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Article 3 min read

Marketing in a crisis looks different today than in the past

By Hannah Wren

Last updated September 21, 2021

During a crisis, when the unknown is immense and the only constant is change, the natural instinct of a marketer might be to stop marketing. But even if it means reevaluating what matters or doing more with less, staying directly connected to your customers becomes even more important. Data shows that businesses who continue to market amidst uncertainty can strengthen customer relationships and build loyalty—but only when the messaging is both compassionate and strategic. The key isn’t to throw in the towel, but to use it to help mop up customer anxiety. Whether you’re faced with a recession, war, or pandemic, the challenge becomes adjusting your strategy to one that best supports your customers. Admittedly, it’s tough to let go of the visionary things you’d planned to show them and answer this question instead: What do my customers need right now?

Growing and retaining customers in both times of prosperity and uncertainty requires marketing teams to take the pulse of their customer-audience and put the customer at the center of everything they do. When we look at how different brands have responded to past crises, we see that this is not something marketers have always done well. But we’re getting better—despite the constraints marketing teams are under due to COVID-19, the bar is rising as companies strive to foster deeper, more authentic customer relationships. Marketers are showing us that if there is a silver lining, it’s that change breeds innovation, and we often see ourselves learning and growing in new and exciting ways.

Growing and retaining customers in both times of prosperity and uncertainty requires marketing teams to take the pulse of their customer-audience and put the customer at the center of everything they do.

[Related read: Be a change leader to customer-centricity]

Fear doesn’t build trust—this is true in life and in marketing

When we experience fear, our brains go into a “fight-or-flight” response, signalling that we need to act quickly. Similarly, scare marketing uses fear-based tactics to bully customers into making quick purchases.

Scare marketing was common during the Great Depression, when the stock market crashed in 1929 and the United States struggled for the next decade to recover. Marketers in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry often featured children in advertisements to heighten parents’ fears that they weren’t adequately providing for their families. “‘Are your children fully protected?’ advertisements shouted out at mothers. ‘Danger threatens constantly in the years 1 to 6. A touch of over-strain and the door is thrown open to a whole group of serious troubles,’” explained one ad collector.

Vintage ad 1936. Source: Envisioning The American Dream, a blog by Sally Edelstein.

Fear-based marketing continued after the Great Depression, peaking in the 1950s. According to Thomas O’Guinn, marketing professor at the Wisconsin School of Business and expert on marketing responses to social disruptions, scare marketing was particularly common during the Baby Boom, when the U.S. birthrate exploded following World War II. Although this was a time of prosperity, consumers began to worry whether there would be enough resources to support the rapid population growth. Food ads underscore how marketers exploited this fear by highlighting children’s appetites and portraying products, even if it was ice cream or soda, as vital to a child’s health.

Vintage ad 1950s. Source: Wait But Why blog by Tim Urban.

Vintage ad 1950s. Source: Business Insider

“During the 1950s, marketers fed off of consumers’ already high anxiety and used fear as an appeal. It was a kind of ‘you’re at even greater risk than you think’ ethos,” said O’Guinn. “During the Baby Boom, they framed children as victims parents needed to protect.”

While fear might grab consumers’ attention, it doesn’t build the kind of trustworthy relationships a brand needs to retain customers. Scare marketing is also bad for morale because it doesn’t demonstrate empathy.

While fear might grab consumers’ attention, it doesn’t build the kind of trustworthy relationships a brand needs to retain customers.

Admittedly, this is a lesson I had to learn for myself. My first job was in email marketing at a baby food startup. During flu season, I sent an email to prospective customers warning them that children can get sick if they aren’t fed nutritious meals. Like so many marketers before me would predict, the email performed well. That’s why I anticipated praise when our chief marketing officer, a marketing guru and a role model to me, called me into her office. Instead, she flagged to me that I had participated in scare marketing. “Not only is scare marketing off-brand, it’s not right,” she kindly explained. “Even if something appears to work, it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do—this is true in life and in marketing.”

[Related read: Soothing consumer anxieties with ‘calm commerce’—a rising trend in retail]

Ignoring the elephant doesn’t make it leave the room

Scare marketing still exists today, but by the 1990s, brands were using a different strategy to market in a crisis: avoidance. O’Guinn explained that rather than heightening customers’ fears, marketers tried to disassociate their brand from trouble and not upset anyone.

“Looking at any sample of ads during the Gulf War or the subprime mortgage crisis, which contributed to the Great Recession, you’ll notice that marketers tried to ensure that consumers wouldn’t associate those events with their brand,” said O’Guinn.

During the Gulf War, marketers sought to take consumers’ minds off of what was happening overseas to separate the war from their product. “Marketers tended to use images of the home during the Gulf War rather than far away places because the war was associated with ‘the abroad,’ and the home is typically a universal symbol of security and comfort,” said O’Guinn.

But during the 2007-2010 mortgage crisis, when the home invoked feelings of financial stress, marketers tended to avoid images and language focused on the home. “Marketers turned to images of faraway places so consumers wouldn’t think about their financial problems when they thought about the brand,” said O’Guinn.

In one of JPMorgan Chase’s 2008 Super Bowl commercials, a woman gets bank alerts while rock climbing as opposed to in a home setting. Even Tide, which tends to center its ads around the home, used an office setting and featured it’s to-go product for the Super Bowl that year in its first talking stain commercial.

When economic turmoil was top of mind during the 2008 Super Bowl, the commercials didn’t even allude to the mortgage crisis or recession. In general, marketers also pulled back, when ad spending dropped by 13 percent in 2008. Marketing budgets were similarly cut during the Gulf War, as well as the Iraq War in 2003.

Consumers don’t want to be stressed every time they check their email or social media feeds, but how a business responds to a crisis—or doesn’t—matters. Not responding can negatively impact a business’s perceived time-to-value because it doesn’t provide customers with the support they need in context, and so much of marketing is about ‘right message, right time.’

In a crisis, customers want to know that you’re there for them and you’re working to fix their problems, whether that’s showing them how to highlight their own hair, or how to effectively transition to a remote work environment. Selling them things they don’t need won’t work. This requires marketers to find a healthy balance between helping, but without desperately linking all efforts to the crisis at hand.

[Related read: How to manage customer satisfaction in a crisis]

We’re all in this together—a better way to market in a crisis

In general, marketers haven’t been using COVID-19 to scare consumers into purchasing. They also haven’t been afraid to speak to recent events. Marketers are elevating the ways they’ve handled crises in the past and are setting a new standard, one that hinges on bringing businesses together to support their communities and customers in new and innovative ways.

The marketing teams that are responding to the pandemic well are taking the pulse of their customer-audience and using it as a guiding light for everything they do.

[Related read: Business isn’t always about commerce; it’s also about community]

“If you look at marketing over time and compare it to the present, marketers are behaving really well,” reflected O’Guinn. “They’re getting behind the cause and behaving responsibly by taking a community-building, ‘we’re all in this together’ kind of approach. It’s not only smart; it’s good citizenship.”

The marketing teams that are responding to the pandemic well are taking the pulse of their customer-audience and using it as a guiding light for everything they do.

Here’s a look at a few ways that marketers are responding to COVID-19.

Quickly adjusting their roadmaps

In a world that looks different every day, companies must be nimble to effectively support their customers. This requires marketing teams to be honest and creative about what they can really deliver.

Panera Bread quickly switched from restaurant to grocer, offering boxes of staple supplies for purchase and pick up. This allowed the company to maintain its most important value proposition of providing clean food that customers can feel good about eating while operating within the constraints that restaurants are currently facing.

Birchbox, by contrast, realized that what its customers need most right now are easy ways to practice self-care. The company created boxes that customers could nominate to be sent to frontline healthcare workers. And, while Birchbox previously measured its customer experience against key performance indicators like the number of tickets its support team solved per hour, it quickly pivoted away from focusing on metrics to doing whatever it takes to find a personalized resolution for each customer, whether that’s easing the burden for customers who may need to pause their subscriptions or waiving a fee—even if that means longer phone calls and extra touchpoints.

Empowering audiences with knowledge

COVID-19 has presented an opportunity to build on brand and product awareness through educational content—making it accessible to everyone, not just customers.

For example, OpenTable updates its State of the Industry report daily, where it shares data from the 60,000 restaurants on its platform. It also created a Preparedness Resource Center to provide restaurants with guidance on handling downturns and temporary closures. One Medical built a Coronavirus help center for up-to-date information about the virus and how to get virtual care.

Bringing customer service into the conversation

According to Zendesk research on the impact of COVID-19 on customer service, customer requests are up across the board. Companies’ abilities to support customers are being put to the test as customers need and expect swift support. Many marketers are shifting the spotlight to the unsung heroes on the front lines: their service teams.

JPMorgan Chase made a heartwarming commercial to honor its wealth-management advisors for their dedication to supporting customers. Sam’s Club made a commercial expressing a similar sentiment to celebrate its associates for making a difference for its members.

Zappos started Customer Service for Anything and is offering up its infamous customer service team to help its community in any way it can—even if that’s just a kind voice to discuss the latest Netflix show, dream vacation plans, or simply the weather.

[Related read: Shannon Weber on how to show up for others in hard times]

Engaging customers in more authentic ways

Research is clear: customers prefer to hear from real people rather than a brand. Livebosses conducted a study of LinkedIn posts by CEOs since the onset of the Coronavirus and found that executives are getting exceptionally high engagement rates. The reason why social media posts are performing so well is that they feel more authentic than the hundreds of outbound email blasts signed by CEOs that customers never heard from before COVID-19.

Many marketers are shifting the spotlight to the unsung heroes on the front lines: their service teams.

Stewart Butterfield, CEO of Slack, has been tweeting about how Slack moved to a remote environment. Sara Blakely, founder and CEO of SPANX, opened up about what it’s like to work from home as a mother. And there’s Bianca Gates, the co-founder of Birdies, who has taken over the brand’s Instagram to host Ask Me Anythings.

Leaning into user-generated content

To get behind the fight against COVID-19 and encourage their community of customers to social distance, brands are using user-generated content to celebrate customers who are maintaining the shelter in place in exciting ways—that include their product or service. For example, Hinge and Bumble have been featuring their users on social media to give followers tips for how to date virtually.

Partnering to make a bigger impact

Many brands and marketing teams have been generously offering up their cash to make a greater difference. Freshly partnered with Nestle to donate $500,000 to Meals On Wheels to serve senior citizens. Zoom partnered with Clever, a single sign-on service for U.S. school districts, to give schools access to its service quickly. And, Harry’s partnered with Crisis Text Line to offer customers free, confidential support from a trained crisis counselor.

Leading with generosity

Many companies are also extending the length of free trials for prospects and reducing costs for existing customers. Even if this is deferred revenue, marketing teams are realizing the value of prioritizing current customers over a quick new sale.

GitHub, which provides hosting for software development, is offering teams private repositories with unlimited collaborators at no cost and reducing the price of GitHub Team. And, many companies, such as Allbirds, are donating products to frontline workers.

Actively listening to customers—even if it means apologizing

Marketing teams are learning and growing alongside their customers, which means that mistakes are inevitable. What’s important is that teams are transparent and own mistakes if and when they do happen. Owning up is hard, but earns customer trust.

Rothy’s got backlash for its program to donate a mask for every pair of shoes purchased. However, as soon as Rothy’s took the pulse of its customer-audience, which didn’t appreciate the tie between generosity and commerce, it removed the purchase-to-donate component of the program with an authentic apology. Instead, Rothy’s has taken a multi-pronged approach with monetary donation to Direct Relief, an effort to open source mask-making technology alongside other brands, and is using some of its recycled plastics to create masks for purchase, instead of shoes.

Marketing teams are learning and growing alongside their customers, which means that mistakes are inevitable. What’s important is that teams are transparent and own mistakes if and when they do happen.

Marketing is moving from exploitation to connection

Marketing in a crisis is admittedly very difficult—it takes courage, strength, and skill. Marketers need to be innovative about what the business can reasonably do, and also strike the right tone with customers. Promises can’t be empty. Yet amid the uncertainty and in spite of the constraints so many of us are facing, many marketing teams are leaning on empathy and taking a very human, helpful approach. We might all be leaning too hard into certain themes and tropes, or jumping on the bandwagon, but even so, we’re on the right track. And perhaps this is a sign that times are changing, that we really all are in it together.

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