It's a difficult time for everybody, including businesses. But that doesn't mean your brand should force itself into the conversation.

COVID-19, Brands, & Crisis Communication

It's a difficult time for everybody, including businesses. But that doesn't mean your brand should force itself into the conversation.


by Dave Robson

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A few weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic and the response from brands has been fairly uneven. Some are trying (inappropriately, in our view) to inject themselves into the conversation. Others are taking a stab at social responsibility by promoting social distancing or simply thanking people fighting on the front lines of the crises. And other brands are (perhaps wisely) not involving COVID-19 in their messaging at all.

So what should a brand do?

The Wrong Way

In this Facebook ad, Mercedes-Benz boasts that their new G-Class doesn’t need soap, but hands do. There’s also some slapdash copy about washing your hands and a hashtag about flattening the curve.

The most obnoxious thing about this ad is the way it’s injecting itself into the conversation about COVID-19. There’s a death toll here. If your city was flooding, would Mercedes-Benz be posting an ad about how well the G-Class can handle water?

We’ve previously talked about hashjacking, which is when someone hijacks a hashtag to promote themselves or a cause. Sometimes it’s a smart thing for brands to do. Other times it backfires, such as when DiGiorno didn’t realize that #whyistayed was about domestic abuse and used the hashtag to promote pizza.

Obviously what Mercedes-Benz is doing isn’t as bad as DiGiorno – we’re not suggesting they get dragged on social media. But this is a crappy ad that strikes us as tone-deaf and more importantly, pretty beside the point. When people click #flattenthecurve, they’re looking for health advice from subject matter experts, not Mercedes-Benz’s hot take on hand washing.

The Right Way

Other brands are promoting social distancing. Here’s a post from McDonald’s in Brazil, officially making ol’ Ronald more responsible than that country’s president.

And here’s a new take on a classic Guinness ad by freelancer Luke O’Reilly, which has been circulated by Guinness with O’Reilly’s permission.

Dove has been putting together pretty simple spots just by turning selfies of emergency workers into videos.

And finally, here’s a very simple thank-you message from A&W.

These are better than what Mercedes-Benz did, but are they effective? Well, there are certainly good things happening here. One, they communicate a socially responsible message. At this point, it’s not so much than people haven’t heard about social distancing, it’s that we collectively need to see who’s on board and who isn’t. Two, they celebrate and thank people like healthcare workers, truckers, grocery store workers, and more. Three, they’re inexpensively produced.

That said, sometimes these ads are notable for what they’re missing. Take A&W. They’re temporarily laying off workers, closing restaurants, and pushing for rent deferrals. That’s completely understandable during these times, and we sympathize with their troubles. But if you’re spending on an ad like this you also need to be walking the talk – if you support frontline staff, it’s a good idea to be backing that up with a material level of support (financial or otherwise). Dove and its parent Unilever, for example, are doing just that, donating over $100 million in cash and supplies to humanitarian aid organizations and directly to hospitals.  So they’ve earned the right to run that message.

But we return to an earlier point: how much do we really want to hear from a brand during an international health crisis?

Basic Questions About Advertising During COVID-19

If brands are thinking of including COVID-19 in their messaging, they should ask themselves a few questions.

Do we have anything meaningful to add?

There is a surplus of COVID-19 messaging out there right now in the form of daily briefings from governments, changing guidelines from health authorities and municipalities, nurses and doctors making emotional pleas on social media, and of course, death counts. It’s not that brands can’t add something meaningful to what’s happening, it’s that stakes are high, budgets are tight, and the public doesn’t have a whole lot of time for frivolous COVID-19 messaging.

Have we communicated COVID-19 impacts to our customers properly?

Your customers have vanished from your place of business. So it’s tempting to start emailing them…and emailing them again. There have been a lot of emails sent lately from brands about what they’re doing during the crisis, and some of them have been deservedly mocked. So think twice before hitting send.  It’s one thing to get an email from your grocer – Loblaws, for example, has done a stellar job of using email to keep customers in the loop in terms of changing hours, cleaning standards, senior citizen shopping hours, employee working conditions, and more.

It’s something else to get a daily email one from your favourite shoe store.

Do you really want to comingle your brand with COVID-19?

COVID-19 may be all anyone’s talking about, but is that really an association you want people to be making with your brand?

There’s Room for Smart Advertising

All this isn’t to say that there’s no room for messaging related to COVID-19. There is, it just has to be carefully calibrated. You wouldn’t think that a tourism board could have something useful to say right now, but then there’s this beautiful spot from Portugal. (So good that it’s being copied by other tourism boards around the world.)