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Updated: Apr 23, 2020

By Harris Hunter, data strategist

With Ryan Walker, writer

Advertising is a forward-thinking business. But a Coronavirus pandemic wasn’t in our plan. And it’s safe to say we’re not alone, both among clients and our agency colleagues. There’s no playbook here, no best practices for a fundamentally different way of life. Because for all its lessons, the 1918 Spanish Flu offers little guidance on digital marketing. But like all times of crisis, we seek a return to normalcy and its comforts. That includes acting on the plans we made for our clients—all of whom are impacted one way or another.

This week, we’ve asked tough questions about canceling, postponing, or carrying on with planned campaigns. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, everything is on a brand-by-brand, case-by-case basis. But using recent examples, we can glean a few principles for marketing in these unprecedented times.

Carry On with Context

Honesty isn’t unique to a pandemic. But it can inform your campaign rollout. In launching a spring collection video on Instagram, J.Crew said, “We shot this in beautiful, sunny L.A.—and although our world has dramatically shifted since, we still wanted to share it with you.”

Dualtone Records sent an eblast, linked to a new single, quoted relevant lyrics, and gave a reason for being in your inbox, “Our biggest hope is that you all are staying safe and finding small comforts in the spaces and sounds around you.”

Know Your Place

Consider making an outline for your brand, ask how you can help and whether you should help. For example, an NHL mascot has little authority on public health (and we don’t see the CDC posting hockey memes). But right now, most of us would welcome some humor in the context of COVID-19.

Gritty, the Philly Flyers mascot, posted a note only Gritty could, bringing his weird, orange light into the world.

A follow-up video referenced one of the frustrating (and least dangerous) consequences of the pandemic, a run on toilet paper.

Adapt to New Norms

As your inbox will attest, every business has something to say about keeping their spaces clean. This is appropriate. But the best thing you can do is highlight safety and support measures unique to your brand. Right now, few know this better than food industry brands.

A recent email from Grubhub opened by acknowledging the impact this virus is having on local restaurants. Then, they rolled out how they're adapting with deferred commission fees, promotion matching, and the establishment of a donation fund. There’s plenty of goodwill, but their intentions are clear: help restaurants increase their cash flow. If you can do more than just washing hands and sanitizing surfaces — go for it.

It’s also worth considering how social distancing will impact your imagery. As hugs, handshakes, and even large groups become taboo, you may need to visually realign with what consumers are experiencing in their day to day lives.

Keep Your Voice

We’re all staying inside more. But a brand voice doesn’t have to be left at the door. And although the scope of the Great Recession was different, Chrysler’s Half Time Super Bowl ad may be the all-time gold standard for making an appropriate brand statement during hardship. Because when Dirty Harry tells you to get back up again — you do.

More recently, a Guinness Instagram video highlighted their 260-year history (and 9,000-year lease) to promote camaraderie, resiliency, and beer. Three things we can all get behind. But since publishing their post in Mid-March, COVID-19 has spread rapidly in the US. Now, with new social distancing norms, we’ll see fewer brands advocating for in-person gatherings.

Proceed with Caution

In this business, we’re always trying to find the boundary. Sometimes, that means shock value or breaking with traditional thinking. Now, the outer limits are shrinking inward. Norms are changing and references to our shared reality — quarantine boredom, video chats, and Netflix binging (some things never change) can be fodder for distraction. But as the situation shifts, brands should be wary of overstepping, looking opportunistic, or in the worst case, acting against public safety. You don’t need a reaction to every news piece, but adapting to major developments or just touching on the lighter side can be a reminder that there’s light at the end of this tunnel.

Until then, it’s up to us to be a proactive partner for our clients, supplying new ideas, strategies, and, if they’re really in need, a few rolls of toilet paper.


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