Marketing Through the Coronavirus Pandemic
March 18, 2020
Is it just me, but do marketing messages feel out of step with our current reality?
United States Secretary of the Treasury Steven Menuhin is projecting up to 20% unemployment. Stocks are falling along with interest rates. Experts project several months of sheltering in place with a possible rebound in the fall. Average Americans are worried about their jobs and extended family.
But on TV last night I saw that my bank is open late and filled with happy people.... not practicing social distancing. A major Italian restaurant chain has new entrees and unlimited breadsticks.... if you dare go in to pick them up. There is a new shampoo that locks in essential oils...if you don't mind picking up a virus on your way to the store. And this pandemic is entirely under control....despite all news reports. I'm being a bit melodramatic and extreme, but you get the point. Marketing messages that were persuasive yesterday will no longer be effective when the context within which those messages are interpreted changes.
So how do marketers adjust our messaging to help people through the pandemic?
First, we need to reconsider the role our product or service plays in the lives of the consumer. What is the prevailing relationship structure between you and the consumer? Is your company acting in a way that is consistent with that relationship? Generic messages regarding we are "here for you in this time of uncertainty" is very reassuring from my primary care physician, but seem way out of place from a retailer or vacation destination. If you are the friend/expert where I turn for advice when buying insurance, there was never a better time than now to provide that advice.
Next, we need to understand the personal paradoxes our customers are trying to negotiate, and how products and services act as a solution or compromise to those opposing forces. In this environment, two paradoxes that rise to the top of my list are:
- The fight against mortality while we try and achieve immortality
- The quest for security in an insecure world
Most of what we purchase and do are part of the battle to attain lasting immortality. We spend a tremendous amount of time and energy on staying healthy and looking younger. Now we shelter in place and as parents suppress the instinct to wrap our children in bubble wrap so that they are protected from any rogue virus vapor.
We negotiate security and insecurity by buying insurance, keeping our money in a bank, and protecting our family with doorbells that video strangers. Today we do that by hoarding toilet paper, Advil, and any other supplies that may disappear from store shelves.
So what do you do as a marketer? An excellent place to start is to review messages and related images in the context of the current environment. Look at search data to see what consumers are searching for as it relates to your business. For example, in the insurance industry, trending searches include coronavirus and disability insurance, life insurance, and business interruption insurance. (as an aside don't be surprised by a drop in organic search activity in general as shown in the table below).
Review all messages for consistency with the current environment. Pull TV commercials that show people dancing, eating at a restaurant, or shaking hands. Look for opportunities to tastefully replace these messages with communications that reduce anxiety, improve personal security, and promote the struggle for immortality.
Insurance companies and financial services companies, in particular, have an unprecedented opportunity to change how they market. Is your life insurance company not only solvent but willing to help you achieve even higher levels of security by reviewing your financial plan in light of a potential recession or depression? Can your bank step in and provide some mortgage relief? Is your veterinarian providing the latest information on the possibility that pets can contract Covid-19?
Look for opportunities to be heroic. How great would it be for a cable company to open up all blocked channels, so people have something to watch this weekend? Should cell phone providers give students unlimited data as they attempt to connect to schools?
To be clear, I'm not advocating that companies exploit a terrible circumstance. What I am suggesting is that those companies that step up and help the consumer manage through these times but will be building their brand and customer relationships.