As the COVID-19 crisis has forced brand managers to abandon planned campaigns and find new ways to reach audiences, experts have looked into the past for guidance.
Research that was done on marketing messages in the aftermath of Sept. 11 offers communicators some guidance on how to approach external messaging.
Beth Egan, associate professor at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, shared some insights on how brand managers should approach the current media landscape to engage anxious and downtrodden audiences.
Here are some of her takeaways:
PR Daily: How should marketers adapt to the current situation?
Egan: Each marketer needs to address their individual role in this crisis and in the economy as a whole. If they have a product or service that people need right now, then they need to get that message out. Those are the obvious categories such as food, delivery and entertainment, which have permission to advertise right now.
If a brand operates in a category that is considered nonessential and is basically shut down right now, it should assess whether there is a unique role to play. There are many examples of the companies making sanitizer, masks and ventilators—or food and beverage companies who are making donations to furloughed workers. It is appropriate to get that message out there.
Regardless of what your message is, the most important thing is to communicate a sense of empathy and community. Advertising, at its core, is about helping people solve problems so it is essential that any messaging right now communicates that clearly.
PR Daily: Why is going silent a bad idea? Should you reduce messages?
Egan: This is the question we have the most data to draw from.
There is no doubt that going silent leads to significant losses in brand equity that will likely cost you more in the long haul to recoup. If you’re going silent to hedge your bets, you can guarantee the house will win.
Having said that, many companies are facing an abyss when it comes to revenue generation. The financial health of the company is the first priority. But advertising should not be the first thing cut. A reduction in spending is better than no spending at all—and can actually be very beneficial as we are even seeing downward pressure on digital CPMs right now.
The brands who are advertising are actually getting more impressions at a lower cost. I have seen estimates of 30%–40% reductions in CPMs in digital media. It is harder to get out of television commitments, so we’ll just start seeing the impact of that now.
PR Daily: If you decide to keep marketing, what messages should you focus on?
Egan: I see three main messaging options right now:
- Utility. “Here is a product you need right now, and here is how you can get it.”
- Empathy. “We understand what you’re going through, and we’re here to help.”
- Community. “We are all in this together, and we are doing our part to bring this to an end.”
People are hungry for any connection right now. We do have a relationship with many of the brands we buy which gives them permission to have a voice through this crisis.
PR Daily: What lessons can we take from Sept. 11 for the current crisis and marketing messages?
Egan: The 9/11 research was very interesting in that people resoundingly responded positively to brand messages, as long as they weren’t outwardly commercial.
I think there are strong parallels to what we’ve seen already from advertisers. Many companies are looking at image ads to simply say they are here and they care. Others are reaching out to galvanize communities to help each other, and I think social distancing doubles as patriotism these days. Many brands are using the opportunity to try to clarify what have been confusing messages around guidelines and encouraging people to take care of each other while taking care of themselves.
I also think the work from Sherif and Sherif is incredibly relevant here: Brands should respond to people’s need for group cohesiveness, need to do something to help and the increased loyalty that comes from facing a common threat.
PR Daily: Any examples of brands who are doing a good job with external messages right now?
Egan: There are brands that have done a great job under each of the categories noted above:
- Clorox provides information on how to keep your home clean. There is also a Hispanic version.
- Doordash has a product to offer but does it in a way that creates a connection by highlighting how using the service helps others.
- Angel Soft: appropriate given the toilet paper hysteria.
- Hallmark: a brilliant post-pandemic move. Card purchases have been on the decline, but this could reinvigorate a dying category, even after this is over.
- Hotels.com: A smart move from a company that has nothing to sell at the moment.
- Verizon has done a much better job than Sprint. They’re offering a service rather than advertising deals.
- There are a lot of automotive examples. I didn’t select just one, but as a category I think they have struck a nice tone.
PR Daily: How should we think about measurement right now? Any metrics that matter more?
Egan: Honestly, the metric I would watch most closely right now is sentiment. Put your message out there and see how people respond. If you missed the mark on tone, you’ll know immediately. Pull the messaging and reset. Brands will make mistakes now, and I believe consumer attitudes will constantly be shifting.