...And What Happens When Everyone Shows Up To The Party Wearing The Same Outfit?
A month ago, I was scrambling to produce an ad for a client before Washington shut down due to the coronavirus. The client knew COVID-19 was going to cause a dramatic downturn in sales (especially on higher-end products) based on their experience during the 2008 banking meltdown. They asked me what I thought they should do.
The company was in a stable financial position and could afford to play the long game with their brand. So I wrote what I thought was an ingenious script highlighting their long time commitment to their community and their approach to "help" their neighbors through this crisis with a zero down/zero interest offer on everything they sold. The physically imposing CEO with the deep voice was to deliver the script, juxtaposed by a soft piano bed.
We had to cancel the shoot at the last minute as the CEO was called away on a family emergency. There was no one else in the company with his gravitas who could replace him before the shutdown made the logistics too tricky.
It turned out to be one of the luckier breaks of my career.
Can somebody please say something original?
It's as if Siri was listening to the entire ad industry and simultaneously spit out the same answer to the lot of us. Since the beginning of April, if you're stuck at home, you've watched an endless loop of the same two commercials from different brands in every sector of our economy. You probably don't even need me to write them out for you because you, too, have seen them so often. It's given me an excellent idea for a sequel to the movie Groundhog Day.
Commercial #1: Cue piano. Concerned male or female voice letting the audience know that Brand X feels the same pain you do, and how they are here to help you get through these challenging times. Some went further, offering a specific solution to make it easier for you to survive the uncertainty by purchasing their product. Music fades.
Commercial #2: Cue piano. A concerned male or female voice over sharing our collective gratitude to front-line workers. Stock images or old B-roll of nurses in hospital gowns, grocery store clerks, and package delivery crews, and a soft fade to the brand name and logo as the music fades.
Don't get me wrong. I'm pleased the marketing and advertising industries have helped America discover how vital health care and service sector workers are to the functioning of our society and how their value isn't reflected in their paychecks. It just hasn't been a high-water mark for creativity.
To be fair, though, creative directors at agencies across the country shouldn't be forced to commit hara-kiri because there are only so many ways to make lemonade out of this particular lemon. There's no easily recognizable enemy to rally against or to parody; no one is ready to laugh about this tragedy, and there is no readily identifiable solution.
Should Your Brand Communicate Now?
Assuming you don't own a bar, a gym, or a sports franchise, you're brand is operating at some diminished level while trying to keep the doors open. And whether your brand is a B2B or B2C, the following questions have inevitably come up.
- Should we approach communications as business as usual, or do we need to change our focus?
- If we do say something, what can we say?
- Is this a good time to stand out, or is it best to repeat the same thing everyone else is saying and live to fight another day?
First, if you own a shipping/delivery company, Zoom, Clorox, or manufacture toilet paper, feel free to beat your chest. As Mel Brooks once observed, "It's good to be the king."
If you aren't in those industries or manufacturing those products, the keys are relevancy and normalcy.
People understand a business has to make a profit. Insurance companies sell insurance. Car companies sell cars. Solar companies sell rooftop panels. Your brand isn't going to be damaged by the sheer act of offering a product on the market.
Speak to your audience when you have something to say impacting THEIR lives, not your bottom line. People are in survival mode right now. They don't care about your new technology unless it puts a protective bubble around their families. I'm not the first person to observe timing is everything, but it most definitely applies here. Unless your new product is related to solving COVID-19, downplay the features and benefits. They're mostly irrelevant to your audience anyway.
How Can Brands Take Advantage Of The Coronavirus Quarantine?
Opportunities for engagement abound. Web traffic is up across the board; social media use is through the roof; email open rates have increased. In short, people are hungry for content. It may be because they're bored, but we rarely are allowed to choose our opportunities. We only get to decide whether to take advantage of them or not.
It's a given that almost every company besides Charmin is selling less of their product. In the case of my clients, I see a surge in web traffic, just not commitments at the end of the sales funnel. What it tells me is people still want to buy--just not today. In the short term, both consumer and business expenditures are down. Sales funnels are longer and require more (virtual) touches through different channels to feed the increased appetite for content.
So while business is down, it gives you the perfect opportunity to build long-term brand equity by placing yourself in front of your audience and aligning with their values.
For example, the day Washington shut down, the client who wasn't able to shoot a commercial WAS in their customer's email inboxes, letting them know about the precautions this high-touch company would be taking to protect their clients during the pandemic. Since then, we've published a free e-book and have sent out a series of weekly emails sharing best practices and tips for people who are stuck at home and want to be productive.
Yes, we pushed the zero down/zero interest promotion, but we tied it to the length of the stay-at-home order as a way to show the community we'd be there for them until the crisis was over.
What Should Brands Say?
If you want to say something meaningful to your audience, let them know you are taking care of your employees. Twenty-six million Americans have filed for unemployment in the last two months, and an equal number are worried they might lose their jobs as well. The results from a national survey released last week showed the substantial increases in brand favorability across all demographics for those companies helping their employees manage the crisis, whether through paying for sick leave, offering flexible hours so parents can take care of kids at home, extending health benefits, and promising to rehire employees when the crisis is over were the most likely to generate brand favorability among consumers across all demographics.
If your brand is doing something to help during the crisis, highlight your people as they are an extension of your brand. The pandemic might be global, but its impacts are local. From children who rely on school lunches and can't get them to the lines outside of food banks, there isn't a community left untouched. If your employees or families are doing something special or inspirational, showcase them as part of the culture you've built. Everyone loves a feel-good story, especially now.
Use social media platforms to highlight critical needs and invite your audience to join you. One of the most frustrating parts of social distancing is no one knows what (if anything) they can do to help. If you have a way for your audience to make a positive impact during this crisis, you've given them the ability to be the hero in this story, and it will help reinforce brand loyalty down the road.
In an era of massive income inequality, it's never a bad idea to let the public know the highest-paid employees are cutting their pay in order to keep other employees working or donating the money to charity.
Avoid the temptation to over-capitalize on this crisis. Predators, opportunists, and price gougers will be the long-term losers. We're already seeing well-to-do brands getting wire brushed for taking Paycheck Protection funds from the federal government. Eventually, one of them is going to become synonymous with this parasitic behavior--and it will cost them dearly.
Finally, your brand should be a pillar of strength and longevity. If you can't help them now, you'll still be there for them when we no longer have to greet each other by bumping elbows.
And please, whatever you do, come up with a better tagline than "We Got This."