Aside from the select few businesses that face an unusually favourable combination of circumstances in a pandemic, those who manufacture aspirin, face masks or provide home subscription services, for example, the situation as most now accept it is:
Every business is trying to survive.
Most ad or marketing budgets are going to suffer.
Opportunity for growth of any kind is sparse and brands are left with two options: cut costs or try to generate cash.
Inevitably, many will choose the first option; reduce spending, curb advertising and marketing and, at the very worst, cut jobs.
And then there’s the financially riskier second option. Spend in order to generate cash by putting the brand out there at this time to try and turn a profit.
No one wants to spend more money than they expect to get back, and choosing to market a brand now means carefully considering the cost-benefit ratio. And at times like this, specific rules apply:
There isn’t much you can change about the unfortunate detail that fewer people are buying; when the public’s focus shifts to survival, consumption is reined in and there is less to be gained from ad or marketing spend. But carefully controlling brand perception can make a big difference to your chances of making a return.
While people expect to see brands advertise themselves, there are a few things to remember about the modern consumer.
They don’t like to believe that companies are profiting from their suffering.
If your brand is, or perceived to be, profiting directly from the global economic downturn, a winner among a world of sufferers, the consumer will see that you’re not playing the game fairly. This is the game where the consumer knows you want their money, accepts a level of persuasion, but doesn’t feel they’re at a disadvantage, such as being obligated to buy your goods or use your services.
They don’t like companies (Pepsi being a prime example) that cynically capitalise on issues affecting the global community, by hijacking the conversation.
If your marketing efforts involve trying to grab attention surrounding an issue that people are hyper-aware of, capitalising on their genuine concern - or panic, as would be the case today - consumer cynicism and, likely, outrage will kick in. And depending on how overt or shameless the act, it can last a long time in consumer memory.
They don’t take kindly to brands that disrupt access to crucial information by simply occupying space, often muddying the waters with inaccurate or irrelevant messaging.
This is possibly the worst strategy, yet the most common since it requires little effort, where brands pay lip service to the crisis for the sake of being part of the conversation, in a vague attempt to carve off a sliver of its audience share.
If brands choose to market themselves during this period, incurring the heightened risk of seeming cynical or greedy, it’s essential to know how to market responsibly. And under what circumstances it’s considered acceptable.
Acceptable circumstance #1: There’s a necessity among consumers right now for what you’re offering
If you’re going to ramp up advertising or marketing efforts, particularly with any sort of association with the pandemic, consumers will want to see a legitimate reason for your brand to do it.
Brands like Just Eat, for example, can safely and legitimately raise their profile at this time (within reason, so as not to seem like they’re exploiting the situation) as demand is clearly there for their services.
However, if you sell luxury products, where appetite for luxury items is naturally diminished, attempting to increase the hype around your brand will leave people asking “why you” and, especially, “why now?”
Acceptable circumstance #2: You have a valuable message for consumers
Consumers have been shown to favour brands with strong corporate social responsibility principles and are more alert than ever to those which only self-serve. But if you have a responsibility to, or perceive genuine value in, making people aware of your products, action or stance during this time, and your message considers the consumer’s reduced circumstances, then it could be appropriate for you to take up that marketing space.
Consumers are also adept at spotting a brand’s perceived selflessness, activism or support, whether that’s advertising discounts, free trials and giveaways under the pretence of helping out, especially during a difficult time; or social media marketing that invites consumers to get involved with a brand via entertaining user-generated content campaigns, only with the ultimate intention of enhancing the brand’s visibility.
The public sees what’s going on and immediately asks: is that brand actually trying to help us? Or is it simply out for itself?
None of this means that marketing is entirely off the table. If it’s done sensitively, skillfully and it’s not hurting anyone, then a brand has every right to promote itself.
Again, there is a level of public acceptance that brands will advertise themselves, and under normal circumstances, brands, particularly smaller ones, can improve their visibility and legitimacy in the eyes of the consumer just by being out there. The difference now, that all brands must consider, is that while consumers are handicapped by the current situation, they subconsciously make a stronger appeal for fair play.
So, with more at stake financially and reputationally, as a brand you have a decision to make: will you, given the decreased likelihood of a return, market your brand and, in doing so, will you be seen as greedy and opportunistic or will these efforts leave someone with a vision of your brand as an example of decency when all this is over?
Because, if the cost-benefit ratio adds up, brands can market themselves successfully in the eyes of the consumer, even in crisis.
As long as it’s considered.
As long as the product or message is beneficial at this time.
As long as you play fair.