Hey Corona.

The third in our series of Coronavirus messaging articles examines how COVID-19 is impacting businesses and business thinking.

Aviators, Police and Fossil

I do this Control the Controllables thing. A gentle prayer that I share with anyone unfortunate enough to be trapped in a room with me and my sunglasses story. 

A long and winding run up with (though I say so myself) an ever so elegant leap to the elegant conclusion that sometimes, in business, in life, of course there are things we have zero influence over.

And there are also things we have absolute control over.

And when there are things that we have genuine control over, in the context of what HNW does for people, things like messaging, tone of voice, value propositions, the writing we use to communicate value. It behoves us all to take that control and make it work for us – and for you – as best we can.

Control the Controllables


Because beyond them there’s a whole world of possibility threatening to screw us over.

Stuff, wittingly or unwittingly conspiring against us, and that we have no influence over at all. 

Things we can do absolutely nothing about.

How apt.


So… we need to protect ourselves, to insulate ourselves, to safeguard our businesses.

To do everything in our power to take full advantage of things we do have power over.

Because controlling the controllables helps us mitigate threat as much as we possibly can. It can help soften the blows.

We owe it to ourselves. To our families. To our businesses. 

Control the controllables. Not because you can. But because it’s the sensible thing to do.

Controllables like your conversations, your health, your humanity, your education, your critical thinking, your questioning, your discipline, the company you keep, the secrets too, the way you interact with and treat other people, the care you take, the temper you lose.

Governments are,  for better or worse, trying to control the message to protect the public, as Andrew finds here. So you should control your messaging to protect your business. 

Life Will be Better

Control the controllables. Life will be better for it.

Your marketing too. 

Shhhhh… Don’t Tell Anyone

As counter intuitive as it may sound, now, in the eye of the Covid-19 storm, is the ideal time to sharpen your marketing axe. To hone the singularly most influential contribution to your business success – your messaging.

And there’s evidence to prove it.

Advertising in a Bad Economy is Good, says the article. And in the article they go on to back that argument up with a study conducted by McGraw-Hill Research of U.S. recessions from 1980-1985. 

Of 600 business-to-business companies analysed, the ones who continued to advertise during the 1981-1982 recession hit a 256% growth by 1985 over their competitors that eliminated or decreased spending.

Good luck if you can find the original report anywhere. Despite it being cited by a bunch of people I ended up having to take a more academic route.

In A Critical Review and Synthesis of Research on Advertising in a Recession Gerard J. Tellis and Kethan Tellis tell us that:

“Most firms adjust their behaviour in response to recessions by cutting back on advertising, decreasing price promotions, and increasing non-price promotions such as features and displays.” 

Why? Because sales and investment are likely to be lower than in an expansion period. And they might slow abruptly.

Veteran VC Bill Gurley of Benchmark shares a quote on how funding can suddenly disappear. “Risk on happens slowly. Risk off happens overnight.” (Thanks for the heads up Musically).

Fair enough. A natural enough reaction perhaps. Slash spending. Cut prices. Add extras.

“If the firm were advertising optimally during the prior expansion then the optimal level of advertising may well be lower in the subsequent recession because sales are lower.”

But it’s not the whole story. 

According to the research, ”The most compelling reason to increase advertising during a recession is that most firms tend to cut back on advertising during a recession.”

“This behaviour reduces noise and increases the effectiveness of advertising of any single firm that advertises. Thus, the firm that increases advertising in this environment can enjoy higher sales and market share. When the economy expands, all firms tend to increase advertising. At that point, no firm gains much. However, the gains of the firms that maintained or increased advertising during a recession persist. This theory is also the most reasonable explanation for all the empirical effects of GDP on advertising and of advertising on sales, market share, and profitability. It is also a simple but strong refutation of the theory for cutting back on advertising during a recession.”

In short – if everyone else is taking a step back, you’re left at the font. So, if possible, don’t stop advertising. Keepinvesting in your copy, your communications. 

In fact… do more. 

But shhhhhh don’t tell anyone. If everyone did it, no one would gain.

And do it smarter too. 

As Christian Shea at MarketingProfs says, “Instead of trying to fight the futile battle of finding yesterday’s budget, marketing professionals need to become smarter with what they have.”

And don’t necessarily just market more of the same, as Ben finds by looking at what other brands are doing (or not doing). The world’s changed and maybe the way you add value has changed too.

Maybe you need to reconfigure it as well as to re-articulate it. Your new expression of value may be even more useful, more valuable today than it was before the craziness kicked in. 

Sharing a New Value

Daniel Priestley and his team over at Dent are big on Maximum Value. And they’re absolutely right when they say that the valuable problems you solved yesterday might well be very different to the valuable problems that you can solve today – so maybe your pitch, your promise, needs to be updated to reflect this new reality. And it’s perfectly possible your new problem solving might solve bigger, more valuable problems than you were solving before.

It’s an opportunity. Pivoting around a newly defined maximum value.

Don’t drop prices. Don’t overextend capacity. Do define new ways of solving problems and articulating that usefulness, that value. Your value proposition.

It’s interesting – with many businesses starting down the barrel the ability of any organisation to retool their value proposition so that it might land more successfully and help navigate them to a place of safety is a great skill to work on. Adaptation and survival are even more valuable than yesterday’s bullish smash it out of the park, high growth proposition. 

And with the business world and their aunt in high freakout mode, desperate for answers, a lot of businesses suddenly find themselves busy doing exactly that.

A fresh value proposition. Fresh copythinking.

And that’s what we mean by messaging.

Precedented Times 

Plus ça change and all that.

Here are a couple of ads that show how brands in the past have pivoted the value of the products they promote. Their value proposition.

What might have been a relaxing treat turned into a cure for Spanish Flu 

What might have got you off to sleep at night is now a tonic during and after the grots.

Soap turns into a lifesaver.

Interesting huh? Just a little twist and the value of the whole value proposition has shifted in a more relevant, more useful and doubtless more profitable direction in the context of the commercial challenge.

As Ben mentioned earlier, following these examples isn’t a good idea in 2020, but they should get you thinking – what value can you add in these troubled times? And how can you best express that value?

To Best Way Successfully Navigate the Times Ahead?

The best way to define your maximum value, to present it in the most valuable way to you and your customers?

The best way to grow your business?

Well here’s a start. 

You find the best writers and writing strategists – the best messengers, you can get your hands on. 

Control that controllable.

If you’re looking to control your marketing without an up-front cost, we’ve made our ebook Writing Digital Content available for free here.

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.

Governments around the world, from Wuhan to Wisconsin are engaged in a large-scale experiment in messaging. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Get the message right, and the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic will be lessened. Get it wrong, and thousands of people will die unnecessarily.

As messaging experts, we’re fascinated by the approaches taken around the world. And the lessons which all of us – especially those who need to quickly and efficiently relay information – should be learning. 

Confusion is Dangerous

We’ve already seen the effects of unclear messaging here in the United Kingdom. Half-hearted advice from the government about “trying to avoid social venues” led to the Prime Minister’s own father appearing on TV to explain that he’d be going to the pub to try and catch the virus and “get it over with.”

A quick rethink saw glib phrases like “squash the sombrero” and “Get Covid Done” replaced with a far more serious, straight-forward tone. And the message became a fair amount clearer. But by then, infection rates had grown exponentially, leading to the lockdown that we find ourselves in today.

“Strongly advised to refrain from” isn’t the same as “DON’T.”

The latest round of messaging still manages to be unclear. The first weekend in April saw a huge push of new messages across social media, but instead of simply stating instructions to concerned citizens, the government decided instead on vague sporting metaphors supported by what appears to be someone opening an internal door in their own home.

Is going to the bathroom letting the side down now?

“Follow the rules on social distancing” relies entirely on the reader knowing what those rules actually are.

The public have shown that they’re willing to do what it takes to protect each other from Coronavirus. But the instructions need to be much clearer and useful.

What You Say Matters

This complete lack of clarity from central government has been even more pronounced in the United States.

While the UK authorities may not have been serious enough about their messaging to begin with, American president Donald Trump has pursued a completely disconnected communications strategy. It’s one that’s left his audience unsure if there is a risk at all:

24/2: “The Coronavirus is very much under control.”
26/2: “Within a couple of days [the number of US cases] will be down to close to zero.”
6/3: “We’re doing a tremendous job at keeping it down.”
10/3: “It will go away.”
13/3: The US Government Declares a State of Emergency
17:3: “I felt [Coronavirus] was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”

President Trump, with unclear messaging on whether or not an emergency is developing.

Just like in the UK, unclear messaging and light-hearted language led to huge numbers of people underestimating the risk posed by the pandemic. Britons kept flocking to pubs, parks and markets, while a large percentage of Americans claimed that Coronavirus was merely “Fake News.”

Can even a great public information campaign change the thinking of people who’ve seen the highest authority in the land shrug and say this isn’t a big deal?

The Lesson: In an emergency, your messaging should be clear from the start, with a serious, calm tone. Downplaying risks may protect you in the short term, but in the long run it will merely lead to larger problems.

Examples Provide Clarity

A core part of the global strategy to stop the spread of the Coronavirus is “social distancing.”

But this presents a clear and obvious problem.

What on earth is social distancing?

This piece of jargon seems simple enough once you know what it means (you distance yourself from people, socially). But it’s quickly become conflated with self-isolation (where you avoid ALL public areas for 7-14 days). 

Further complicating this is how distant you need to be from another person. The UK government is currently stating “two metres,” which again seems clear. Until you realise that the vast majority of the British population think in feet and inches.

Social media has attempted to illustrate how large that is, using TV personality Richard Osman. At 6’ 7.5”, Osman is the perfect measurement of distance to use (as, coincidentally, is Andrew Nattan of this very agency). But very few people have met him (or Andrew) in person, so it’s hard to visualise. 

In Toronto, Ontario, the local authorities have found a perfect example to use as an illustration. In a country where most of the population has played ice hockey, they use a hockey stick as a unit of distance.

Canadians can immediately visualise how far away someone would need to be to tap them with an outstretched hockey stick. So it’s easy for them to keep that distance away.

The Lesson: Clear examples make your instructions easier to follow. Aim for something that’s universally understood.

The Stakes Matter

The UK government’s overall messaging strategy – stay home, protect the NHS, save lives – has been clear and mostly followed by a public that realises we’re all in the middle of an unprecedented crisis. 

Stay home is a clear instruction which leaves no room for misunderstanding. Protect the NHS appeals to the country’s affection for a beloved institution. And save lives is a clear benefit that makes the reader feel heroic. 

The stakes have been raised – this is a matter of life and death – and people are paying attention.

But there’s one other messaging strategy we’ve seen which takes this one step further. It doesn’t cast the reader as a hero. Instead, it portrays a very real way that they could become the villain of the piece.

Where saving lives and protecting the NHS is a noble aspiration, unintentionally becoming a murderer is the sort of situation we find it even harder to ignore. 

Instead of a call to heroism for the people who’ll happily follow instructions that are clear enough, Oregon’s state government is aiming at those who won’t act without the fear of penalty. And in this case, that penalty is death. For up to five people that the reader knows. Parents, children, loved ones.

The video ad is also a masterpiece of sound design

It’s a high-risk strategy for a government communication. One which could stoke the fears of an already scared population. But it’s one that could pay off in the form of more people following the social distancing rules.

The Lesson: As with any message, the benefits are crucial. Whether the potential reward is heroism, or just avoiding villany, people need to know why they’re being instructed to act in a certain way.

So How do Governments Fix Messaging?

As the COVID-19 pandemic develops, so too will the messaging strategies used by governments, businesses and public health organisations. If you spot a particularly good – or bad – piece of messaging, share it with us on social media.

And please – if you’re responsible for messaging in an emergency situation – remember:

Be clear and consistent.

Use simple real-world examples.

Explain why you need people to do what you’re asking.

It could just save lives.

In the next blog in our series on Coronavirus marketing, Ben asks whether your business should be adapting its messaging during this time.

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