Empathetic Marketing in Times of Crisis: Messaging Strategies to Get Through the COVID-19 Pandemic

“Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

– Warren Buffet

In times of uncertainty, the inclination is often to press pause on all marketing and messaging. Marketers are often unsure of what exactly to say and can be under pressure from brand leaders who tend to fixate on the bottom line. However, it is important to consider the impact that saying nothing may have on your audience. Although it might at first seem counterintuitive, consistently engaging the audience is more important than ever before.

In a recent test run by Kantar, it was found that if a brand cuts all spending now, it would have a 13% negative impact on sales, and market share would be difficult to recover. Rather than going silent, making more-strategic cuts resulted in just a 1% impact on sales. Devising a precise strategy to use the resources you have to make an impact is essential—now is the time to earn your salary as a marketer.

We are experiencing a global pandemic that has people sequestered in their homes, fearful about what the future might bring as they try to get used to this new reality. Although they are concerned about their health, they are also extremely worried about the economy. According to a recent Ipsos poll, most Americans see this pandemic first as a health crisis, but their next immediate concern is the economy, and they are looking to the brands they trust to help them navigate this unprecedented situation.

During times of crisis, marketers are often advised to stop communication with their audiences. But, according to recent research, the extraordinary nature of this crisis means that this tactic might not be the best approach. Studies continually find that when brands pull campaigns and slash budgets in times of uncertainty, it is more often than not to their detriment, as brand health becomes vulnerable when companies stop communicating with their audiences. Historically, when brand marketing stops for six months or more, long-term positioning and market share are likely all but gone. For example, after the 2008 global recession, stronger brands recovered up to nine times faster in terms of stock market value. Likewise, of the companies that survived the recession, the 9% that delivered growth post-crisis were not the ones that turned to dramatic cost cutting–they were the ones that gained a larger share of voice by funneling resources into marketing and new messaging (Harvard Business Review). These historic trends are important to consider as people are looking for leadership from the brands they recognize and trust in their daily lives. While this is certainly no time for revenue-focused promotions, it’s an ideal time for brands to be there for their customers in ways that build emotional connections.

Similar to The Great Recession and the attacks of 9/11, the COVID-19 pandemic is a global and cataclysmic event. This crisis has fundamentally changed the way Americans assess their sense of safety, and it will cause permanent changes in social behavior moving forward. This rapid shift means consumers will become unmoored from old habits and buying behaviors. They will be searching for brands that will help them navigate this new reality and regain a sense of normalcy. Consumers are in listening mode, and brands that say nothing risk being cut out of the conversation permanently.

People are craving messages of leadership from the brands they trust. An Ipsos poll conducted on March 16, 2020, showed that 70% of Americans want to hear from brands right now. In fact, 74% want to hear from helpful brands, and 71% specifically want to hear from brands that can help them navigate the crisis. A mere 8% think brands should stop advertising due to the COVID-19 pandemic (Marketing Week).

The question that many are struggling to answer is, “How do you communicate with consumers without coming across as tone-deaf?” According to the Kantar COVID-19 Barometer study, 74% of consumers believe companies should help them in their daily lives, and 78% say brands should not exploit the situation by linking themselves opportunistically to panic or alarm.

These are uncertain times, to be sure, and brands are facing immense challenges. However, if you are able to continue marketing in some capacity, there are some general guideposts that will help you find your way. Brands need to modify their messages for the moment. Audiences are looking to them to deliver compelling content that serves them and provides authentic value. Maintaining a dialogue with consumers is the priority. The following guidelines will help ensure that you remain a valuable part of the conversation as consumers navigate this time of unknowns.

1. Determine your value.

Value takes what is otherwise a one-sided message from the brand and turns it into a two-way conversation over the short and long terms. The brands that demonstrate their value not only tend to do better, but are also more likely to experience growth after the crisis. They are the ones that sustain marketing exposure during uncertain times.

The difference for communicating during times of crisis is that exposure can’t be shallow or immaterial. Awareness for awareness’ sake doesn’t work and can even be damaging. Brands need to focus on making an impact. To identify where your brand can authentically (and not exploitatively) enter the conversation, it’s helpful to look inward and revisit the values and purpose your brand was built on. Depending on the product or service you offer, helpful guidance might be the appropriate entry conversation for your brand. For others, it might be offering reprieve and giving consumers something to think about outside of what is happening.

2. Assess creative and tone.

Value is non-negotiable, but for consumers there’s more wiggle room in tone. Only 41% of consumers think brands should avoid overly humorous tones, but most agree on a reassuring voice and positive perspective (Marketing Week). It’s up to every brand to take a hard look at their personality and stay true to it, although there’s a fine line to walk in terms of being too bold, too slapstick or too lighthearted. Now is the time to over-index on empathy. Understanding, mindfulness, tact and cautious optimism for the future are also important.

Continually reassess marketing creative against the cultural climate. During a crisis, and especially during this pandemic, market dynamics can change rapidly. What seemed humorously on point a week ago could be inappropriate tomorrow. This requires brands to be agile and quick in getting creative to market — and it requires daily management.

3. Double down on customer experience.

Beyond loyalty or customer-retention campaigns, brands should look at marketing communications as an expanded customer service outlet. Retaining customer loyalty through times of uncertainty is more important than ever. When brands let their focus on the customer wander, the customers follow suit.

Communication should occur across a customer’s entire journey via the anticipation of their needs and the provision of the solutions and support they’re seeking from your brand. Consider an enhanced digital experience and create rich cross-channel and customized messaging. Brands should also take a careful look at media channels and shift creative to the platform that’s most appropriate for the consumption that’s happening. For example, consumers will search when they need information or, alternatively, visit YouTube when they need inspiration or are seeking know-how.

Community-building strategies should also remain top of mind. In normal times, research has found, community marketing tactics generate an average ROI of 6,469%. People have a need for connection, which has expanded exponentially in this time of social distancing. While creating physical opportunities isn’t possible, it’s even more important for brands to look into technology and/or products that connect customers and build like-minded groups that allow them to interact with one another and with the brand directly.

4. Focus on the future.

With each period of instability, such as the aftermath of 9/11 or today’s COVID-19 pandemic, what’s considered normal shifts permanently afterward. The more devasting the results of the uncertainty, the larger the shift we see in needs and priorities. Often, the trickiest part for marketers is anticipating shifting consumer needs and wants now, during what immediately comes next and in the ultimate aftermath. Brands should begin to think ahead and begin to anticipate what their industry will look like in late 2020 and even 2021. Marketers need to put themselves in the customer’s shoes—what will they value? What will they prioritize? What content, now, will get your audience thinking about what’s next and, of course, keep your brand top of mind? Post-crisis, the longing for community is often much higher, and consumers crave that like-minded messaging from brands. Similarly, an increased need for safety and security will probably play a large role, whether through actual product offerings or supportive messaging. Either way, brands need to plan for the content that will be appealing to consumers once the crisis is over.

When it comes to channel preference, the COVID-19 pandemic will likely accelerate trends that were already developing, including e-commerce, gamification and livestreaming. With consumers stuck at home, the demand for these platforms has increased exponentially and is not likely to cease after the pandemic has subsided. Brands need to consider how they can enter these platforms, if they haven’t already, and what their continued presence will look like on them in the future, be it custom content for live video or omnichannel smart personalization.

In the near future, consumers are going to emerge from their homes, and they will be eager to return to their pre-pandemic lives. Going dark not only reduces market share, but it can also be interpreted by customers as abandonment. In that same vein, sitting on the sidelines and trying to jump back in next year will come at a massive cost, both to immediate sales and long-term brand equity. The Harvard Business Review offers eye-opening findings: Brands that went silent as a marketing tactic were slow to recover post-crisis (three-plus years and counting) or failed entirely. Although now is not the time to be focused on sales, a brand’s survival will depend on its ability to show that it can help, that it empathizes and that it has a role in the new cultural climate.

While life will never return to the old normal we knew, there will be a new normal after COVID-19. As consumers settle into this new normal, will they know that your brand was there for them when they needed empathy, guidance and comfort? Or will a more empathetic and helpful brand have filled the vacuum created when your brand suddenly stopped talking to them?

The research and historic trends prove that empathetic messaging during times of crisis works. Not only is it a genuine way to be there for your audience, but it also provides a foundation for success in the mid-term and long-term post-crisis world. This is the time when brands have an opportunity and demonstrate their value in the lives of their audience. By adjusting and adapting messaging now and in the short term, brands will be in the position to benefit in the long term.