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Staying Sane: The right messaging to survive COVID-19

Times like these. More than ever. Home. Family. Here for you. We may be apart, but we can stay connected. We'll get through this together. These are all words and phrases that have bombarded media space since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. A universal brand message of solidarity, accompanied by somber piano music and B-roll footage of empty public spaces. ‘Microsoft Sam’ on YouTube edited a video of mostly US Covid-19 ads that all use the same tropes in response to the pandemic, to portray this:

“When a company or brand releases a coronavirus response ad, they might tell you that we're living in 'uncertain times', but that 'we're here for you'. They may say their top priority is 'people' and 'families' by bringing their services to the 'comfort and safety of your home'. And don't forget: 'we're all in this together'! “What's the deal? In reality, many companies have found themselves short on cash, almost overnight. They needed to get a message out - and quick. They asked their teams to throw something together. Since they can't film a new ad because of social distancing, they compiled old stock B-roll footage and found the most inoffensive royalty-free piano track they could find. This, combined with a decade of marketing trends dictated by focus groups and design-by-committee, released a tsunami of derivative, cliché ads all within a week of one another. It's not a conspiracy - but perhaps a sign that it's time for something new,” he says. Brands are making some tough calls in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, an open-ended calamity that has no obvious parallel for the advertising world. Aside from dealing with plenty of other issues in the struggling economy, they need to be responsive, and overwhelmed, stressed-out consumers will for a long time remember how those companies made them feel in this moment. “Trends over the past few years have pointed to a more sensitive, thoughtful consumer. The COVID crisis, with the emotional and economic uncertainty it brings, has only exacerbated people’s sensitivity to being sold. Brands who choose to react in superficial ways need to understand the risk. People can easily identify the companies who are exploiting the current situation, and this can have a long-lasting, negative effect on your brand,” says Ben Gaston, Co-Founder at Open Oceans Marketing. According to a survey from Advertiser Perceptions, nearly half of advertisers have either pulled a campaign or delayed the launch of a campaign because of the novel coronavirus. A third say they ultimately cancelled a campaign pre-launch. Consumers, particularly younger ones, have increasingly been looking to companies to be moral leaders that reflect their values. That sentiment appears to be, if anything, amplified during the outbreak. In a new report from communications firm Edelman, based on interviews with 12,000 people in several countries, 71% of respondents said that if during this time “they perceive that a brand is putting profit over people, they will lose trust in that brand forever” and 77% said, “they want brands only to speak about products in ways that show they are aware of the crisis and the impact on people’s lives.” Acknowledging the pandemic in a way that resonates can be as easy as explaining why business is going ahead despite things going sideways, like this ad from Boden:

But it’s also easy to put people off. Some companies responded by mocking up new versions of their logos. McDonald’s in Brazil split up the golden arches. Volkswagen put space between the V and the W. The efforts were not universally lauded. These messages may help people remember that isolating themselves is crucial to stunting the spread of COVID-19, but they also run the risk of looking like a very short PR stunt.

Humour should also be avoided. Making jokes is a dicey way for companies to meet the moment unless the context provides a can’t miss opportunity to poke fun at universal COVID-related experiences.

There are also those companies that are marketing products to the vast population now working out of their living rooms. When brands like Pottery Barn send emails with ads for “the perfect WFH desk,” they are, on the one hand, creating the impression that they are making the crisis more bearable with relevant products; on the other, they come across as using the outbreak as a vehicle for sales. It’s tricky when people’s circumstances vary so widely, and what might be offending for one consumer might be just the right message for another consumer.

“What we’re telling our clients right now is that the safest way for their brand to respond to the crisis is to mitigate it. Communicating to your audience how you are responding to the crisis, and why it should matter to them can set you apart from your competitors. And, that’s not to say you should be bragging about your good deeds, but you want to show authenticity. Failing to acknowledge that there is a crisis, and taking the ‘business as usual’ approach is bound to affect brand loyalty.” Gaston says.

Big hospitality groups are making rooms available to house and quarantine healthcare workers, and the government is paying. Embattled cruise companies have offered up ships as makeshift hospitals, a growing list of companies are promising not to lay off employees or to provide paid leave, and banks are deferring mortgage payments. The Edelman report backs up this advice: respondents roundly supported the idea of companies offering free or low-priced products to healthcare workers or people whose jobs have been affected, as well as doing whatever they can to protect their employees and suppliers, even if it means substantial financial losses until the pandemic ends. And while advertising budgets are being slashed, and there are no obvious messaging guidelines for every brand, those companies that can’t afford to do anything but send consumers an email that says “we’re in this together” are, perhaps, better off saying nothing at all.


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