Marketing During A Pandemic: How COVID 19 Changed The Way Brands Connect With Customers

Oak Moon is a consulting agency based out of Columbus, OH that helps companies market their brands, define value propositions and uncover customer insights, among other services. If you are interested in hearing more or have questions or comments about this blog, feel free to reach out to me at

There is no doubt that the novel coronavirus has upended life around the world as we know it in many ways. As people worldwide have made sacrifices and adjustments, businesses have had to adapt. More and more people, for instance, have shifted to eCommerce in the last few months as a way to safely get essential and non-essential goods without having to physically travel to a brick and mortar location.

Along with these changes, brands have had to adapt in their messaging to consumers. Where previously advertisements may have sought to entertain, inform or motivate among other objectives, now some are calling attention to the challenges people face everyday in adapting to the pandemic. They also, for example, have taken advantage of made at home videos from customers as this commercial from Dunkin Brands does, in part.

But what are some lessons that can be learned about how brands can craft compelling value propositions that resonate with customers amidst the pandemic? In April, Morning Consult authored this report which may yield some insights. In this blog post, I will review some of the findings of this survey and talk about how things have changed since then in terms of brand marketing. To start, let’s take a look at what consumers expect of their brands:

*Customers Care How Brands Treat Their People, and That They Show Empathy

Throughout the pandemic, we have all seen stories of people being laid off or furloughed, of businesses shutting down temporarily or permanently, and workers struggling to find jobs amidst all of it. When it comes to brands, customers and consumers are paying attention to how they treat their workers. In their study, Morning Consult found that amongst people who purchase from a brand:

  • 90% think it is important that the brand take care of their employees and treat them well, even when times are difficult (67% think it is very important)

  • 84% think it is important the brand contribute to society

  • 82% think it is important the brand stand for something beyond simply profit

  • 80% think is is important to show empathy and sensitivity towards people like you

What I take from the above is that people expect their brands to do the right thing when times are tough. That is always important, but it takes on added importance now. In particular, brands need to be careful that their actions line up with their messaging. For example, during the pandemic I saw a Fortune 500 brand advertise that they were “ready to help Americans move forward into this new phase - together”.

The only problem with that was they had laid off a significant portion of their workforce only weeks ago (and would lay off more people months later). Customers are paying attention to how people are treated - Morning Consult found that 62% of people would be more likely to buy from a brand that gave a public statement about how they were supporting employees they had to part ways with, assuming they parted ways with employees. Companies that do right by their people appeal better to their customers. This has always been a golden rule, but the pandemic has put a spotlight on it.

*How Customers Want Companies To Advertise Is Changing

Typically, advertising can serve many different purposes - to motivate to buy, to entertain, to educate, to make a social statement, among many others. But as the coronavirus was spreading in April and people were by and large under stay at home orders, what customers wanted to see in advertising shifted. According to Morning Consult, the following types of advertising increase how likely a customer is to purchase during the pandemic:

  • Ads that shows how a company’s offerings can be used to slow the spread of the coronavirus (48%)

  • Ads that show how a company’s offerings can help improve customers’ comfort, happiness and well being during the pandemic (46%)

  • Ads that talk about how a company prioritizes customers’ well being, such as their physical or mental health (45%)

Compare that to the other end of the spectrum in this survey:

  • Ads about the impact of the coronavirus on the economy (26%)

  • Ads that are sentimental (25%)

  • Ads that focus solely on the offerings of the company (23%)

With the coronavirus, in some form, front and center in the thoughts of nearly every American, it is no surprise that customers want advertising to address it in some way. What is unique is how customers expect it to be addressed. In particular, there is an emotional appeal that customers want to see when it comes to advertising. Part of successful advertising has been “tell me how you can solve this problem”. Now, the pendulum has shifted towards “tell me how you can make me feel better”.

One thing to keep in mind with this information is the fact that it is geared more towards bigger brands (Morning Consult does brand tracker services for several large brands in the country). For the small to mid-size brands that have few or limited product offerings, I would recommend acknowledging the situation the coronavirus has put us in, if doing so makes sense for your offerings. For example, say your product was a financial services product that helped people better budget their money. This would be a good opportunity to bring up how doing so can give people comfort that they are spending their money wisely during this time.

Conversely, if you run a business coaching service, bring up the coronavirus and how your product helps may be more of an awkward fit. In essence, if you feel like you have to force the conversation to work this into your messaging, it is best not to do it. There are other ways you can show your customers you are sensitive to the situation - perhaps a short statement on your website or a long form blog post about how the coronavirus has impacted your business and how you are trying to do your part to help. Be authentic first and foremost, then see if you can tie things back to your brand and actions.

Now that we have a backdrop for how marketing and advertising changed with the pandemic, it is worthwhile to ask how things have changed since the early days of the pandemic, particularly as stay at home orders were lifted and businesses reopened. To help answer that, the American Marketing Association and Duke University published a report in June that is instructive. This survey differs from what Morning Consult put out because of who was in the sample - while Morning Consult surveyed consumers, the AMA surveyed those working in the marketing industry.

Some of the more interesting insights include:

*Digital Marketing Is Growing In Importance

This first one should come as no surprise as businesses that can have shifted towards eCommerce. The AMA found that almost 85% of marketers observed that their customers were exhibiting an openness towards new digital offerings introduced during the pandemic. They also asked when customer behavior will return to where it was before the pandemic in a variety of ways. When asked at what point the value placed on digital experiences will return to where it was prior to the pandemic, 33.5% of those surveyed did not think it ever would. Interestingly, when asked when customers would be less likely to buy online, the most common answer was in 6-12 months.

My takeaway from this: make sure your online presence is strong regardless of the product or service being offered. This is sound advice at any time, but it takes on increased importance during the pandemic, particularly for those with brick and mortar locations. This means you need to have a straightforward, attractive website your customers can easily navigate. That website also needs to be set up for mobile, which is sometimes overlooked by businesses. This website is a great resource to test to see if your website is mobile friendly.

If you need more evidence, consider this: in February of 2019, the AMA found that 9.9% of a company’s total sales came from online transactions. In June of 2020, that number almost doubled to 19.3%. It is easy to understand why this happened with more and more people staying at home, but this is still a huge jump, and may be a permanent change in the buying behavior of some moving forward.

*Social Media Is Taking On A More Prominent Role In Marketing

Social media advertising - both paid and organic - is a key piece for any marketing strategy, particularly if younger audiences are being sought after. While the cost of advertising and the amount of companies with a social media presence has been increasing over the last few years, it has taken on more importance as a result from the pandemic, as the AMA found:

As the chart shows, spending on social media has spiked since February (when the coronavirus first started to appear in the United States and was raging in other parts of the world) as usage on these platforms has increased. This is backed up by data found by eMarketer: in November 2019 they forecasted that in 2020, the average adult in the United States spent 76 minutes a day online. They revisited the forecast in April of 2020 and revised the projection to 82 minutes a day, a jump of 6 minutes a day (an extra 42 minutes a week).

When taking a look at how companies have used social media during the pandemic, the AMA found a clear trend of using this channel with the customer in mind (emphasis in the chart is AMA’s, not mine):

As the chart shows, brand building (i.e. the top of the funnel) has taken on a critical role during the pandemic. Tying this back to what Morning Consult found, businesses would do well to build some level of empathy and understanding into what their brand stands for. For smaller brands, a blog post is a great way to do this. Businesses do not have to avoid the coronavirus just because it is the elephant in the room, so to speak. But bear in mind what messages best resonate with customers.

My ultimate takeaway from all this: do not be afraid to confront the impact the coronavirus has had, either on the world or your business, in your marketing. Just be aware of what appeals to people, and what to avoid. Hopefully after reading this blog you have a better idea of how this impacts marketers and companies.

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