Marketing in a Time of Coronavirus—Pandemic Response Storytelling: David Beckham, Bloom Energy, and Amazon.

Marketers, like comedians, have an atypical response to crisis. They have the moment of sobriety, like everyone else who isn’t a sociopath and thinks first of himself. But then they quickly ask, “how does this seismic shift, like any prolonged, far reaching event, help me do the job in front of me?” In other words, how do I utilize the danger, disaster, or sorrow to promote my brands?

#1: Don’t Brand the Crisis

For inexperienced marketers, that quickly becomes synonymous with “How do I brand the crisis?” It’s unsurprising, for instance, the same firms that white label third party tools and resell them under their brand are among typically the first to do so with a crisis. But it’s not any one market sector that’s more guilty, even if I suspect a heavy constellation among resellers of services, products, and good. The doctrine of seizing opportunities is so ingrained in run of the mill marketing leadership, that it risks painting marketing in general with its tone deaf brush.

The Easiest Illustration of What NOT to Do is 9/11 Marketing.

Yeah, should there even BE such a thing? A Walmart in Florida stacks up soda to look like the Twin Towers, forming a flag out of sprite and coke packages. According to Huffington Post, a Marriott hotel in San Diego once offered complimentary coffee and mini-muffins “in remembrance of those lost”. A Wisconsin golf club ran a $9.11 special. As though it’s a holiday.

Granted, it’s ill-advised to ever brand 9/11, even unintentionally. AdAge described how a Brazilian ad agency created an ad ostensibly promoting the World Wildlife Fund, to try to get its business. As dozens of planes hit skyscrapers, in the ad, it made the point “the (Asian) tsunami killed 100 times more people than 9/11.” How would you like to be ‘painted’ with that brush? The WWF of course rejected the ad and the pitch.

By contrast, I think LEGO’s “rebuild it” print ad was a good core idea—a positive message from a comforting brand in a time of hurt. But, in my opinion, it had poor creative direction and so was poorly executed. Instead of saying it WITH LEGOs, it put the LEGO brand over a smoking skyline. Still, in an area of such sensitivity, where backlash is almost guaranteed, the company has to have a tolerance for risk that’s above zero, and it has to be empathetic on a mass scale.

Before the Good: the Obligatory Bad Form Awards for Pandemic Marketing

Look, rather than us putting in screenshots of the worst gimmicks, just scroll through your email and your LinkedIn feed. It boils down to…

  • Free 30 days (trial) of our job postings, app, online platform, etc.
  • Photo of several bottles of hand sanitizer for various purposes.
  • A note from every tangential firm with links to the CDC and the words “be safe”.

Soul in marketing is about the things that drive sustainable interpersonal interactions being active on a broad scale of mass communication. Besides these examples being flimsy, frankly distracting, non-essential communications, they are without soul. They range from mere “cut and paste” insensitivity to strained attempts to co-brand a virus all the way to naked attempts to do absolutely nothing and paint it as helping out (those platforms already HAD 30 day free trials).

Pretense in personal interactions translates into soulless marketing. What is externally portrayed as a desire to help is often really a desperate fear of being left out, or of being noticeably absent from the discussion and mistaken for either irrelevant or impolite. It’s the same reason we get those Christmas Cards into which it looks like someone put zero personal thought. “They’ll notice if we don’t send one.” Yeah, so the joy and happiness you wish me was about YOU. Marketing should never come from fear. And that whole level of human reaction is not worthy of a healthy company culture, a firm’s response to a crisis, or its self-image as a brand.

The Good Examples May Still Be A Drop in the Bucket, But They’re Inspiring

Social Distancing
Social Distancing As a Team Sport

David Beckham’s soccer team, Inter Miami, temporarily changed its logo, from two herons intertwined, to two herons socially distanced, to promote flattening the epidemiological curve. That’s constructive. Use one’s existing visibility (not use the virus to GAIN visibility) to influence mass behavior to save lives. We can call that truly HELPING. At the very least it’s helping by pointing the way to firms who might not know how to help but have actually asked that question, instead of just “what can we do to promote ourselves?”

In California, Bloom Energy is switching operational focus from refurbishing fuel cells, to refurbishing the state’s older ventilators and putting them into use to reduce patient deaths from Coronavirus. Thank you, Bloom.

French Cosmetics firms L’Oréal and LVMH are using their cosmetics and perfume manufacturing facilities to produce hand sanitizer, amid a global shortage, instead of makeup and cosmetic creams.

Fashion designers Christian Siriano and Dov Charney have their sewing teams making masks for healthcare workers.

Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft are utilizing their immense supply chain capabilities to combat the virus. For all that Amazon is taking heat for keeping people working, they’re also hiring and raising wages, as well as continuing to pay people who don’t come to work which, if Florida beaches are any indication, may actually be keeping people from congregating in less healthy environments.

The World Economic Forum has other examples, and Just Capital has a mega-list that includes operational changes. What’s this got to do with marketing and brand storytelling?

  1. Not a lot. That’s the point. Finding a way to brand a crisis isn’t the goal.
  2. Everything. The #1 thing that’ll help your marketing is DO SOMETHING.

It doesn’t have to be a unique idea. It needs to include common sense changes to the routine.

IDEALLY it is part of the core DNA as a firm. A basic principle of supply chain is “do what you’re good at, not what you’re not”. So how could what we’re good enable us to pitch in and deliberately help out? In a wild fire, in a tsunami, in a pandemic, in any number of critical moments. What is our true capability, and how can it be ‘weaponized’ to help rather than ‘packaged’ to look good? It’s counterintuitive fellow Jedis, but not complicated—do the one and you’ll have the other without trying too hard.

On messaging: besides the necessary crisis communications which (keep your people honest) should be truly necessary, not fluff disguised as crucial info, telling the brand story should take a back seat to BEING the brand and using Marketing to help execute on that. For example:

When someone dies or gets cancer, no one knows what to say. Most of it is designed to just make the speaker feel better. And there’s a lot of bad advice that seems to come from a place of defeat and not a place of human persistence. Business and work drive so much of society that it’s up to us to a) not panic and bolt in some wild direction, which extends the impact of challenges, not lessens them, and b) not rattle off knee jerk communications, but rather think deeply and substantively about how best to contribute.

Daniel DiGriz

Daniel DiGriz is a corporate storyteller and Digital Ecologist® at MadPipe, which provides creative direction, marketing leadership in marketing, and campaign direction for firms that want a stronger connection with their audience. A Digital Ecologist® applies strategic principles from both natural and digital ecologies to help organizations thrive across multiple ecosystems. Daniel hosts podcasts, speaks at conferences, and his ideas have appeared in Inc, SmartBlog, MediaPost, Forbes, and Success Magazine.
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