5 tips from a consumer psychologist on how brands should respond to coronavirus
As the severity of the coronavirus outbreak began dominating the news early last week, brands at first took a cautious approach. PR pitches slowed to a trickle and social media posts tapered off. But this week, brands are not holding back, with seemingly every marketer trying to get in on the conversation, whether that means ramping up philanthropy or putting out ads to show how they are responding.
But as the activity picks up, so does the risk. Consumers are especially sensitive right now to anything that looks like a brand is exploiting the situation. “Brands really do have to be incredibly careful right now because consumers are definitely taking notes,” says consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow. “In times of stress and anxiety, consumers are hypervigilant.”
Yarrow, a professor emerita at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, shares her perspective on the latest edition of Ad Age’s “Marketer’s Brief” podcast. Below is a snapshot of her advice to brands on how to communicate during the pandemic.
First of all, do no harm. “There is a good percentage of people [that are] really angry and they are looking for a scapegoat,” Yarrow says. “They are looking for someplace to put blame and so I think companies really have to get it right right now—by not making any mistakes first and foremost. And then, secondly, by approaching their relationship with their consumers in a really, really careful way.”
Don’t make it about yourself
Some brands have put out ads that try to encourage social distancing by re-imaging their logos. McDonald’s Brazil, for instance, on social media shared images of its Golden Arches in pulled-apart form. It drew a strong rebuke from Bernie Sanders on Twitter. (The image no longer appears on McDonald's Brazil-run social media accounts.)
Coke is running a Times Square billboard featuring its brand name—normally written in tightly connected Spencerian script—with space between each letter. Chiquita bananas removed its Miss Chiquita mascot from a version of its logo posted on Instagram.
Yarrow says these messages are wrongheaded: “It’s just a mistake because it’s all about them. Maybe in a month from now it could be OK-ish. But generally speaking, talking about yourself, talking about your business, talking about your needs is the worst thing you can do. Anything that appears to be self-serving is going to be mocked and thought of ... negatively.”
She adds that because there are some “trust issues going on with government, businesses actually have an enormous positive opportunity to fill that role for consumers—but it has to be all around consumer needs. It can’t be around our company, our logo, aren't we cute.”
Talk is cheap, take action
In the last week, numerous companies are stepping up their philanthropy. Alcohol brands are making hand sanitizers, Ford is partnering with 3M to make respirators and Unilever just announced it would spend $108 million on soap, sanitizer, bleach and food for charities. This is the right approach, Yarrow says. Brands should “understand what consumers really need right now and then [offer] that to them. Anything that you say is irrelevant right now. It’s really all about what you are doing.”
Put employees out front, skip the celebrity endorsements
Yarrow acknowledges that brands must still communicate their actions—but advises brands to make their frontline workers the stars of any campaign.
“Our heroes today are the truck drivers, the restaurant employees, the grocery stockers, our neighbors—everybody seems to have lost interest in big celebrities and their phony way of offering us some sort of sense of connection.” she says. “All the sudden all these little people around the world are becoming our heroes ... all brands can attach to that somehow. They have these employees. Attaching to that human element of their brand is where I think the action is today.”
Highlight your heritage and expertise
In recent years, old, established companies ceded the spotlight to sexy startups. But the pandemic has made old companies cool again. Ford, for instance, in its coronavirus-reponse ad highlighted its role making tanks and planes during wartime.
“In these times of upheaval we really like things that we can look back and rely on,” Yarrow says. “We want the reassurance of an old company that has been around a long time. There is an opportunity for these companies that looked maybe a little bit stale a couple months ago to look suddenly like solid and reassuring.”
“I think we have a renewed respect for expertise,” she says. “That acquired knowledge and expertise is something to be revered and valued. I think there will be a shift towards valuing that and understanding the role of that in our community.”