How COVID-19 forever changed marketing

James Bishop
February 2, 2021

On the 2nd of April 2020, global cases of COVID-19 surpassed one million. Well over 100 countries had launched full scale lockdowns. Global unemployment was sweeping across the west. America experienced its worst depression since the post industrial revolution. Long time insoluble economies like Australia, Canada, and China were decimated. Businesses folded, economies tanked, planes were grounded. Scarcity became a defining characteristic of the 2020 spring; scarcity of supplies, of employment, of information on the virus. With millions trapped at home, there was only one commodity in abundance and, in that a pre-COVID world, it had been more valuable than gold: Attention.

In December, the idea of an immobilised and bored workforce stuck at home waiting to have their attention grabbed would have overjoyed marketers. One could imagine a CFO chasing consumers with the febrile energy of Wile Coyote. But like the cartoon, the terrain brands and companies navigate during the pandemic is alien, unforgiving and dangerous. If brands didn’t adapt their approach they’d chase consumers over the chasm, and drop.

The Change

Previous global recessions had occurred in slow motion. Even the so-called ‘shock’ 2008 crash had been predicted by experts like Alan Greenspan for years prior. The COVID-19 strain of coronavirus however did take the world by surprise and, in this unique sudden drop off, advertisers, marketers, brands and companies were forced to react broadly. In a webinar with the Harvard Business School, Professor Jill Avery and CEO Richard Edelman, creators of the Edelman Trust barometer that measures consumer trust, explained the three key reactionary strategies marketers initially fell into:

“From COVID, companies are either in ‘freeze’ mode during the lockdown and unable to do anything; in ‘flex’ mode, where they or some of their brands are actually performing well; or in ‘fix’ mode, trying to find new ways to generate revenue or maximise profits.”

Some business shut up shop indefinitely, others entered hibernation, while some even found themselves on a serendipitous and inexorable growth path. Take how the Film industry: Hollywood entered a state of suspended animation with the requirements of social distancing. While in contrast, food delivery services such as HelloFresh or JustEat scaled at an almost untenable rate — fuelled by the dual economic steroid of customers being forced indoors, and the widespread closure of the competing service industries. The pandemic has not impacted companies in a single universal way but, universally, companies have been impacted. From a marketing, ‘brand aware’ standpoint, there have been a number of interesting and effective responses to the problem of COVID-19, and these strategies have changed the relationship between consumer and brand forever.

Philanthropy as the future of marketing

Many brands and companies have urged for munificence and a universally shared cause. One of the world’s largest toilet paper producers, Cottonelle, delivered a direct message to discourage panic buying, while also highlighting certain moral imperatives: “Stock up on generosity.” They simultaneously launched this with a #ShareASquare campaign. Nike led their COVID19 campaign through social media with the tagline: “Play inside, play for the world.” Ford, GE, and 3M partnered up to repurpose their manufacturing facilities, making respirators and ventilators for the fight against coronavirus. While Diageo, AB and InBev, put their expertise in alcohol production use by making hand sanitiser, leading with the message: “It’s in all our hands to make a difference”.

Brands and companies have also declared the importance of protecting their own workers. McDonald’s in the Philippines put in place preventative measures to transmission early on, requiring temperature checks for employees before and after shifts. While supermarkets like Lidl, Aldi, Tesco held ‘thank you’ initiatives for their employees including bonuses, and company gifts.

Companies have even begun consumer support schemes. Ford, the car manufacturer, is supporting customers facing financial hardships through the Ford Credit payment relief program. Banks and lending institutions have extended payment notices. Certain countries have imposed rent freezes for businesses and renters.

Be useful

Brands have also realised the importance in being useful. McDonald’s created an un-skippable ad titled, “20 seconds you can’t skip.” The video simply showed the correct method of washing one’s hands. Jeep released a video showing an image of the manufacturer’s iconic grill inside a garage with the accompanying hashtag #StayOffTheRoad.

In this campaign to have a productive contribution brands and companies have been doing the unthinkable — giving things away for free! DoubleTree for example, the American hotel chain, bake famous chocolate chip cookies for their guests. The snack had a huge cult following and the recipe had been a carefully guarded secret for years. That is until the company released the recipe in full online as a goodwill gesture. Similarly, Nike made a subscription to the Nike Training Club app free, they also began pushing out exercise content to its Nike Running Club app, and their website, to help millions of consumers maintain their physical and mental health while under lockdown. Unity Technologies, a gaming company, made three months of premium content for its Unity Learn platform available to game developers. All these prized assets would have gone un-utilised during the pandemic, but instead they have used in a productive and meaningful way.

We are not amused

Another huge change has been the tone by which advertisers communicate to their consumers. The self aware risible pop culture commentary that previously was a huge viral marketing tool has faltered in a post COVID world. McDonald’s Brazil ran an ad that showed its iconic golden arches being separated, to indicate social distancing. After much backlash, the ad was taken down. Coca-Cola bought an ad in New York City’s Times Square and extended the space between the letters that spelt its name to also indicate social distancing. The pointless irony of buying an out of home ad to advocate social distancing wasn’t lost on social media. Professor Jill Avery highlighted why marketers must avoid being ‘frivolous’ and, according to a survey conducted by Avery and Edelman, even escapist content is to be avoided:

“In the heart of the crises, consumers want to see how you are helping and how you are providing solutions.” Prof. Jill Avery, Managing Through Crises: How to Market during COVID-19

Stay ahead or be left behind

The pandemic has illustrated that adaptability is a marketers key strength. COVID has profoundly changed commerce at a critical juncture in history. The pandemic has accelerated inevitable change such as the wider acceptance of contactless transactions, or the working from home model. But it has also shifted trade onto another path. Moving forward, companies will increasingly realise the traffic of the relationship between themselves and consumers moves in two directions. Future strategies will no longer simply be determined through a focus grouped and meticulously researched marketing report. But with consumer input and they will now expect companies to practise the egalitarian values that they preach, to be useful to society, and to be respectful. The last half a year has been a training course in how we deal with a global crises. The next great threat may not be directed at us as a species, but rather the planet we live on.

Earlier this summer, Lowe’s launched a virtual reality tool that allowed consumers to receive virtual consultations using AR and computer vision technology. As the physical means by which consumers receive messages from marketers change, so will the messages themselves.

‘Culture has fundamentally changed… A new normal will need new stories from brands. Not the old stories of a pre-COVID era.’ Professor Jill Avery