Compassionate to cringeworthy, brands navigate the COVID-19 messaging minefield

For better and often for worse, marketers and brands feel compelled to weigh in on public tragedies, natural disasters and other major social upheavals – some with sincerity and some opportunistically. The coronavirus is no exception.

Inbox blowing up with coronavirus

Over the past 24 hours my inbox (and I assume yours) has blown up with coronavirus-related missives and even promotions tied to the pandemic. Many of these messages are thoughtful, some are gratuitous and some are outright crass. Some messages are intended to help or clarify and some are not-so-subtle prompts to buy or shop.

It’s appropriate and important for companies in the travel and hospitality segment, for example, to inform the public about new rules and steps they’re taking to ensure safety and hygiene, as well as any relaxed cancellation or change fee policies. I think I’ve received a version of United’s “Our response to the coronavirus outbreak” email from every airline I’ve ever flown in the past 24 hours.

“Hello paradise” email promotion

Tone-deaf promotions aplenty

In the tone-deaf category is an email I received just this morning from the resort chain Sandals. It featured the subject line “Saying Hello to Paradise Has Never Been Better.” There’s no recognition of coronavirus or the associated travel anxiety that people are feeling.

Then there’s solar products company GoSun, which sent an email with the cringeworthy pun of a subject line, “Is There a Bright Side to Coronavirus?” The body of the email wasn’t as bad as the subject line but it was wholly opportunistic and, under the guise of trying to be upbeat and thoughtful, intended to generate sales.

I’m also getting lots of ads and emails from retailers about sales. Given the general mood of seriousness and anxiety these appear awkward at best — maybe there will be a new shopping category: stress-commerce. A few retailers, including Crate & Barrel, Bed, Bath & Beyond Macy’s, have sent out messages about how they’re dealing with health and safety in their stores, and encouraging people to shop online if they’re not comfortable coming in. This straddles the line between helpful and promotional. But they’re trying to inspire confidence in consumers, which is important.

Reassuring shoppers about in-store hygiene

Mixed motives on display

Below is a Facebook ad from Peet’s Coffee, pointed out by SterlingSky’s Carrie Hill, that offers a discount on coffee subscriptions. It was presumably inspired by the new WFH imperative. There’s no mention of coronavirus, but that’s the subtext. We can debate whether it’s smart or purely opportunistic but it doesn’t come off as exploitative.

WFH promotion with coronavirus as subtext

Generosity or user acquisition?

Some tech companies are relaxing their terms of service or making tools available for free. Zoom, Webex, Loom, Salesforce, Google, Microsoft and a number of others are doing versions of this. Some of this is generous and about helping the community and some of it is about new user acquisition. It’s often difficult to tell.

Two Octobers’ Niki Mosier pointed out to me that U-Haul is offering 30 days of free self-storage for college students displaced by the coronavirus. The motives here are also likely mixed. It’s generous but intended to bring in new business, some of which will probably convert to paid accounts after 30 days. But on balance this is positive.

In a Slack group organized by ThriveHive’s David Mihm, where some of these examples were being discussed, marketers have been sharing instances of small businesses trying to capitalize on the crisis to promote themselves. One example was for a local plumbing company offering a discount on furnace checks and touchless plumbing fixtures: they’re a “GREAT way to prevent the spread of viruses in your home.”

Then there’s the barrage of PR pitches related to the virus, which have really picked up in the past few days. All manner of experts from coast to coast are standing by prepared to opine on how COVID-19 will impact anything and everything in our daily lives.

Be mindful of the message

It’s important for marketers to recognize that all advertising and marketing (and PR) right now is happening against the backdrop of the outbreak. And that must be carefully considered in thinking about promotions and messaging.

In January, MarketingLand published a piece advising brands on when to engage in or avoid conversation about public tragedies and natural disasters. We’re planning a follow-up on this next week.

About The Author

Greg Sterling is a Contributing Editor to Search Engine Land, a member of the programming team for SMX events and the VP, Market Insights at Uberall.

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