COVID-19 Marketing: Goodwill Marketing is the Current Brand Marketing

We’re all scrambling to adapt to a new world, one that’s turned upside down. Marketing has changed in the interim, and perhaps permanently. As with anything, some companies adapt quickly, while others find it more challenging to pivot. We can look to those doing a superb job right now to take lessons and help us adapt our own strategies and plans. 

For some companies, it’s business as usual in some ways. But at the same time, it’s not at all business as usual at all. 

Crisis marketing has evolved to include goodwill marketing. There are delicate nuances marketers should consider and apply to their messaging.

Priorities change

Suddenly, things that mattered a lot, now matter little. The vacation we’d been planning on this summer may have gone up in smoke, but that’s of little consequence when what matters most is staying healthy. 

Everyone’s movements are a lot more restricted. Even stepping outside has to be absolutely essential. If you’re still working, commuting to the office to work — unless you’re an essential worker — is no longer part of the day. Standard operating procedures have radically changed. 

Restaurants that have pivoted to a takeout model, or grocery stores that limit consumers and require social distancing. Everyday errands are put off or take more time, and are tinged with a dystopian feel, given masks we need to wear and precautions we need to take. 

Well-being over profit

Even with the tone-deaf promotions we still receive from some brands, it’s heartening to see other brands rise up as efficient and empathetic leaders in communication and public service. 

They’re role models in retaining their customer base, and in some cases attracting more customers through their goodwill and proactiveness in taking care of their people — and beyond. 

British Airways (BA) immediately comes to mind, furloughing 30,000 of their employees with pay. The travel industry has ground to a halt, but BA will not have temporary layoffs like some companies in Europe have done. Unlike US airlines with billions in bailout, European governments have none for their airlines. Virgin Atlantic owner Richard Branson will invest $250 million into Virgin Group companies to protect jobs. 

Brands also announced closing their stores to discourage shoppers from venturing outside their homes, supporting community health and safety. Apple, Under Armour, and Urban Outfitters are among many brands that closed stores but continue to pay their employees. 

Compassion and honesty

Compassion and honesty are also the new standards. From the Harvard Business Review: “People will remember brands for their acts of good in a time of crisis, particularly if done with true heart and generosity.”

It may not be possible for your company/brand to manufacture ventilators or create personal protective equipment (PPE) at scale, or at all. That’s OK. But champion those who are, and craft messaging that is acutely aware of our world, and the fear so many people are experiencing. Read the room. 

Panda Express has Panda Cares and its Community Care Fund, donating $2 million for PPEs in local hospitals in southern California. Millions are being committed to COVID-19 research and response from brands like Nike, Walmart, and the Gates Foundation. The Four Seasons are giving free rooms to doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals and personnel. 

Facebook has a $100 million program for small businesses impacted by COVID-19. 

These giants and their millions aside, you’ve probably heard of local businesses doing their part, donating free meals and drinks to frontliners. They may not be in the news, but you can bet people are taking notice. Local neighborhoods also have Facebook groups where businesses can post about calls for donation or volunteers. 

This is a time for community, and your community will notice which brands and businesses answered the call without cringe-inducing, obvious motives, like free subscriptions that don’t differ from free trials with payment at the end. 

Offer real help and support, not products. 

Consistent relevance 

Baltimore’s Hotel Revival has turned their first floor bar into a donation and distribution center to support the Baltimore Service Industry Fund and the Baltimore Restaurant Relief Group. 

Kroger updated their store hours across the country especially for sanitation and for elderly/vulnerable shoppers. 

News about the coronavirus are free online on The New Yorker

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian bought billboards in Times Square to post information about COVID-19. In the same vein, Guinness posted a message of longevity and well-being instead of the usual celebrations and pub gatherings for St. Patrick’s Day. 

You need relevance and creativity in how you position your brand on the side of the good, by actively taking part and/or sending out relevant messages. Stress the guidelines we’ve been asked to adopt, like social distancing and staying home. 

Stress “feel-good” content. Lots of people need a break from the world. Give them some levity, when you can. A prime example: Amazon made kids’ shows free on Prime Video. Pun intended. Flipboard is also curating all the virtual tours and live streams you can take. 

This is the time to overcommunicate, but do it right

Do your research like usual. 

In addition to reading the room, also monitor what’s going on inside of it. Continue tracking customer/user behavior to gain insights about your audience in real time. 

It may not be possible to build a dashboard to measure sentiment and consumption trends (that would be ideal), but you can survey your customers to get their feedback, or invite them to share their stories. If you already have brand advocates, you could start there first. Do a temperature check; don’t just make assumptions. 

And don’t forget to plan for when we are on the other side of this, because we eventually will be. 

Be visible. Be vocal. 

Our inboxes have been blowing up with notices on how the brands that matter most to us are responding to the crisis. It’s important to keep the lines of communication going. Don’t rely on just one statement to be your response. Stay in touch with people. 

Email and post on social media more frequently than before. As for the latter, social media algorithms streamline feeds: people won’t see all your posts, and if you post once a day, you won’t be visible at all. 

Get comfortable with straddling the line between helpful and promotional. It’s part of instilling confidence in customers, which is important in this time of so much uncertainty. Telling your customer base that you’re taking control of what you can — like Crate&Barrel, Macy’s, Target and other big stores do when they tell customers about their health and safety guidelines — means a lot. 

Subtlety works, too. 

If your brand matches a voice of subtlety, you can use subtext in your messaging, so long as you are acknowledging the new reality we live in. 

You might have seen Peet’s Coffee’s ad about coffee shipped to your door within 24 hours of roasting. No mention of COVID-19, but the subtext of getting great coffee right at home is there. 

Crisis marketing is goodwill marketing when you lead with empathy 

Can you help? There’s a time when you can talk business, and a time when you should definitely shut up. The most tone-deaf marketing messaging flying around are travel promotions. 

Times of crisis are when your goals are no longer on the board. It’s not about you, unless it is: for example, if you happen to manufacture sanitizing wipes. 

What can your brand address, to truly help? Because that’s what you should offer. It doesn’t even have to be heroic. Look at Peet’s posting about their 30% discount for new subscriptions to their coffee delivery. Coffee delivery is a bigger deal these days before, it helps the brand stay relevant, and there’s a good chance they’re attracting new customers while they’re at it. 

Right now, it’s about humility and helpfulness during crises larger than business, larger than us and our goals. It’s about building and participating in the community. 

Dan Baird

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