Marketing in the Age of Coronavirus: The Dos and (Many) Don’ts

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Thinking about using the coronavirus as an angle to push shoppers to buy your beauty products or natural hand sanitizer? What about repositioning apparel as “WFH style” or insisting there’s no better time to invest in luxury pajamas or blasting out images of Chrissy Teigen in self-quarantine, just to make sure everyone knows what brand her robe is and where they can buy it? Maybe just reminding people that they can get all the fashion they want online and delivered while they’re stuck at home?

For the sake of consumers now going through unprecedented global events started by a true pandemic, not to mention the future reputation of the brand you operate or represent, don’t do it. And stop doing it if you’re among the scores of brands already essentially crop-dusting shoppers, editors and the public at large with product promotions, dubious claims and all of the things we can and should be buying online “while social distancing.”

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“When people and companies start capitalizing on an opportunity like this, for the at-home shopper, it reeks of opportunism and strikes the wrong tone,” said Ellen Niven, who’s worked for many years in branding communications and cofounded the firm NivenBreen. “People know they can shop online.”

Yes, retailers and brands across the beauty, wellness and fashion space are facing widespread store closures and sales declines that are only expected to worsen, at least in the short term. But marketing experts agree that using the mass attention on COVID-19, or the coronavirus, as a marketing hook is, at best, unseemly. At worst it will actually harm a brand — even one with years of good marketing practices behind it.

“People looking right now for real information, like what do I do if I get sick, not well, since I’m working from home I should buy new pajamas,” Niven added. “Pushing that is dead wrong.”

“It is OK for many companies to just be quiet right now and emphasize communication with employees, and individual, directly affected customers rather than mass outreach,” she said.

The sheer number of brands e-mailing, often repeatedly, is also working against every one that’s decided to do so. Inboxes are flooded with a mix of messages. Some are even signed by company chief executive officers and leadership, trying to seem empathetic, typically in bland, unaffecting terms. Some try to do that while mentioning how important it is to keep supporting business at a time like this (i.e. shop and spend money). Ultimately, it’s very likely for naught. Not least given that millions of people are already facing layoffs and an economic recession, at least in the U.S., is almost a certainty at this point.

“It does start to feel not genuine, and like [they’re] taking advantage of the situation,” said Cecilia Gates, ceo of Gates Creative, a creative agency. “It’s a time to step back. Everyone obviously is scared of what this is going to do to the economy, and consumers are holding purse strings tight right now, but we have to ride out these next few weeks and then take stock.”

According to Gates, social selling is a better idea than push marketing for the time being, and getting creative on social media is likely the best way for brands to stay engaged with their communities and potentially generate sales.

“I don’t think you can do any push marketing right now,” Gates said. “As people are trying to stay connected, it’s all through social channels. That’s a way brands can still get out there, but in a more genuine way.” Gates added that with budgets suddenly limited by coronavirus shutdowns, social marketing is going to become even more important.

Niven agreed that social media is the best bet for brands and companies to stay in touch with consumers and fans. Still, she does not recommend the blatant calls to shop and buy that have been rife over the last week or so. The same week companies and political leaders the world over told employees — those that could anyway — to work from home. Companies and people in service industries meanwhile, are taking stock of how likely their business is to survive at all.

“Social media is a place where people and designers can be more personal,” Niven said. “A meaningful, personal message can lift spirits, for example Pierpaolo Piccioli standing strong for Italy. Personal connections are better at these times than corporate speak, which almost always reads as commercial.”

Piccioli, the Italian creative director of Valentino, posted to Instagram a week ago an image of himself at home in Nettuno, Italy, surrounded by his sketch materials. His personal caption reads: “Home. This country has overcome the toughest moments with pride, creativity and optimism. And so it will, once again. There is a time for moving and a time for staying still. Even at home our imagination can lead us anywhere. Such a serious situation will not stop us from dreaming. Our will is strong, our duty is to resist and we will keep on dreaming, harder than ever and we will rise stronger than ever.”

He did not mention fashion, Valentino, or even the coronavirus by name, nor did he say what anyone should be doing during a time that no one knows quite how to deal with. It’s been liked many thousands of more times than his typical posts, which tend to be focused on Valentino designs and related events.

“Marketing is about understanding the consumer mind-set,” Gates added, noting that when people are anxious it doesn’t give them confidence to purchase.

Vic Drabicky, founder and ceo of strategy and branding agency January Digital, admitted that the coronavirus puts brands and companies in a difficult spot. They do need to keep in touch with consumers, to a degree. Unfortunately, there is “absolutely no one right way, but there are hundreds of wrong ways” to do it.

One good rule of thumb: “Always err on the side of humanity.”

“Far too often, we think our businesses are far more important than they actually are,” Drabicky said. “While our respective businesses do play an important role in some of our lives, they typically aren’t that important to greater humanity. If your first thought is about the broader picture, that sentiment will trickle down and ensure your brand is acting appropriately.”

Still, people deal with stress and anxiety in different ways. Retail therapy is as real as comfort eating. There are people, right now, buying non-essentials online, maybe even paying $450 for pajamas, as suggested by British Vogue last week.

“For some, splurging on a non-essential purchase provides a much-needed break from the stress and anxiety they feel,” Drabicky said. “So while non-essential purchases might not be the most important thing, they still play a role in many people’s lives.”

“[It’s not] a bad thing for brands to send tips and tricks for how to use their products,” Gates said, “or ‘if you’re stuck at home, use a hair mask.’ But it’d be great if they’d be like, ‘here’s how you make your own hair mask ‘… so it’s not just like, ‘buy this product.'”

But make no mistake, a coronavirus-themed anything is not the way to go. “If you are running a ‘Coronavirus Sale,'” Drabicky said, “you are doing it wrong.”

Even the growing numbers of brands sending out e-mails for ways to “pass the time,” with their brand or not, walk a fine line between helpful and profiteering.

An example of the former is Great Jones, an online-only shop of branded cookery. The brand last week posted to Instagram that it was extending the hours of a program it started last year: a text hotline, “Potline,” for recipes and cooking advice. Again, the company did not mention the coronavirus, push its product or offer a discount code. And again, the post received thousands of likes compared to the more typical few hundred its posts get.

On the other end seems to be WelleCo, the beauty supplement company cofounded by model Elle Macpherson. For the last week — as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases soars in the West — the company has done nothing but promote on social and in e-mails its Super Elixir, leading with the product’s purported “immune support” and “complex benefits.” A 300 g sachet of which costs $80. In an e-mail sent as “A note from Elle,” Macpherson is quoted saying: “In a time like this, we begin to appreciate more than ever the importance of our health and well-being… As a trusted friend and formulator of WelleCo’s Super Elixir Greens, Dr. Simone Laubscher helped create our Super Booster Immune System Support with Kakadu Plum to help boost our system to stimulate a healthy immune response.” The note goes on to promote and explain the purported benefits of both products, in the context of warding off illness, but without mentioning coronavirus by name.

There are scores of brands doing things similar to WelleCo and all are running the risk of turning off consumers, possibly for good.

“Typically, people aren’t upset with brands pitching products in general,” Drabicky said. “But the second a brand crosses the invisible barrier by marketing themselves to trying to take advantage of a situation, it’s very hard to turn back.”

Consumers can have a long memory, too.

“We tend to remember the strongest link between two things and to forget details,” said Erik Gordon, professor of marketing and business at the University of Michigan. “If a brand links itself to the pandemic, that link may lead to an unconscious aversion to the brand, even if the details of the link are that the brand claimed it was doing something positive.”

Beauty and wellness brands have been all over the map in terms of their marketing strategies in the past week alone. There was LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton’s decision to scrap luxury perfume production and make hand sanitizer — seen as a good call all around and one subsequently followed by L’Oréal and Coty. But there is also Los Angeles-based The Crème Shop, which last week promoted free N95 Face Masks with purchase of a sheet mask. The company later said it would also donate masks to hospitals.

Also on the questionable end, a brand called Save(urpretty)face pitched editors a cell phone filter with “antimicrobial silver ions that keep your iPhone screen germ-free.” And skin-care brand Recess sent out a public relations pitch patting itself on the back for not price gouging Bacteria Fighting Face Wipes, which contain benzalkonium chloride — something the brand claims can kill the flu virus, which experts contend may not be as effective as alcohol. The Centers for Disease Control recommends hand washing and hand sanitizing products contain at least 60 percent alcohol to be effective.

The Recess brand pitch read: “While the big companies are price gouging, we want you to have what you need to take care of yourself and your family so we are cutting the price of our Bacteria Fighting Wipes for the duration of this public health issue (while supplies last).” The price on the face wipes was lowered from $26 to $20.

Gordon noted that certain claims could be dangerous and illegal, especially if they claim to stop the spread of viruses without evidence. Some companies have already been officially warned for making such claims.

The Federal Trade Commission and Food & Drug Administration on March 9 issued warning letters to seven companies that were allegedly selling products that made deceptive or unfounded claims about treating COVID-19: Vital Silver; Quinessence Aromatherapy Ltd.; N-ergetics; GuruNanda LLCl; Vivify Holistic Clinical; Herbal Amy LLC, and The Jim Bakker Show.

If a purely human approach and taking a step back from promotion doesn’t seem right for a brand, what kind of marketing can work in a situation that’s new for everyone and could go on for several weeks if not months?

Some fashion brands and designers are already shifting production to medical face masks and soon hospital gowns, while other companies like Alibaba, Apple, Nike, The Estée Lauder Cos., Facebook and many Italian fashion brands are donating millions of dollars and millions of masks and other medical supplies needed by hospital workers facing a critical shortage. While these efforts are not being pitched explicitly as marketing, doing something with a humanitarian bent certainly can create a positive halo effect for a brand. Facebook, having dealt with little but bad press for more than two years over its mishandling of user data, has even created a grant program for small businesses forced to close over coronavirus measures and the company said more efforts are in the works. For better or worse, companies are presented with an opportunity to generate a positive message and feeling around their business, if the moves strike consumers as genuine and not generated by self-interest.

Gates said that asking consumers directly what they want to see from a brand is fair game. It’s a tactic that has so far been taken up by Rebecca Minkoff and Curie, the indie natural deodorant brand. On Monday, Minkoff made an Instagram post asking followers to let her know the best way for “the brand” to communicate. At Curie, the brand scrapped its social media calendar and asked customers what they wanted to see on social media. “They want some entertainment and distraction. There’s enough corona content,” said founder Sarah Moret.

Some p.r. firms took a similar approach, including NisonCo, and Juliette Levy PR, which both sent notes to editors acknowledging the widespread shift in circumstances and soliciting feedback on how editors would prefer to work for the time being.

That type of empathetic approach is something Gates recommends.

Successful brands will “take into account what the mind-set is and what everyone’s feeling,” Gates said. “The brands that act like nothing has happened and continue to move forward — people won’t connect with that brand.”

Drabicky suggested brands can keep messaging around what they are doing, specifically, to help customers and their employees. Like extended return windows, increased online customer service (aiding both workers and consumers) and possibly even a promotion where a decent percentage of purchases go directly to furloughed store workers.

“Something that shows you truly care about something greater than just your business — that resonates with consumers,” Drabicky said.

For Niven, who’s advising a number of brands right now, she said there can also be “an emphasis on looking forward” for brands in their messaging and outreach. That does not mean discount codes for mid-May, when social distancing mandates may be lifted, or other “end of coronavirus”-themed pushes. Rather, simple positive messages around events or happenings that are being rescheduled.

“The phrase we’re using a lot is ‘prudent but positive,’ Niven said. “People want to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

For More, See:

Crisis Management Amid COVID-19: What Must Be Done

How People Editor in Chief Produces the U.S.’ Biggest Weekly Magazine From Home

Chinese Fashion Industry Leaders Offer Advice to Get Through Lockdown

WATCH: Can Fashion Influencers Be Sustainable?

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