You can probably guess how this will start. “Unprecedented times. Uncertain futures.” That’s what everyone’s saying in their business communications. And no wonder. It’s hard to even think about what you should be doing with your marketing, let alone actually doing it. 

There are no easy answers, especially when you think your marketing and messaging is largely irrelevant at this time. No-one wants to hear what you have to say, right? 

Of course, that’s not true. Now more than ever, customers and clients are paying more attention. They have the time to take note. They want to know what you have to say. 

But how do you deal with the huge Coronavirus cloud hovering over everyone’s heads? 

Do you accept that it will take over all your communications and ignore your own carefully crafted messaging that’s an essential part of your brand identity? 

Or do you ignore Covid-19 and simply plough on with your messaging strategy because selling is selling?

The case for: Confront the situation, head on

The vast majority of businesses have chosen to ‘pause’ their usual marketing and messaging efforts and confront the virus head on. Over the last few weeks my inbox has been flooded with hundreds of near-identical emails from brands. All of the same nature, all very logistical, all very sales-free. All using the word unprecedented, in unprecedented volumes.

They’re usually from the CEO of the business, giving an update on the procedures they have implemented or the changes they have made to the way the business operates. Most are ecommerce, so they are continuing to sell. 

The message is very much:  Coronavirus is here, it’s awful, but we’re still in business if you’d like to buy from us.

Their thinking? There isn’t an appetite for sales-focused messaging. There isn’t a demand for their products. They need to reassure everyone they’re taking things seriously. 

Their impact? Some – particularly the brands who were first to email like Hard Rock and Fossil – feel genuine and stand out. They use strong, personal messaging, that really connects. 

But then a lot just feel forced and out of necessity. That’s OK if they provide essential info. In fact, clear essential messaging is vital during times of crisis, as Andrew examines here.

If these emails are just sent for the sake of it, because every other brand is sending them, the messaging falls flat.

The case against: Heads down, continue as normal.

Then there are the brands who are operating in a ‘business as normal’ mode. Same messaging, same communications, as if there was no such thing as Coronavirus. 

The logic here is that those messages have been carefully chosen to communicate with their target audience, and life must go on. There are many ‘marketing experts’ arguing that this is the way forward for brands. 

Marketing is more essential than ever during times like this, and those businesses who stick to their original messaging will profit in the long run.

There are other benefits to sticking to your guns with your messaging: 

  1. Advertising costs have dropped dramatically so there’s scope to pick up lots of traffic for minimal investment 
  2. Inboxes are overloaded with negative news, and consumers will be getting virus-fatigue. Ignoring it is somewhat refreshing 
  3. While other brands are looking worried, dropping their prices and offering extra incentives, your confidence in sticking with your original messaging and marketing plan will speak volumes. 

The majority of TV ads are continuing in this vein, as are many other online businesses. 

Business as usual for graze… but does it seem out-of-touch?

But are they all missing a trick by not adapting their messaging? Could they communicate more effectively with their target audience if they acknowledged the virus and drew attention to how they could help? 

Or would that look like callous profiteering?

This invite to an Expo went out on March 18th, when it was clear all public events were off. 

The risks of messaging during a crisis

There’s a definite danger for brands that get their messaging wrong.  A simple misstep and they will come across as crass, unemotional and heartless. 

Talking to The Drum, Ryan Wallman – author of Delusions of Brandeur and the real life Dr. Draper – explains how brands are nervous about taking any action that could be misinterpreted as profiting from a crisis:

“The risk of a negative association is just too great. My advice is to stay the hell out of it unless you absolutely can’t.”

Ryan Wallman.

He’s got a point. Even those businesses who are genuinely trying to help can face a backlash. Brewdog said they’d be turning their efforts to producing hand sanitiser, and because they’d announced this with a slick image of branded bottles while French distiller LVMH were pumping out gallons of gel in any container they could find, Andrew immediately called them out for a terrible marketing campaign. 

Turns out they were just as genuine as LVMH. They’ve done it, but with better branding. And Andrew was forced to hold his hands up. 

The challenge lies in finding the balance.

If businesses confront the issue and change their messaging, they: 

  1. Can come across as being obvious and dis-ingenious
  2. Are just following the crowd
  3. Will get lost in the noise of near identical messaging
  4. Lose out on potential opportunities 

But if they ignore the situation and carry on in a business-as-normal mode, they:

  1. Are playing a very risky game 
  2. Can be seen as being out-of-touch
  3. Or worse, as heartless profiteers 
  4. May miss opportunities to adapt their messaging in a positive way. 

So is there a middle ground? 

Zoom have been obvious ‘beneficiaries’ of the current situation. Their stock is now worth more than every single airline in the United States. They’ve been bold enough to adapt their marketing:

Adapt and continue: Walk the middle ground

A quick 5 minute ad-break on the TV shows there could be. Three adverts – Aldi, Samsung and eHarmony. All the same adverts that have been running for several weeks. Aldi promoting an Easter to LIKE. Samsung, their new S20 phone and video capability, and eHarmony is all about dating. 

It’s comforting to see business as usual. But it’s also jarring. 

Who is thinking about a happy Easter with family they can’t be with? 

Who wants to be reminded of a summer holiday that they can’t go on by a kid jumping into a pool in slow motion? He’s socially distancing while airborne, but that pool can’t be completely sanitised, can it?

And encouraging someone who’s sat home alone, five days into a three-week solo quarantine period, to get out and get dating seems downright cruel. 

Simple tweaks to the messaging could make a huge difference:

  1. eHarmony could promote the online bit of their online dating more prominently – promoting connections and conversations over the internet. 
  2. Samsung could boast about the video capability making it clearer than ever for us to video chat with loved ones 
  3. And Aldi – well, they’re hardly in financial trouble but they could take a leaf out of Tesco’s book…

Tesco’s latest advert is focused on the new safety measures in stores, and they’ve adapted their messaging beautifully (though it was perhaps an easy tweak): “Now more than ever, every little helps”

And then there’s this brilliant adaptation by Burger King in France:

Here are two great examples of brands adapting their messaging landing in my inbox this week:

Philips Hue and their smart light bulbs shared info about how to adapt your lighting to support working from home. Timely, and something I might actually find useful. It certainly made me stop and read. 

Fossil, an international watch brand, are promoting their smart watches through activities you can do at home to keep you sane. It works because it matches their tone of voice and their brand identity and feels genuine.

So should your business adapt its messaging?

It’s the balance of acknowledging the virus but also distracting consumers and clients from it. We need to mention it, but we’re all already facing ‘Coronavirus fatigue’ with the constant, 24-hour rolling news coverage – and all the mental work that comes with it. 

Many of us have had enough doom and gloom, and we want something more positive to distract us. And a declining economy is an equally serious challenge; businesses who continue to market their products and services will help support the economy. 

To do that, they need to continue with strong powerful messaging that takes the current circumstances into consideration. 

It’s a fine line to walk, but it’s definitely possible. 

Our top tips: 

  1. Stick to your tone of voice. Any attempts to deviate from it will stick out like a sore thumb. 
  2. Be open and honest. That includes when you’re thinking about why you want to run a specific marketing campaign. If it’s solely to increase sales off the back of COVID-19 – don’t do it. 
  3. But if you have a product or service that can help people in one way or another… don’t be afraid to be bold. 

Good messaging is more important than ever, but in the same breath, not a great deal has changed. Strong, effective messaging is always important. It always will be. 

Businesses face the same challenges they always have: connecting with an audience, communicating clearly, and encouraging a response. You may have to change the focus and goal of your messaging, but you should still take the time to craft a strong message. 

No matter what the world throws at us. 

In the third and final post in this series, Martin explains what your business can do to look after itself in the coming weeks. And if you need advice on tailoring your messaging during this time? We’re here to help. 

Or if you’ve found yourself with free time during the pandemic, and you’re interested in improving your own messaging and digital marketing assets for free, you can download our ebook Writing Digital Content here.