As the coronavirus crisis escalated across the western world, Digiday’s Lara O’Reilly talked with Martin Sorrell, CEO of S4 Capital, about the current climate for marketers:
“In all the conversations I have had [with business leaders], there is no long term now; it’s a total focus on the short term. All bets are off,” said Sorrell.
Sorrell’s take on how marketers are reacting to the COVID-19 crisis flies in the face of data that supports marketing through economic downturns. Historically, brands have benefited from shifting away from short-term promotion marketing toward big emotional advertising that builds consumer trust and increases a brand’s share of voice when competitors cut marketing budgets. But we are in an extraordinary crisis that is forcing marketers, brands and advertising agencies to radically rethink how they conduct business.
Opportunities, If Handled with Sensitivity
Crises offer unique opportunities for marketers, but it is easy to put your foot wrong, too. With the entire world (all audiences, in other words) on edge, emotions tend to drive perceptions and reactions. Take the wrong tone or be perceived as being exploitative, and your brand can be hammered by withering criticism. On the other hand, brands that demonstrate capability, empathy, integrity, and vulnerability (we’re all in this together), can benefit greatly. And if brands can also find ways to inspire—to deliver not just reassurance, but hope—they will be remembered after the crisis passes as entities that were helpful, not just seeking to profit.
Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist at the public relations firm Weber Shandwick, told Strategy+Business that their research has shown “85 percent of global consumers form reputational impressions about companies based on how companies react in times of crisis, thereby underscoring the importance of getting it right from the start.”
Interestingly, at a time when when stuck-at-home people are turning more and more to daily news online, social media giant Facebook is trending down in content and ad engagement, while Google Search is soaring in engagement. People crave reliable news, but seem to be turning to more trusted sites; Facebook has repeatedly blotted its copybook as a trusted news resource. Publishers including The Atlantic, Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal all report surges in new subscribers since awareness of the coronavirus crisis gained U.S. media attention in February. This is in spite of many online news publications putting their coronavirus coverage in front of their paywalls. Trust is emerging as a trend that spreads across categories and industries.
Doing Good vs. Profiteering
Some businesses appear to be taking advantage of the coronavirus crisis to do an end run around permission-based email practices. We’re all receiving emails from businesses we’ve never heard of explaining how they are acting to protect employees but continue service, or offering a service they think we might “find valuable.” How are these marketers even getting our email addresses? And what makes them believe that intrusive marketing during a crisis will put their brands in a favorable light with consumers?
In addition to openly opportunistic marketers, there are subtler incursions—brands that just want us all to know that “we are in this together.” On a grocery run during our state’s lockdown, I saw a billboard from Toyota: “We’re here for you,” it announced. Gee, that’s nice. Talk about forcing your way into people’s mindsets when they are worried about vulnerable family members, hanging onto their jobs, or being dubiously required as employees of “essential” businesses to keep putting themselves on the front lines during a pandemic.
Elsewhere, less profit-focused brands have set aside branding and marketing altogether and are just doing their best to find some way to help. Fanatics, an Easton, PA-based manufacturer of Major League Baseball uniforms, closed under Pennsylvania’s state-ordered shutdown. But the owners went to work with the region’s St. Luke’s Hospital to develop patterns for masks and gowns for hospital workers, which the company is now producing in the same polyester mesh, pinstriped fabric used to produce Nike uniforms for the N.Y. Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies. The gear will go to St. Luke’s hospitals and to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency for distribution to other in-state healthcare systems. This is basic protective wear, but still much needed in a time when desperately under-equipped medical workers are recycling masks meant for a single wearing, or purportedly improvising protective wear using trash bags.
More and more marketers are stepping into the response breach left by a slow government response to the crisis. Smile Direct Club, the D2C orthodontistry brand, has converted its large-scale 3D printing operations to help produce medical PPEs, and Dyson is developing ventilators for Britain’s National Institute of Health, to name just a few brands shifting voluntarily to assist with the crisis.
Inequity Grows in Disasters
Disasters tend to emphasize economic inequities; marketers that err on the side of privilege or worse, financial gain, will likely be lumped in with politicians and policymakers already being tarred for their focus on preserving economic advantage over human lives. As the possibility of a prolonged shutdown of the U.S. economy exacerbates the already widespread economic toll on global trading partners, people at the bottom of the economic ladder look to leaders to address the needs of low-income families and the suddenly unemployed.
The just enacted federal CARES Act is aimed at helping businesses weather the financial challenges of a few months of severe restrictions on normal business conduct, but also includes a large assistance program for everyday Americans. Right now, brands can be of greatest help by participating in preserving employment and trying to fill the needs of their customers.
Marketers must be mindful of people’s need for emotional support and avoid a too-heavy focus on selling, when many people are having to restrict spending and tighten budgets. Many of the hardest-hit in the evolving economic downturn will be younger people who only just emerged from the hardships and financial damage of the 2008-09 Recession, but everyone will pay a price for the long economic shutdown. Agencies can assist their clients in recognizing the anxious emotional climate in which they now operate, and help tailor messages that stay true to the brand’s purpose and mission, while helping to build trust among their audiences.
Second Wind is here to help agencies with advice, research and resources. Contact us with your concerns and business needs.