The Changing Face of Marketing in the Time of COVID-19

5 min read

The world as we know it has been permanently changed by an invisible virus. The novel coronavirus has taken away our loved ones and driven the rest of us inside our homes to protect healthcare systems already pushed to maximum capacity. Business, especially in the service and tourism industry, has ground to a halt and—despite the federal and local stimulus packages—many will not be able to reopen.

Small business owners, including we at Well Done Marketing, are faced with dual tasks. How to protect our employees and our businesses right now and how to plan effectively for the long term. Since it is our company’s livelihood, I’ve been paying considerable attention to advising our clients on how and when to market themselves.

Before I continue, it’s important for you to know a little bit more about my philosophy on the marketing and communications industry. While some of my peers may disagree, I believe marketing is the umbrella under which falls advertising, public relations, digital strategies, social media, etc. Generally speaking, anything that is aimed at creating some kind of reaction with an external audience is marketing in my playbook. But there’s an art to using the right mix at the right time. Some strategies are better suited to the moment than others.

Keep marketing the things that matter.

Given that, I don’t think there is any reason for a company that can spend on marketing to stop spending money on other marketing strategies besides advertising during the coronavirus pandemic.

Now is a good time for brands—especially B2B—to remind their partners, vendors, customers, and sales prospects that they are still in business—but more importantly what they stand for.

Keep in mind, the marketing plan that you budgeted for in Q4 may not be the right plan for the times. It is a time to share our collective humanity. Give voice to how your business is contributing to the community, volunteering to help others, or lifting up your employees.

It’s not just what you talk about. It’s how you say it.

While a survey conducted for reported that 92% of consumers thought businesses should continue advertising, I don’t agree that is the best use of marketing dollars for most businesses. As quickly as things change during the health crisis, ads that seemed inspired when they were conceived can be tone deaf once they hit the airwaves.

Example #1: Many large brands came out of the gate with what were then considered clever ways to demonstrate social distancing. McDonald’s separated its iconic arches in Brazil. Mastercard, Coca-Cola, Audi, and others presented similar logo treatments. In today’s somber environment, the stunts fell flat.

Example #2: As attention turned to the hazards healthcare workers and essential employees faced in doing their jobs, other brands had to be reminded that their actions speak louder—and faster—than their advertising messages. Amazon’s commercial, the tone-deaf “Thank You Amazon Heroes,” was universally panned as a slick diversion from the company’s lack of social distancing and paid sick leave at the time.

Use marketing to make meaningful connections.

In times like this, marketing that reaffirms your relationship with your community and your employee culture is most likely to resonate. Find ways to focus on community building. Watch out for others. Participate in community-building campaigns. Reaffirm your mission. Give away ideas for free. Make donations.

Chances are your customers as well as your employees are looking for ways to make a difference and help others in their neighborhoods and cities. The good news is, these marketing strategies don’t cost a lot and they give your marketing teams a sense of purpose during a pandemic that makes little sense to anyone. Plus, doing the right things without worrying about getting noticed is actually what will get you noticed.

For instance, Walmart is rewarding hourly workers with a cash bonus in addition to their Q1 bonus for coming to work during a national health crisis. In order to support the lifeblood of their business, Yelp is providing $25 million in deferred advertising fees, free advertising, and more to new clients as well as current ones.

It’s okay to share your good deeds, particularly with key stakeholders such as employees, vendors, and loyal customers. Use or add a regular e-newsletter to your toolkit to share not only what you are doing but also ways others can contribute. Since more people are spending more time online, double down on organic social media. Share your stories with the news media—and be sure to share others’ stories as well.

The pandemic will change future marketing too.

One thing is certain. You won’t be remembered at all if you do nothing now.

According to an Edelman Trust Barometer Special Coronavirus Report, 65% say how brands respond to the pandemic will have a “huge impact” on their likelihood of buying a brand’s products.

Re-opening the economy will take time. People may be skittish to go back to life as normal. Some of the pandemic-driven marketing trends—a resurgence of webinars, online concerts supported by digital advertising, and a rise in virtual press conferences—may last long after there is a COVID vaccine.

This new marketing normal still requires an understanding of your audiences and their habits. Brands will continue to align marketing with their business goals, even if those goals have changed. What remains to be seen is if companies are willing to buy a season’s worth of advertising or put an entire campaign in the can six months in advance. If the pandemic has taught businesses anything, it is we need to be prepared to pivot quickly.