During This Challenging Time, Try to Practice Empathetic Marketing

Marketing teams face unique challenges during a crisis, but because the changing nature of the coronavirus and communities, businesses and government response to its changing nature varies widely — and sometimes controversially. 

When it comes to brands and branding, context matters, and depending on what actions are taken, can help or hurt the brand.

According to marketing expert Asher Rumack, writing in business2community.com, brands’ should approach the challenge with what he calls “Empathetic Marketing.”

“Beyond the basic actions taken to protect employees and businesses during a crisis, brands can either help or hinder our collective experience,” he writes. “So when a cultural moment shifts as dramatically as it has in the face of COVID-19, it’s important that brands address the issue with tact, empathy, and mindful marketing.”

In his online article, “5 Ways to Do Smart & Responsible Marketing During COVID-19,” Rumack outlines five “general guidelines for marketing protocol during these challenging times.”

Here is an amended version of the article on business2community.com.

1) Adjust Marketing Campaigns and Scheduled Content Timelines 

Some brands are able to produce quick-turn campaigns created for a specific moment. These are always impressive (and, to a marketer, enviable), but there are prohibitive risks involved that make this kind of war-room action unrealistic for most.

Therefore, your first step should be to audit what you have currently running or in your pipeline, especially any pre-scheduled content where launch is imminent.

  • Decide what should be paused immediately. Push timelines back on major campaigns that will likely be eclipsed, or pause entirely if you’re not sure if the content is appropriate.
  • Consider what to prioritize or pivot. You may want to move some things up in the interim, or look for ways to successfully pivot some messaging.

For now, you can start to prepare for the “next” cultural moment and determine what content will be most relevant and impactful then. 

2) Evaluate Your Imagery and Language

Visual communication is powerful, as are the words we use, so it’s important to think about the messages your brand is sending.

  • Avoid visuals of crowds or people touching. This includes people working in offices or at social gatherings out of the house.
  • Reframe marketing language that describes close interaction. Reconsider figurative language like “get in touch,” “work hand in hand,” or “get closer to your customers.”
  • Swap out visuals. If you have current or upcoming campaign visuals that may be tricky, revise the imagery now or push the timeline to later in the year.

More permanent brand elements (e.g., your logo) or “pull” content (e.g., your homepage) can remain intact. 

3) Don’t Capitalize on the Crisis

This applies to any tragedy or crisis, but it’s particularly important to remember in this climate of worry and fear.

  • Keep people informed. Brands do need to communicate in response to the crisis, as it pertains to their business.
  • Don’t be an alarmist. It’s important to keep people informed, but don’t add to the panic and be mindful of overly dramatic language.
  • Avoid bragging. Remember that many people are not working during this time and are genuinely worried. As a default, a spirit of humility and empathy should be a filter for anything your brand says in the near future.
  • Mind your tone. No “Hot COVID-19 sales!” or other tactless messaging.

4) Be Positive, But Not Ignorant

In a time when people are uneasy, you don’t need to meet a grim cultural moment with a grim brand tone.

  • Look to your Brand Heart for guidance. Times like these are when the work you’ve done to create a brand strategy can be incredibly valuable. Use your Brand Heart (purpose, vision, mission, and values) as your North Star to remind yourself what your brand stands for, and what that means in the context of COVID-19. Lean into human stories, let your principles set the tone, and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable.
  • Be personable. You don’t have to strip your brand of emotion. For example, offering your well wishes or using imagery of people smiling isn’t, in itself, offensive. In fact, it can be refreshing for people to recall normal life.
  • Think about your future messaging. During the depths of the 2008-09 recession and the early years of economic recovery, many brands pivoted to campaigns that promoted optimism, hope, and humanity. As AdAge’s Bob Garfield put it profoundly at the time, “There is always a bull market for optimism when there is a bear market for everything else.”
  • Create employee-generated content (EGC). Poll your teams for their favorite Netflix binges, share your tips for maintaining office plants while everyone is away, or post fun photos from your video conferences. What are your employees doing in their spare time? How are people working together to keep things light? What are people doing to stay healthy and prepared? This time is an opportunity to spotlight your people and your culture.

5) Highlight How Your Brand Can Help 

Brands exist to provide value, and the products/services that help during this stressful time deserve the attention of those who can benefit from them. If what you do supports or enhances people’s lives, tell that brand story.

  • Communicate your benefits. Does your product give people things to do at home? Does it help people do their jobs without face-to-face interaction? Clarify your brand’s potential unique value in this cultural moment, and share it.
  • Create helpful content. Even if your product doesn’t directly help folks deal with the coronavirus, your brand can still provide value to people.

As long as you keep the focus on helping people (and not patting yourself on the back), your marketing doesn’t have to stop.

Remember: This Won’t Last Forever

We won’t speculate too much about when the “end” of this period will come, so we encourage you to prepare for that transition thoughtfully and proactively.

“During times like these we’re reminded that the stakes of marketing are not life or death,” writes Rumack. “But we’re also reminded that feeling productive, and feeling like we add value to the world is very meaningful.”

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