Let’s Talk About Ethical Marketing: COVID-19 Edition
I can’t think of a better time to start a discussion about ethical marketing. A subject that affects the work of many marketers, PR workers, advertisers and digital creators — ethical marketing is, in my eyes, the line drawn between moral and immoral advertising to consumers. It’s the difference between encouraging positive behaviours in your customers and taking advantage of them. It’s a blurry barricade between promoting good and promoting bad, and it can all lie in just a few short words being broadcast to a nation. With the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic currently setting some of the biggest trends in marketing history, I wanted to start a discussion about the most ethical way to market your products and services in a time of global crisis and fear.
For many brands and marketers such as myself, it can be difficult knowing just how to talk about the coronavirus and it’s effects on our society. In some ways, it feels wrong to post anything that isn’t related to the virus, as if you’re shouting into a void that doesn’t want to listen. Who wants to hear about luxury skincare products, handmade earrings and branding services when half of the world is collapsing under the strain of an unstoppable virus? This is where the debate begins, with one side arguing for the continuation of pseudo-normality and enjoying the comfort of traditional marketing, with the other struggling to even process anything that isn’t virus-related. So how do brands and marketers tackle this issue? How do they cope with this ever-present demand for reassurance that life will carry on as normal when even the marketers themselves don’t know the answers.
Don’t ignore the issue
One of the most frustrating things a consumer can face when encountering a marketing campaign is ignorance. Readers and digital audiences are virtually intolerant to fake or selectively blind statements from brands who seemingly haven’t noticed the current situation of society. They will disregard it or even turn against it, finding fault with the lack of comment made on such a big and omnipresent topic, and will ultimately lose faith in the brand as a whole.
So don’t ignore what’s happening. Make your comment or your statement — once, twice or as many times as you need to. Let your customers know about the procedures you’ve put in place to keep your employees safe and protected. Inform them of any changes or adjustments made to normal services. Share statements of support for the key workers in this time, or advice to those who might be struggling. Use the platform your brand has to offer positivity and care, even if just highlighting your awareness of the seriousness of the situation. As so many businesses have done in the past few weeks, take some time out of your normally scheduled programming to discuss the impact of the COVID-19, even if just in one solitary social media post. Don’t bury your head in the sand, but tackle the elephant in the room instead.
Listen to your audience
As a marketer, it’s important to listen to the feedback your target audience is giving you — even if they aren’t giving it to you directly. Carve out some time to perform some competitor research, and see what other brands are doing with their socials, paying particular attention to how their consumers are responding. Are their posts regarding COVID-19 performing better than their standard marketing efforts? How are they making use of the most common hashtags right now? Is the user response typically negative or positive to their typical promotional posts — compared to the same or similar posts made two months ago for example?
It might be worth actually asking your customers and audience for their thoughts on the topic as well. If you have a particularly engaged community supporting your business, why not share a poll or a survey asking them what they believe is the right marketing approach to take and use their feedback accordingly. As previously touched on, some people do find consistency comforting in these uncertain times and they might enjoy seeing some familiar content in their feeds for a change, and it’s a good idea to take this into consideration.
Don’t mourn for your previously scheduled content
If, for example, you’ve already scheduled your next month’s worth of content and you’re now faced with scrapping it all to fit to the new COVID-19 marketing standards — don’t waste time mourning your hard work. I know just how frustrating it can be to commit so much time to a social schedule, only for a new trend to intervene and replace your existing efforts. But before you trash your pre-made posts, take some time to sort through them and pick out any that could be rescheduled, postponed or recycled for later months. It’s crucial to remember that the lockdown and quarantine won’t last forever, and we need to keep planning ahead for when normality eventually returns.
Save your old work, move it to a draft and make a note in your calendar to re-evaluate these posts at some point in the future. Whether you’ve been planning a big email campaign, a new advertising strategy or a social media feed — it will still be relevant in a month’s time, so don’t spend too long grieving for the work that never was.
Pay attention to your existing messaging
One of the most common errors brands are making right now is disregarding their existing messaging. With the new measures set in place by the government, we’re all suddenly more aware of lockdowns, personal space, social distancing, COVID-19 and self-isolation than we ever have been and so if you’re next marketing campaign falls into the category of ‘get closer’, ‘share with friends’, ‘be more social’ or ‘get outside’ then it might need a bit of a re-think.
This doesn’t necessarily require you to redesign your entire brand and company vision, however, it could be worth making any adjustments where you can. For some businesses, this might mean simply changing their social media bios or adding an amend onto the end of some well-used marketing copy regarding personal space. For others, this could mean sending out a formal email campaign with an official statement, adding a news pop up onto your website or even recording a personal message illustrating that your brand message DOES NOT apply in the current situation. It might seem obvious, but brands and businesses do have a responsibility to reliably inform and educate their customers, particularly during frightening situations such as this one.
Be respectful with your new content
So you’ve successfully re-worded your messaging, and your audience has confirmed that they would like to find out how your business is coping with the coronavirus. Now is your chance to be creative, but respectful with the new content you create. It might feel easy to come up with something light-hearted or meme-esque about the situation, focusing on the jokes, humour and laughs to be had from the situation, and this is definitely a viable way to create engaging content. But it’s important to remember that while the virus might not be affecting you personally, it will be affecting your customers. Their friends, family and loved ones could be suffering or even dying from illness and the numbers of deaths per day from COVID-19 are only getting bigger. We can always find light in dark situations, but as a brand, you have to be sensitive about who your messaging might impact.
You never know who your content could be consumed by. You never know who could be hurt by it, offended by it or upset by it so keep it respectful and supportive until the situation passes.
Don’t blatantly attempt to monetise it
Your business is just that — a business. It needs profit to survive, and you have employees to fund and bills to pay. As a business owner or marketer, you need money and unfortunately, there’s no way of escaping that. However, if you use your social strategy in an attempt to profit from a global pandemic…you might have crossed the line into unethical marketing. This could fall under the bracket of creating new products specifically targeting those panicking or fearing the virus (yes Brewdog Hand Sanitiser, I’m looking at you), overcharging customers for essential items or falsely advertising products that can ‘protect’ customers from COVID-19.
By taking advantage of your customers, you immediately threaten the trust they have with your brand and your business. Whilst it’s understandable that work must go on during the crisis, there are kinder ways of allowing business to go on without negatively impacting your audience.
Accept that it’s going to feel weird
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had to use the word ‘coronavirus’ or ‘COVID-19’ as a keyword in my SEO more times than I can count. It feels weird, and it will continue to feel weird until the pandemic is long forgotten. It feels strange and wrong to use the very word that has thrown the world into chaos as part of a digital marketing strategy, as a lure for potential readers online. But in many cases, it is necessary. If you’re sharing important information about your company, business or products that relate to the virus, it’s ok to use that term as a high-level keyphrase. It’s ok to let your users know that you’re talking about it, as everyone is, and that you’re sharing this content for good informative reasons.
It’s not going to feel normal to seemingly optimize a phrase that seems unavoidable in the current media climate. But we can adapt to it, and we can utilise it to share the information we need to.
The reason I wanted to share this blog post wasn’t to reprimand anyone, or to pass judgement, but to inspire kinder and more considerate marketing during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s all unfamiliar territory for marketers, and we’re dealing with a new way of living and working that is totally out of our comfort zone. It’s ok to feel nervous, to make mistakes and to re-evaluate your content for the future. I support each and every business trying to make their marketing work right now and if you need any help figuring out your next move, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.