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Marketing during Coronavirus

Every company seems to be emailing us about Coronavirus – but a new way of marketing is emerging.

Started with airlines and quickly spread to every kind of organisation including universities, tech startups, places you visited years ago. All sending you coronavirus updates. Everyone has been sending emails with the titles “Things are weird”, “Let’s get through this together” or “A brief message from our CEO”.

Is this a smart email marketing strategy?

It depends, experts say. Not every email is as insensitive as the (humorous, fictional) Bed Bath & Beyond email subject, “Bed Bath & Coronavirus!”

As the UK gets used to being in lockdown it makes sense for companies to give their customers regular updates on practical matters, health and safety protocols (like in the case of Sainsbury’s and Tesco) or the availability of delivery and essential services.

But when companies email their entire client list after a huge period of silence, or send a self-serving email to paint themselves as do-gooders rather than to serve customers, it can backfire hugely, especially as it can be seen as jumping on the bandwagon.

Jumping on the bandwagon isn’t always a bad thing. It has been used to great effect by a number of brands including Gillette in its Super Bowl commercial that addressed the #MeToo movement and Nike did it with its Colin Kaepernick ad, celebrating Kaepernick’s much-discussed activism within the NFL. This is called cultural marketing, and it can be a powerful tool to connect a product or brand to current events.

However, during times of unprecedented fear and economic issues, cultural marketing needs to walk a tight line. The Coronavirus pandemic is no different, brands don’t want to appear as though they are ignoring it, but at the same time they don’t want to appear to be cashing in on the crisis.


The influx of coronavirus emails don’t look like “marketing” at first glance. Very few will overtly advertise a product. However, they are part of a much larger email marketing and branding strategy that whilst providing practical information, also brand their senders as being reliable, ethical and sanitary. Basically all the characteristics that consumers will gravitate towards in times of panic.

This represents a hugely significant shift in the economy that has occurred since the pandemic has begun. Driven by what consumers want, what regulators will allow and what brands have the budget for.

Cost-per-impression on Facebook ads has dropped substantially even as traffic on the platform has surged.

Huge industries have shut down or have lost their appeal. The UK government has closed restaurants and bars, airlines have so few passengers that they are shifting towards cargo only flight, or are grounding their fleets entirely. Other industries are growing hugely. Due to school closures, childrens content – like toys, games and educational materials have seen a surge in interest. Not to mention the food delivery services and streaming services being perfectly positioned to take advantage of the lockdown to see huge growth.

It is down to companies to change their marketing strategies to fit in to the new environment. Many are doing so admirably. For example whilst we would be deep in to prom dress season, apparel brands are forgoing the adverts for these and are using their positions to advertise loungewear instead. Especially with large gatherings being banned in the short term.

On a larger scale, some companies like Coca-Cola have chosen to reduce or even stop advertising in the midst of market uncertainty.

In response, digital marketing has become cheaper despite online marketing experiencing unprecedented volatility. Cost-per-impression on Facebook ads have substantially dropped even as traffic on the platform has surged. News sites have seen this phenomenon too, site visits have skyrocketed – The Atlantic has seen its traffic almost double – but the of advertisers has waned.

This means that for those companies who are still spending on digital marketing can get much more bang for their buck right now.

Increased traffic on social media platforms can be put down to people being cooped up indorrs and meaning that high quality content will be king during this time. If you have a team workign from home who would normally be on the road selling or would normally be making 100s of calls to potential customers but aren’t right now, why not get them to create content. Each person in a team will have an area that they specialise in and will have knowledge or insights that they can share.

For some brands, however, after the initial wave of Covid-19 emails, it will be hard to know what to say.


It's Finger Lickin' Good by Mother London/ KFC
It’s Finger Lickin’ Good by Mother London/ KFC

On the other hand, what not to say is pretty clear. In March KFC pulled its ad campaigns that didn’t fit alongside the new reality of handwashing and social distancing, as did many other brands. KFC’s ad showed people eating fried chicken and “sensuously” licking their fingers (a play on their Finger Lickin’ Good catchphrase); Hershey’s featured too much hugging and handshaking, given the circumstances, it is understandable that these were pulled and will more than likely make a return once all this is over and done.

So, what works now?

Isolation friendly brands have been reaching out to customers more often without mentioning the pandemic. I’ve been seeing more adverts for home exercise and DIY products than ever before. As well as an uptick in the number of emails from Amazon Prime and Netflix about shows I might like.

What makes these all great, they keep me informed about what they are doing without discussing Covid-19. It’s the elephant in the room do you really need to acknowledge that it is there every time you talk to someone.

Brands such as airlines, who have lost relevance entirely during this pandemic, don’t have to stop advertising at all.

Once you take stuff away from people, that’s literally what they want.

For these brands they can continue to build brand awareness through content. Photo contests for followers and reported features on far-flung destinations that people can dream about then book later can all be produced now, all without a mention of Covid-19, that way the destination features will still be relevant when this is all over.

If your business has been sidelined by the virus you don’t need to avoid marketing. In fact, it is probably the worst thing you can do.

People are going to become stir crazy and maybe it will be a good time to plan a holiday down the road.

Many airlines are temporarily waiving fees for flight changes and cancellations in response to the pandemic, and airfares are unusually low.

Whilst a banner ad for a resort might feel tone-deaf today, we will eventually appreciate digital marketing that makes us feel as though we are making plans for the future and have something to look forward to.

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