I’m not much of a crier. Last week I had a breakdown.
I couldn’t stop thinking of all the lives this pandemic has affected—and cut short.
I know I’m not alone here. All over the world right now, people are struggling. Many are laid off and can’t make rent. Some might lose houses. Others are fighting to breathe.
And it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
This is not a time for business as usual. As brands, as marketers, we can’t just sell, sell, sell. Sure, we can try… but there’s no audience for it. There’s no need for it. Too many people and businesses are trying to get their basic needs met—everything else can wait for the future.
So, how can brands respond in times of crisis like these? With compassion marketing.
Marketing in the Time of Coronavirus
Currently, brands have four basic options for how to respond to the coronavirus. How they respond exposes the underlying ethics behind those brands and the people who drive them. Brands can:
- Continue unchanged. Makers of many household staples like paper towels, batteries, and cereals still fill a vital need in people’s lives. Their product and their marketing may continue as usual.
- Limit marketing. Brands like Purell and Lysol may limit advertising as their product becomes more necessary—their product remains the same, but their marketing may diminish or disappear to avoid profiteering.
- Change marketing. Many brands will change their marketing messaging to better fit people’s needs during the crisis. This is where things get very tricky.
- Pivot operations. Some companies are stepping up by changing their products, pricing, or approach entirely.
The first two options on the list make sense as they are. Aside from taking new precautions to limit exposure and spread, these companies can and should continue as usual. They still provide necessities, and so long as they don’t alter their marketing to capitalize on a public health disaster, they’ll be okay.
Let’s take a close look at the second two options—and how they fit into this idea of compassion marketing.
How Brands Are Changing Operations for COVID-19
First, let’s look at how some organizations have changed their operations or approach entirely.
3M, Ford, GM, and Tesla are gearing up for and producing much-needed PPE for hospitals. Dyson invented and plans to deliver a new ventilator. Tito’s Vodka and Annheuser-Busch are making hand sanitizer. Clothing companies like Nike and Gap are making and donating medical wear.
These companies—and countless others like them—are stepping up in a time of need. They know that people’s lives and livelihoods are on the line. Their first goal is to keep their customers safe. Rather than chasing profits, they’re making the world a better place.
That is precisely what people need right now.
Other companies aren’t so compassionate. New phone scams have popped up. People are hoarding resources to profit on the secondary market. Pharmaceutical giant Gilead is attempting to monopolize a potential treatment for COVID-19, and some factories and providers are price gouging medical supplies. Landlords and property management companies are threatening to evict their newly-unemployed tenants. This is not compassionate marketing—this is actively harmful to the public good in the name of maintaining profits.
Nowhere is the divide between brand approaches starker than between Hobby Lobby and JoAnn’s Fabrics. Hobby Lobby was strategically trying to find ways to profit from the pandemic. JoAnn’s is donating fabric so that people can create medical PPE. Same crafty industry, but JoAnn’s Fabric clearly has stronger moral fiber.
Yes, the announcements from these brands is good PR. It’s good advertising. It will probably pay for itself down the road, in a marketing sense.
But more importantly, these compassionate brands are stepping up to address a global health crisis. In the short term, they are saving lives, preventing illness and death, and taking care of people. They know that we are stronger when we work together.
That is what the world needs right now.
But what if your company can’t pivot its operations to create something that helps in the fight against COVID-19?
Marketing and Messaging During COVID-19
Like many others, I’ve been having a difficult time coping with the immediate and long-term implications of the coronavirus. According to one article, this discomfort is grief. I’m very inclined to agree.
In my personal life, I’ve found a few ways to ground myself. I cook more, work with my hands, and try to help somebody in some way every day. I allow myself more time for creative projects. I forgive myself for not doing more.
But professionally, things are different. I work in marketing. The things I market may or may not help people at this time. I can’t just stop doing my job because the world has changed—but I can look at it differently.
Brands also face this dilemma. Some have opted to change marketing to address how they help people and brands. Some have found new ways to position themselves, suggesting a new urgency or necessity for their product or service. This new messaging might be accurate… or it might be opportunistic.
For example, Ongoing Operations has countless years of experience in developing business continuity plans for credit unions. During this time, their business model and pricing remain unchanged, but their messaging has shifted slightly. In the last couple of weeks, they’ve produced mountains of content to help credit unions understand how to weather this pandemic.
Their marketing has changed to ensure that credit unions have a credible, experienced resource that addresses their immediate needs? How can CUs safely move operations to remote work? What should they do if an employee tests positive?
Other brands have suggested how their product, service, or platform might assist people in these times. This must be handled carefully. The brand risks using COVID-19 as clickbait—adding to the noise without adding to the solution. Changing marketing is okay if the primary intent of the messaging is to assist, educate, inform, or help in some way. However, if the primary goal is to exploit COVID-19 to create a new market for existing products and services, then we get into profiteering territory.
So, what’s working, and what isn’t?
Marketing with Compassion
This is a time when the credit union industry spirit of people helping people must truly shine. We’re not the ones out there saving lives, but we can prevent the spread and support members however possible.
This is a dark time in the world. People are watching their businesses go under while others suffer in hospital beds. As brands, we must ask ourselves:
Which is more important: people’s lives or profit margins? Is there anything we can do? How can we make people’s lives safer, better, and more livable and this time? Can you donate time or money? Can you suspend fees, interest, or payments? Can you make the world a better place?
People will know your brand by its actions as well as its products and services.
If you want to tell your brand’s story well, do it by proving your value. Now is not the time to sell. Now is the time to help your fellow humans. Now is the time to make the world a better place.
Think of your compassion as your best marketing tool going forward. Right now, most people don’t need new things—they just need to stay safe and stay afloat.
As brands—as marketers—we must keep that in mind. We can go to business as usual when it’s all over. For now, and more than ever, people come first.
We’ll continue to share news, blogs, and updates through this time. And we’ll do our best to keep it relevant.
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And on a personal note, please, stay home, stay safe, and let’s all do what we can to help each other get through this.