What role does marketing your brand play in a time of crisis?
It’s tough out there for marketers. In a “challenging and unprecedented” world, how do you capture the hearts and minds of consumers, while at the same time show sensitivity to a global crisis? And how can marketing continue to meet the demands of generating sales and revenue needed to keep your business afloat?
This is a tough job — unfortunately, marketers have all started to use the same playbook. A pattern I began to notice while self-isolating in Canada, where I’ve been subjected to daily repetitive messaging over prime time ad slots:
In times like these
We’re in this together
Putting our employees and customers first
Safety and peace of mind
So you can take care of yourself
And take care of others
Thank you first responders
Together we can get through this
Suddenly brands are tongue tied. No matter what product is being pitched, every ad seems to have a coronavirus twist. Scenes recut to show pizza prepared without human contact and food handed from drive thru windows with gloves on. Slow motion footage of families spending time together at home. Free delivery as an added incentive to entice you to enjoy what you’ve purchased without leaving the safety of your house. Each ad break bookended with vehicle manufacturers all reassuring us of how safety and security have always been their top priority.
Some brands have even taken one step further, combining their message of protection with their pledge to donate to local healthcare charities to buy essential supplies. Masks and PPE are the new currency to convince consumers your brand has a heart.
As we all battle one common foe, brands want to show us they are by our side. They want to tell us that they care. They are focusing their advertising dollars to point out the valuable role they play in keeping us safe. Marketing in a pandemic attempts to touch us emotionally — while reassuring that employees will keep a distance and avoid touching us physically.
There’s a practical reason behind this sudden wash of empathy. No one wants to be sold to during a pandemic. It doesn’t look good to have ads placed next to daily stories of people dying in care homes. There’s no lucrative sports or event sponsorships when all the fun seems to have been cancelled for the foreseeable future. And while retail has been forced to shut down, and each week millions more North Americans file for unemployment, what’s the point in trying to sell products to people anyways?
To keep their business at the front of our minds, and use their committed marketing spend wisely, brands have turned to social responsibility.
Corona Social Responsibility
Like CSR, which companies have tried so hard to shift away from over the past decade, Corona Social Responsibility is a fresh new way for companies to maintain their image and increase consumer confidence — by making a public declaration that they care about what its happening in society, mitigate any fear that their operations are not being taken care of, and try to demonstrate they have a critical role in our lives and communities.
Having advised corporations for over a decade on how to shift away from CSR, I spot this regression instantly. Companies that are maturing to actually be more socially responsible make changes throughout their entire business and value chain. They act through purpose and their culture to create a truly sustainable business that operates in the interest of all stakeholders.
CSR at its lowest level of maturity is used by business to maintain corporate image. Public displays of philanthropy are a means of looking good through an act of charity — rather than serving society meaningfully via how your business works.
With only one cause on our minds at the moment, the brands practicing Corona Social Responsibility have found themselves communicating the same content, using the same messaging, in the same tone of voice. From burgers to Buicks, there’s only one message and one way to say it: stay safe, stay home, and buy our stuff.
Big box retailer Canadian Tire has launched a campaign that tries to reinforce the importance of family. They are also using using airtime to launch the $5 million pledged to support healthcare and community workers, the majority of which is going towards the supply of personal protective equipment. They are doing it “not because we are Canadian Tire — but because we are Canadian”.
National pride is a cheap marketing ploy at the best of times. But using pride along with a pandemic to restore your image is just lazy. Earlier in the year Canadian Tire was criticised for selling masks and other protective gear at premium prices while hospitals in their communities were facing reduced supply. Is their intention behind their giving truly altruistic — or is it a strategy to rebuild their corporate image?
Other brands have rushed forward to play their part. British craft beer makers Brewdog chose to devote its PR to the cause by making hand sanitizer to do “everything they could to help” the coronavirus crisis. Having never made hand sanitizer before, what they initially produced wasn’t quite to the standard required for local hospitals. Some might say this was the brand putting purpose before profit — I sense just another case of Corona Social Responsibility. Brewdog’s manifesto claims the brand exists to redefine British beer drinking culture. If they wanted to act through their purpose, what better time to bring joy to Brits in lockdown through a collective passion of friendship and the love of craft beer. There’s a learning here — don’t throw what you stand for out the window as an attempt to demonstrate your relevance.
Giving to critical causes feels important. Spending money on ads and PR telling people that you’ve made a contribution to society feels cheap. The money spent advertising a brand’s donation would be better used buying the supplies themselves, or at this time of mass unemployment, investing in their own people. So what should a business do if it really cares?
Reconnecting to purpose
Now is a time for brands to come back to what they stand for. To reconnect to why they exist and use their purpose as a North Star to guide them through this storm (and the next). To build the confidence to take them through the inevitable continued uncertainty of operating as a 21st century business.
This is an opportunity for leaders to use purpose to bring teams with them to face new challenges. Reconnecting allows everyone to build new meaning into the business, and energizes teams to see the role they play in solving real problems for people. Using purpose as a guide, teams are able to see opportunities for where the business might shift to be of even greater value to the communities they serve today and into the future.
Giving masks, ventilators and hand sanitizer isn’t corporate purpose. It isn’t essential for every business to make or donate medical equipment right now — even those that have transferrable skills or resources are being told it isn’t necessary (Dyson’s donated ventilators have been turned down by the UK government as they are no longer required) . Purpose isn’t a way for a brand to suddenly realise it is of use to society. Our purpose is a constant reminder that we are always in service to others. So no matter what we produce, we do so to fulfil a need for our community. Reconnecting to purpose gives us a steer towards how, at any time, we can direct our business to be of value.
IKEA’s current campaign invites us to “conquer the great indoors”
“Life at home has never felt more important than it does right now. But it also comes with some fresh new challenges. Whether it’s dealing with new colleagues that bark or cry, or finding distractions around every corner, IKEA are here to help you find freedom in your new habitat.”
This aligns with their purpose of “creating a better every day life for the many people”. IKEA’s marketing has always inspired us with a new way of making our homes comfortable and functional spaces to live and work. For IKEA, marketing is just one of the ways they act in service of their purpose — sharing tips and exciting ways to transform home, regardless of if we buy their wares. While they are also currently donating product to the Red Cross to support families in need, they are doing this behind the scenes and not as a way to rebuild consumer trust. Their marketing is purposeful — their donations are a choice they make that reflect their values.
With clarity on our North Star, every brand can see how at this time (and any time into the future) they can authentically be of value to their community.
Brands in a time of crisis
Acting through purpose and values brings us back to what is most meaningful and how we are in service to our community. It’s time for brands to stop promoting themselves and instead use their communication as an extension of their service.
This doesn’t mean that every brand needs to offer public service announcements telling us to stay home and wash our hands. Our governments and healthcare providers have taken on this responsibility. There are many other ways that your brand can be of value to your community today:
Connect us to something meaningful
Show gratitude for the things your stakeholder community cares most about now
Tell stories that matter
Bring us back to your vision and the world you want to see emerge from where we are today — and tell real, human stories from your brand’s perspective that shares a new point of view
Capture our imagination, don’t fight for our attention
Focus on how you inspire others rather than using click bait to manipulate people to take notice
Create an unexpected experience
In a virtual world, event marketing takes on an added challenge with new opportunities to connect to a wider audience. Do the unexpected and give us something to talk about
Be generous with your time and energy
Give something valuable through your marketing rather than using it just as a platform to drive revenue
Let us buy in to you, not buy from you
Meaningful, inspiring experiences are more likely to make us want to continue a relationship with a brand than transactional communication. Focusing on building trust and connection with others sets the foundation for a loyal gang of customers to weather this storm and the inevitable next one to follow.
Each of these approaches are indicators of a purposeful brand stepping forward while avoiding the trap of Corona Social Responsibility. What might you do differently in how you build relationships today that will help you come through our current challenges stronger than ever before?