The fast pace of our digital age continues to whittle down the interval between an occurrence in the marketplace and the time at which academics begin to analyze it. Such is the case with the recent publication of an intriguing “research briefing” on online messaging that was served up by brands in March and April at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Desperate to remain relevant at a time when the outbreak was massively curtailing much economic activity, many marketers rushed out “Covid-branding” messages, according to authors Maha Rafi Atal and Lisa Ann Richey of the Copenhagen Business School’s Commodifying Compassion Project.
While some of those messages (and the corporate actions behind them) were impressive, many were weak and even damaging, Atal and Richey assert in “Not Every Time Is The Right Time For Real-Time Marketing: Branding In The Covid-19 Pandemic.”
Looking back at 80 spring campaigns, the researchers found that Covid-branding messages fell into four categories (often highly dependent on the type of business the brand was engaged in):
- Direct Engaged: Showing how a business put its core capacities into directly fighting Covid-19 (e.g. the healthcare company Novo Nordisk showing people wearing PPE it had produced.)
- Indirect Engaged: Showing how a business put its core capacities into indirectly managing Covid-19 (e.g. Starbucks providing food banks with meals and with logistical support.)
- Direct Disengaged: Showing how a business helps others directly fight Covid-19 (e.g. the Spanish footwear company Camper publicizing how it was providing its 3-D printers to others to produce medical visors.)
- Indirect Disengaged: Showing how a business helps others indirectly manage Covid-19 (e.g. GoFundMe suggesting that consumers could use its platform to identify causes to support and offering nonprofits free consulting on how to raise funds.)
Atal and Richey also classified messaging by whether it focused on “Covid-helping” (managing the pandemic) and “Covid-coping” (managing yourself). The most problematic messaging concentrated around themes of treating the pandemic as an opportunity for indulgence or made light of the dangers that the outbreak represented.
For example, an upscale athleisure brand suggested that women could buy a bikini to wear during a pandemic-induced “staycation” since they wouldn’t be going into the office. Very early in March, a pair of Italian ski resorts extolled consumers to visit with an ad that said “Live the mountain with full lungs: There’s a snowy place where feeling great is contagious.”
Although their advertising review uncovered some such cringe-worthy copy, it also revealed efforts that impressed the authors.
“The scale and scope of the interventions to directly tackle the Covid-19 pandemic that were undertaken by some huge global corporations,” were surprising, Richey wrote.
“The resources available to make change in the world are so often in the hands of large corporations. Often we are critical of these companies, and of the dangers of having so much unaccountable power in one place, and in our years of research of corporate social responsibility efforts, we’ve seen our share of green-washing. So we were quite surprised to find examples like Coca-Cola suspending its marketing to devote that budget to logistics assistance. That challenged our critique.”
Asked for practical lessons marketers could take from their research, the authors suggested four things:
- Don’t be sloppy: When a crisis breaks out it is common to want to rush out a message. In some cases, the researchers found that marketing agencies tasked with this work were using the same messaging for different clients.
- Don’t overreach: It can be tempting to quickly make a big splash, but poorly thought-out actions can yield big headaches. The fashion brand Draper James learned this the hard way when it fielded a ‘dresses for teachers’ promotion that backfired: It was intended as a limited give-away, but many teachers thought that each teacher who asked for a dress would receive one and were deeply (and vocally) disappointed when they learned that was not the case.
- Be sensitive: Marketers who employed coping-through-pleasure or coping-through-denial messages “saw particular consumer complaint on social media for appearing to discount the severity of the pandemic.”
- Do no harm: Few brands were directly sharing incorrect information on the crisis, the authors found, but a fair number of influencers that brands work with were associated with “untested” wellness products. Be careful about being linked to such messaging.
Next up for this Europe-based team?
“We would like to trace companies’ communications on their engagements with Covid-19 over the longer term as this pandemic evolves,” said Richey. (W)e will likely see companies take different types of actions in a slower-burning, longer-lasting crisis. Some may learn and improve their work and communications, others may develop Covid-fatigue and give up, or still others may simply not survive the economic crisis that Covid-19 has caused in parts of the world. We look forward to expanding our database and to speaking with practitioners and scholars about these issues.”