Marketing During a Pandemic: How Coronavirus Has Changed Everything


By Assemble

April 20, 2020

Recessions are not so much ‘slowdowns’ as they are ‘intense crucibles of opportunity’.” – Bain & Company

More people are wearing masks in public.  Employees are working from home. Many have lost their jobs.  Sadly, the number of people infected and deaths have become our reality.  The coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has impacted our health and changed our daily routine.  It’s raised anxiety levels for everyone and it’s easy to think about just shutting down and waiting until it passes.

Marketing During a Pandemic: Key Findings

  • Companies that re-focus their marketing during times of crises – rather than cut back – dramatically outperform their competitors

  • Everyone’s world has changed and so have our priorities.  Your marketing must evolve to align with what people are dealing with right now

  • It’s time to pivot your business to think and plan for the recovery 

Humans are survivors.  We know that the health effects will diminish as medicine catches up to the novel coronavirus.  Left behind, though, will be an economic impact with far-reaching results. During this time, many companies have stopped their marketing altogether.  Others have scaled back. The pandemic may cut as much as $3 billion from advertising and marketing budgets in 2020.

You may be tempted to join them.  Let me explain why you should fight these tendencies and continue to market during a pandemic.

Business Marketing Strategies During the Coronavirus Pandemic (COVID-19)

In the housing crisis that pushed the country into a recession, ad spending declined by 13%.  As some businesses pulled back, others pushed forward and increased their marketing effort.

This may be one of the reasons why.  A survey done by Yankelovich and Harris Interactive revealed what people think about companies that continue marketing in a recession.

  • 86% report a more positive attitude about company commitment to services and products

  • 86% report improved Top of Mind awareness

With less marketing by competitors, the companies that continued to market stood out.  When the crisis ended, companies that continued to market showed the biggest increases.

The same results have been documented during recessions in the 1920s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.  Companies that cut back on marketing in a recession saw diminished sales and profitability. After the crisis ended, these businesses continued to suffer negative effects. 

Marketing During a Recession: Outperform Your Competitors

For the businesses that maintained or increased their marketing efforts, it’s been a different story.  Downturn marketing helped them grow.

A study done by ABP/Meldrum & Fewsmith tracked company performance during and after the 1974-1975 recession.  Businesses that did not cut marketing saw higher sales and net income during the recession than those that cut their ad spending.  Those continuing to advertise also saw a significant increase in the two years after the recession ended.  

Another study by MarketSense looking at marketing in a recession during the 1989-1991 downturn reported similar results.  Here are just a few of the companies that ramped up their advertising during the crisis and reported strong sales growth during and after:

  • Coors Light:  15% increase

  • Bud Light:  16% increase

  • Taco Bell:  40% increase

  • JIF Peanut Butter:  50% increase

  • Pizza Hut:  61% increase

  • Kraft Salad Dressing:  70% increase

While Taco Bell and Pizza dramatically grew revenue, McDonald’s opted to cut back on marketing in a recession.  Same-store sales for the Golden Arches dropped 28%. McDonald’s learned its lesson. It continued to advertise during subsequent downturns, including during this year’s coronavirus pandemic.

Studies in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s produced similar stories.  Added together, they tell a compelling argument for maintaining or increasing marketing efforts:  Companies that were aggressive marketers during crisis times and economic downturns saw sales that were two and a half times higher than their competitors.

Another study published in the Harvard Business Review of post-recession companies showed that 70% of those that made gain during the recession sustained those gains.  Of the companies that lost market share during economic downturns, less than a third were ever able to regain it.

Control the Conversation

It’s also important that you continue to control the conversation when marketing in a recession or marketing during a pandemic.  If you don’t, you may be forgotten. Brands that stop marketing and sending positive brand messages are seeing significant drops in brand sentiment right now.  Since the coronavirus pandemic started, brands that stopped their marketing and advertising saw their brand sentiment – positive attributes towards their brand – dropped by an average of 7 percent, according to Engagement Labs.

Do some online market research to determine what people are saying about your brand (or not).

How You Evolve your Coronavirus Marketing Mix

During times of uncertainty, you must evolve your business marketing strategies to speak to customers with empathy.  Your marketing during a pandemic needs to reflect the tone of what people are feeling. Too many companies continue to run creative that is hurting their brand.  

The best advice we can give is to focus your marketing efforts on these key items:

  1. How customers’ lives are impacted by COVID-19. What can we do to help them during this time?

  2. How customer’s priorities have changed during the coronavirus pandemic. What can we do to adapt our marketing to reflect these priorities?

  3. How the pandemic impacts our offers for our services or products. How can we communicate these changes to our offers?

“During these unprecedented times, it has never been more important for brands to be producing conscious and socially empathetic marketing content,” said Nicole Levings, US Director at Agency TK. “If done correctly, the right marketing strategy plan can harness a sense of unity between a business and its consumer like never before.”

Pay Attention to the Details

It’s also important to pay attention to the details when marketing during a pandemic.  For example, if you’re incorporating people in your ad, make sure they are practicing social distancing.

Online market research by Morning Consult titled “How Human Interaction in Ads Affects Purchasing Consideration” showed how these details can make a difference.

Q:  Would it be appropriate for an ad to show people shaking hands?

A:   57% said it would be inappropriate

Q: Would you be more or less likely to purchase the product or service?

A:  57% said less likely

For people hugging, 55% said it would be inappropriate and 58% said it would negatively impact their purchases.  Showing people standing less than 6 feet apart resulted in a 47% decline in purchase intent.

Attitudes like these are why Geico pulled their ads that showed multiple high-fives.  KFC is no longer “finger-lickin’ good.” 

Old Navy and Papa John’s cut all scenes showing hands – even those that were gloved.  Hershey’s ad showing a 94-year old man handing out Hershey bars to children scored exceptionally before the coronavirus hit, but his hugs were problems in the new paradigm.

This is Serious Stuff

Memes about the coronavirus may be fun to share for people looking for a break to the relentless negative news, but avoid gratuitous humor in your marketing during a pandemic.  This is serious stuff.  Attempts to lighten the situation have generally backfired for companies.

ASOS failed to market a "chain mail" mask that faced backlash.

ASOS tried to be clever and market a “chain mail” mask for festival season turned flu season, it faced backlash.  The mask obviously won’t stop coronavirus or any other germs from penetrating. It may have seemed clever six months ago, but not anymore.

Avoid falling into the trap of sending out that generic email about what you’re doing to keep people safe.  If you haven’t done it by now, it’s too late. As one sarcastic Twitter pundit wrote: “Thanks, company I booked a gig ticket through five years ago, I’m glad you’re also disinfecting your offices.”

A tweet about the relentless coronavirus marketing push.

Above all, don’t give off any signs that you are trying to profit from the situation.  Even the slightest hint of profiteering, raising prices, or a hard sell can send a bad message.

Pivot Your Business

Recovery from this new reality will happen, Levins reminds us.  

“Pivot is the key word of this pandemic!” Levins said.  “Let go of the way things have been, be open and get curious to how things could shift, whether that is a business model, a technology platform or a pricing structure. Identify what those new opportunities could be.” 

She offers these 5 thought starters as you consider how to pivot:

  1. What if you used this time to make your business more resilient than you ever imagined it could be?

  2. Take a deep look at your brand foundations and purpose. Do they match your business behavior right now?

  3. Are your company values aligned and standing strong in tough times?

  4. What if you used this time to expand your impact beyond what you ever thought was possible?

  5. What if you actually sold into the market, instead of sitting on the sidelines waiting for it all to blow over?

Take some time, and turn off your phone and remove distractions.  Involve your wider team in a discussion about what comes next. Levins says you need to be curious about the answers to these questions as you plot your pivot to the new normal:

  • What do your current clients need more of right now?

  • What are you uniquely positioned to offer, especially in today’s circumstances?

  • How can you take advantage of technology to make your offering more appealing?

  • Does your ideal client avatar need to change during this time?

  • Does your pricing structure need to change temporarily?

  • If you had an abundance of resources at your fingertips, what would you do differently during this period? How can you add elements of this into your marketing strategy plan?

  • What are different ways that you can be using social media and content creation to boost your business right now?

  • How do you want to be perceived as showing up during a time like this?

  • If you need to pause, can you pivot the experience so that you can still deliver, but in a different way?

Case Studies: Companies that Are Doing It Right, Right Now

In the last recession, Kmart pulled back on downturn marketing.  They never recovered. This is when Walmart unveiled its “price rollback” campaign.  Its market dominance grew significantly because they tapped into the essence of what people were going through and adjusted their offers.

An example of McDonald's marketing during the pandemic.

Today, some businesses are striking the right tone:

Companies are helping to spread the love. McDonald’s separated its arches to demonstrate its support for social distancing.  VW and Audi have their own versions. Coca-Cola donated portions of its marketing to organizations including Feeding America, Salvation Army, and the Red Cross.  Domino’s and Little Caesars are giving away more than a million pizzas to healthcare workers and first responders.  Lowe’s pledged $170 in relief as part of its coronavirus marketing mix and asked customers to create DIY thank-you signs for healthcare workers.

Companies are showing they understand what people are going through. GM is giving vehicle owners free OnStar crisis-assist services.  Dealers are encouraging shoppers to avoid showrooms by bringing vehicles to their homes to limit contact. To minimize fear over finances, several brand lines have introduced long-term 0% financing – for as long as 84 months.  Hyundai promises that if you lose your job or income in the next year, you can return your vehicle with no impact on your credit.

Actions speak louder than words.  Right now, these marketing messages aren’t just advertising; they are demonstrating concern and offering tangible help.

Intense Crucibles of Opportunity

Marketing works best cumulatively.  The more you are in front of people with the right message, the more likely you are to influence behavior.  Right now, it’s all about helping others. As they say, we’re all in this together. Companies that demonstrate they understand what we’re going through, how our daily lives have changed, and how they can help, can make a real difference.  These companies can also demonstrate their core values and be prepared for what comes next. 

If you stop marketing, you run the risk of others controlling your message, or of simply being forgotten.  While others pull back, the smart bet is to maintain or increase your marketing. When economic downturn comes, stay the course.

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