Marketing During COVID-19: Why Every Company on Earth Is Emailing Us About Coronavirus

Digital marketing can feel jarring right now — but a new playbook is emerging.
Mae Rice
April 7, 2020
Updated: April 20, 2020
Mae Rice
April 7, 2020
Updated: April 20, 2020

It started with messages from airlines, but soon enough every kind of organization — universities, tech startups, sandwich shops you visited once three years and two cities ago — started sending out coronavirus updates. Clothing brands sent emails headed “Things are weird”; personal grooming brands penned subject lines like, “Let’s get through this together.”

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!”

“I was happy to get an email from Comcast that said, ‘Here’s what we’re doing to keep the network up; here’s what to do if you have a problem.’”

“I was happy to get an email from Comcast that said, ‘Here’s what we’re doing to keep the network up; here’s what to do if you have a problem,’” Michael Papish, vice president of marketing at Markforged, told Built In. “That felt like a proper amount of communication for this time period.”

As a growing number of states shelter in place, it makes sense for brands to give regular customers updates on practical matters: health and safety protocols, or the availability of delivery and essential services, like Wi-Fi.

But when a company emails its entire client list after years of silence, or sends an email more to praise itself as a “do-gooder” than to serve customers, it can backfire. It feels like “jumping on the bandwagon,” digital marketing consultant Melanie Balke told Built In.

Jumping on the bandwagon wasn’t always such a bad look — in fact, it’s a common marketing tactic to connect a product or brand to current events. It’s what Gillette did with its Super Bowl commercial that addressed the #MeToo movement; it’s what Nike did 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, Papish said.

But during this time of unprecedented fear and economic dislocation, cultural marketing needs to walk a fine line. Brands don’t want to look like they’re ignoring coronavirus, or attempting to cash in on it.

 

new marketing landscape digital marketing coronavirus
Image: Shutterstock

The New Marketing Landscape

The influx of branded coronavirus emails don’t look like “marketing” at all at first pass. Few overtly advertise products. However, they’re part of larger email marketing and branding strategies; as they provide practical info, the emails also brand their parent companies as reliable, sanitary and ethical — descriptors consumers gravitate toward right now.

This wasn’t always the case, but what consumers want, what regulators will allow, and what brands have the budget for — basically, the entire economy — has shifted since the pandemic began.

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

Once-major industries have shut down or lost their allure. Many state governments have closed restaurants and bars, and airlines have so few passengers that they’re shifting toward cargo-only flights. Other industries are blowing up. Both Balke and Papish noted that, due to widespread school closures, content for children — like toys, games and educational materials — has seen a surge of interest.

“Kids’ podcasting is going through the roof right now,” Papish said. (His wife works for WGBH, Boston’s public radio station.)

Many companies are changing their marketing strategies to fit into this new environment, in ways both subtle and large. For instance, Balke noted that it might not make sense for apparel brands to advertise prom dresses right now; though it’s technically prom season, many states have banned gatherings that large. Promoting loungewear might be more appropriate.

On a larger scale, many enterprise-scale companies have pared down their ad budgets in the midst of market uncertainty, Balke noted.

Digital advertising, in response, has gotten cheaper. Cost-per-impression on Facebook ads has dropped substantially even as traffic on the platform has surged. On news sites, too, traffic has skyrocketed — for prestige publications like The Atlantic, site visits have nearly doubled — but advertiser interest has waned.

This means companies still spending on digital marketing can get more bang for their buck right now.

Surging traffic on social and media platforms also supports Balke’s theory that, because people are cooped up indoors, “content is going to be king” during this pandemic. She recommends content marketing to any company with excess bandwidth. “If you have a whole team at home that usually would be [out] doing things, why not have them create content?”

For some brands, though, especially after the initial wave of hit and miss “Our Response to Covid-19” emails, it’s hard to know what to say.

 

emerging playbook digital marketing coronavirus
Image: Shutterstock

The Emerging Playbook

What not to say is clearer. In mid-March, major brands like KFC and Hershey’s pulled ad campaigns that didn’t fit with our new reality of constant handwashing and social distancing. KFC’s ads depicted people eating fried chicken and “sensuously” licking their fingers; Hershey’s featured too much hugging and handshaking, given the circumstances.

So, what works now?

Papish has been intrigued by a softer form of cultural marketing — isolation-friendly brands reaching out to customers more often, without explicitly mentioning the pandemic. Personally, he’s seen an uptick in emails from Netflix about shows he might like.

“That’s probably not a bad way to keep you informed about something that you may actually want to do, [when] you don’t really want it to be connected to a world event,” Papish said.

But brands like airlines, which have lost relevance during the pandemic, don’t have to stop advertising, either.

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

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

For travel companies, specifically, she recommends building brand awareness through content — like photo contests or reported features on places people can dream about now, and visit later.

Papish agrees that companies sidelined by the virus don’t need to avoid marketing, necessarily.

“At some point, we’re going to get stir crazy, and maybe [that’s] a good time to plan a vacation down the road,” he said. “Maybe [airlines] will offer much more flexible arrangements — you know, reserve a trip now and take it at any point between this [date] and this [date] and get a huge discount.”

This has actually already started to happen. Many airlines are temporarily waiving flight change and cancellation fees in response to the pandemic, and airfares are unusually low.

Though a banner ad for a resort might feel tone deaf today, Papish said, we may eventually appreciate digital marketing that lets us “feel like we’re planning our futures.”

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