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‘Brands Are Really Going To Be Judged.’ Companies Are Walking a Tightrope During the COVID-19 Pandemic

11 minute read

Like just about everyone, Hotels.com had to change plans when the pandemic arrived.

This spring, the travel-booking company had planned to run a set of commercials that debuted last year and included a spot called “My Dream.” In it, the company’s mascot, Captain Obvious, is riding in an airplane; his arm is pressed up against one fellow passenger and his fingers are dipping, with abandon, into another’s proffered bag of snacks. It was cute enough several months ago, in the old times. But it is out of sync with the new times, when consumers have been advised to cancel vacation plans, avoid flying, and generally stay six feet away from other humans.

So Hotels.com stopped the campaign mid-flight and quickly put together a new spot. In it, Captain Obvious is still snacking, but this time he first uses hand sanitizer before eating popcorn in silence and isolation. “This is Captain Obvious,” reads the text on screen. “He’s going to be social distancing for a while. And you should too.” The ad, which began airing in late March, sported a special tagline. Rather than “Be there. Do that. Get Rewarded,” it echoed the public health edict that is so bad for the ailing travel industry’s bottom line: “Just Stay Home.”

“We didn’t feel the tone of our usual advertising was right for the current environment,” a spokesperson for Hotels.com said in a statement to TIME. “For the airtime we had remaining, we opted for a message that reinforces the guidance to stay home.”

Companies of every stripe are suddenly faced with making such judgment calls in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, an open-ended calamity that has no obvious parallel for the advertising world.

“From an emerging issue, it just quickly moved into an emergency. Now we’re in a full-blown crisis,” says Patrick Strother, founder of Minneapolis-based communications firm SCG. “And we don’t even know the scope of the problem.” Yet companies, many dealing with plenty of other issues in the struggling economy, have to be responsive anyway. And overwhelmed, stressed-out consumers may have a long memory for how those companies make them feel in this moment.

Luxury goods firm LVMH was, for example, comparatively early to announce that it would shift to more responsive production, churning out hand sanitizer for Parisian hospitals rather than high-end perfumes and cosmetics for affluent customers. That move emanated solidarity and helped set the stage for the many firms that would make shifts of their own, from Ford (cars to ventilators) to New Balance (shoes to masks).

The deluge of marketing emails that many Americans have been receiving has, meanwhile, become something of a running joke on social media. Less sensitive messages — like clothiers spinning quarantine as “the perfect opportunity to get dressed up” — have yielded reactions such as “made me want to set my laptop on fire.”

“Brands are really going to be judged for a long time by how they behave through this,” says Strother, who has been advising his clients, as an exercise in good morals and good PR, to take care of their employees first. If companies react in superficial ways, industry insiders say, they do so at their own peril.

A first step for brands, as the crisis barreled toward official pandemic status on March 11, was to take a look at their existing campaigns through the lens of the new normal. Many made the same call as Hotels.com. Hershey’s rolled back once-heartwarming ads that showed strangers exchanging food and hugs, opting instead for ads with no people at all. KFC pulled a spot that luxuriates in people eating and licking their fingers and started touting “contactless” delivery.

According to a survey from Advertiser Perceptions, nearly half of advertisers have either pulled a campaign or delayed the launch of a campaign because of the novel coronavirus. A third say they completely canceled a campaign pre-launch. Even seemingly bland things could be upsetting for consumers in fearful lockdown, like a pizza commercial that shows people at a now-FOMO-inducing sporting event or any ad at all for the disinfectant wipes that seem impossible to get.

If brands “are acting like business as usual and are still running their same advertising,” says Margaret Johnson, chief creative officer for San Francisco-based ad agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners, “you immediately feel like that’s a brand that’s tone deaf.” Johnson says the firm has been working on “fast turnaround stuff for all our big clients,” including Comcast and PepsiCo.

Rohit Bhargava, author of the business forecasting report Non-Obvious Megatrends, says that companies need to rethink everything, including their websites. As of April 2, for example, the site for Corona beer appeared unchanged, displaying ads that showed sexy people enjoying themselves at the beach in “that carefree state of mind.” Brooks Brothers, by contrast, had added a splash page that touted work the men’s clothing company is doing to make protective equipment like masks and gowns “during the COVID-19 crisis.”

“To not even acknowledge it is a disconnect. It’s a missed opportunity to demonstrate that you’re listening and that you’re human,” Bhargava says, “which is what we’re looking for from companies anyway.”

Americans, particularly younger ones, have increasingly been looking to companies to be moral leaders that reflect their values. That sentiment appears to be, if anything, amplified during the outbreak. In a new report from communications firm Edelman, based on interviews with 12,000 people in several countries, 71% of respondents said that if during this time “they perceive that a brand is putting profit over people, they will lose trust in that brand forever” and 77% said “they want brands only to speak about products in ways that show they are aware of the crisis and the impact on people’s lives.”

For this year’s parade-less St. Patrick’s Day, Guinness ran an ad that showed people toasting at home. “Don’t worry, we’ll march again,” a voiceover says. “What matters is being with people you care about.” After sports were effectively canceled, Budweiser developed an ad that repurposed the names of sports teams (the Warriors, the Giants, the Magic) as descriptions of societal lynch pins like healthcare workers, first responders and teachers. Jeep started telling potential buyers that “better days are ahead” and offering 0 percent financing for 84 months.

Acknowledging the pandemic in a way that resonates can be as easy as explaining why business is going ahead despite things going sideways. “It might seem highly inappropriate to show you clothes for which you currently have no need,” British retailer Boden wrote in a message to customers. “But we’ve already made the clothes. We’ve already taken the photographs, we’ve already printed the catalogues. It was too late to stop. We hope you don’t find it horribly insensitive.”

But it’s also easy to put people off. “Part of it is people like to be offended,” Strother says of today’s hyper-connected consumer culture. “They’re kind of looking for it.”

As the importance of social distancing became apparent, some companies responded by mocking up new versions of their logos. McDonald’s in Brazil split up the golden arches. Volkswagen put space between the V and the W. The efforts were not universally lauded. “It’s too gimmicky to be serious,” Strother says. If such moves actually help people remember that isolating themselves is crucial to stunting the spread of COVID-19, then okay, says Zsolt Katona, associate professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. But it also runs the risk of looking like “a very short PR stunt,” he says.

Making jokes is also a dicey way for companies to meet the moment. Coors Light had planned to run a campaign during now-cancelled March Madness positioning the beverage as “The Official Beer of ‘Working’ Remotely.” Despite the fact that millions more people are working remotely than the brand could have ever anticipated, it chose to press pause on the campaign, for fear of appearing insensitive.

“Humor is just not something that’s really resonating with people right now,” says Johnson, noting that it’s unclear how long that might be the case.

Plenty of companies are marketing products to the vast population now working out of their living rooms. When brands like Pottery Barn send emails with ads for “the perfect WFH desk,” they are “dancing on a line,” Katona says. On one side is the impression that brands are making the crisis more bearable with relevant products; on the other is the impression that they are using the outbreak as a vehicle for sales. It’s tricky when people’s circumstances vary so widely, from bored-and-alone to overwhelmed-with-toddlers-and-deadlines to abruptly-unemployed. “What might be offending for one consumer might be just the right message for another consumer,” Katona says.

There are more clear-cut cases amid the great coronavirus email-marketing blitz. It makes sense for Uber Eats to blast out an update about new sanitation protocols for drivers, who are serving as a lifeline for the struggling restaurant industry; or for Target to let everyone on the company’s lists know about new shopping hours for vulnerable customers. But the photo-printing service that reminds customers it’s offering the same services as always, along with a reminder to “practice mindfulness” and a TOGETHER discount code? Or a company hawking hydrogen-infused water “in funky flavors like honeydew” as a way to stay hydrated if you’re diagnosed with COVID-19?

“You want to sell me stuff, especially now that I don’t even have the money to pay my rent,” Katona says of consumers’ mindsets. “Those brand images and memories can be long term.”

The safest way for brands to respond to the crisis is to mitigate it, industry experts agree. There is plenty of overlap between doing good and looking good. Bhargava sums up moves like those executed by LVMH and Ford as a “production shift to relevance.” But such moves don’t require a factory, or even footing the bill.

According to Bloomberg, Aimbridge Hospitality, which operates Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt hotels, is making rooms available to house and quarantine healthcare workers; New York City is paying. Embattled cruise companies like the Carnival Corporation have offered up ships as makeshift hospitals, which seems especially sacrificial given that can only help cement the association between their boats and illness, Strother says. A growing list of companies are promising not to lay off employees or to provide paid leave. (TIME is one of these.) Banks are deferring mortgage payments. Even offering a free trial that helps students who are now learning at home or gym-goers who feel stuck inside can be useful enough to pass the smell test.

“Action is the name of the game,” says Johnson, whose new messaging for Comcast will likely alert consumers to some of the company’s empathetic new offerings, like making hotspots available for free around the country or waiving late payment fees.

Does it cheapen a company’s good deeds if it runs ads or sends out press releases about them? Maybe. But it can also help put pressure on other companies or individuals to follow their lead. When the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announces that it’s donating $100 million toward fighting the coronavirus pandemic, “that says to other wealthy individuals that there’s something you can do besides join a singalong,” Strother says.

The Edelman report backs up this advice: respondents roundly supported the idea of companies offering free or low-priced products to healthcare workers or people whose jobs have been affected, as well as doing whatever they can to protect their own employees and suppliers “even if it means substantial financial losses until the pandemic ends.”

Of course, many companies are themselves feeling the squeeze of the economic downturn. Advertising budgets are being slashed. And there’s not an obvious “shift to relevance” for every brand. What if a company can’t afford to do anything but send consumers that email that says “we’re in this together”? Perhaps, Johnson says, don’t send anything at all.

“It may be a time just to hunker down,” she says, “and try to weather the storm.”

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