.

I also noticed how advertising has altered in our local newspaper in just a week. Many banks are emphasizing their online and mobile service portals. Hospitals have begun pitching mobile apps for remote patient support, and the newish telemedicine apps aimed at helping patients with remote diagnosis or enabling video chat with doctors. Local counseling organizations are offering similar services so now-sheltering clients can access psychiatric and recovery staff. Retailers are steering customers to online channels and creating digital events. Of course, event ads are running with big “cancelled” notices, and businesses are beginning to explain how they may be continuing services, just not via walk-in locations.

Closed, But Open for Good

Some brands are stepping up in more valuable, altruistic ways. Many craft distilleries and breweries have converted their bottling operations to creating hand sanitizer to be donated to homeless shelters, military bases and healthcare facilities as soon as the FDA signs off. Similar actions are being taken at big perfumeries in France. Fashion designer Christian Siriano offered his staff of now-at-home seamstresses to sew reusable masks for hospitals. (They hope to start making “medical grade” masks as soon as they can acquire materials and patterns. The FDA must approve the prototypes, which will slow things down. Red tape in a crisis is not a good look.) 

Hanes and Fruit of the Loom are also shifting to making lower-grade medical masks. Swimwear company Karla Colletto closed its Virginia factory to retool, planning to shift to making PPEs (personal protective equipment) for healthcare workers. Their products will be medical grade, in cooperation with hospital supplier 3M.

Bailouts vs. Branded Support

In contrast, some brands are perceived in the U.S. as positioning to benefit from promised bailout funding. Carnival Cruise Lines trended negatively after President Trump made much of an offer to send cruise ships to port cities to serve as backup hospital spaces. Talk of Boeing seeking emergency funding likewise met with scorn, since that company’s troubles are not due to the coronavirus, but their own toxic culture. [link – 3194] State governors are upset that the President suggested they are responsible for ordering their own medical supplies as the crisis worsens, instead of having FEMA’s or Homeland Security’s help.

Meanwhile, promised masks, protective gear and ramped-up production of ventilators have yet to materialize, despite the President discussing use of the Defense Production Act, allowing a government order to manufacturers to shift to emergency production of needed products. It turns out U.S. businesses and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce lobbied him not to do so; they’re too busy coping with the impacts of supply chain disruptions and factory closings to help in the coronavirus crisis; they need “flexibility.”  So no one is working to produce desperately needed N95 respirator masks, and there still aren’t enough COVID-19 tests available to meet growing demand; even cotton swabs to take test samples are in short supply in some hospitals. Brands and companies are ready to help, but the Federal government is not providing direction or assisting businesses to fill gaps; that could lead to many more lost lives.

What can small agencies do?

As the crisis escalates, your clients will need help crafting messaging that respects the seriousness of the pandemic, and promotes trust in the business, its leadership, products and brands. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer has business as the only one of 4 groups (the others are non-government organizations, media and government) seen as competent, and even business is not deemed ethical by even one-half of global respondents. Companies should be aware that respondents weigh ethical behavior as far more important than mere competence, so businesses have work to do to build trust among all stakeholders. As in most crises, this is an opportunity to shine.

Globally, business is seen by at least half of respondents to the annual survey as best at generating value for owners; being innovation engines; and driving economic prosperity. Economic prosperity is now a nice dream for the future. What brands and businesses do in the current moment may resonate for far longer. As you and your teams shelter at home, think about how your clients can contribute something positive to local communities, customers, and other audiences. Stay in touch with clients to help them with messaging, as well as offer ideas for how they might be able to help. This crisis will pass, but only if all of us, brands included, work together.

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