As we begin to return to normal after the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be time to consider how some businesses navigated a seemingly impossible problem: how can you promote, protect, and advance your brand during a time of global crisis? Here are some conclusions we can draw from notable successes and failures.
- Don’t stick to a bad plan: A good marketing strategy will consider long-term goals and put plans in place months or years in advance. This kind of planning would normally be a strength, but the pandemic disrupted a number of planned ad campaigns which used imagery, phrases, events, or themes that became unacceptable or tasteless. In a few cases, brands were able to avoid disaster by deviating from their marketing plan. For example, Hotels.com scrapped plans for a series of commercials featuring the iconic “Captain Obvious” in a variety of travel situations. Instead, new commercials showed him using hand sanitizer and encouraging social distancing. Hotels.com recognized that the travel industry was about to take a hit, so they decided to use their advertising spots to generate goodwill and promote a caring and responsible brand identity.
- Acknowledge reality: The Getty Museum was widely praised for a social media campaign encouraging people to recreate famous paintings in their own homes. This challenge was popular across platforms while also promoting the Getty brand; millions of social media users were engaging with the brand and its archives. On the other end of the scale, several cruise lines continued to advertise and book trips long after it was obvious that no cruises would be taking place. This damaged their brands at the time when they could least afford to look irresponsible.
- Sometimes you just can’t win….: Australia had the misfortune to launch a massive tourism campaign shortly before international travel to the country was halted. Other brands were simply unlucky in very specific ways, like Corona, the beloved Mexican beer brand. Named after the Spanish word for “crown”and featuring a crown on its logo, Corona seems like a great brand with a clear identity. Unfortunately, it shares a name origin with “coronavirus.” There was really nothing Corona could do except batten down the hatches and prepare for a difficult period of indeterminate length.
- …but it can always get worse: Unfortunately, Corona decided to go forward with the launch of a new product, the Corona Hard Seltzer. The marketing campaign had developed momentum, the product was coming to shelves, and Corona seems to have assumed that consumers would recognize that it was unfair to blame the brand for the pandemic. Instead, consumers blamed Corona for a tasteless and badly timed marketing campaign. There was no way for Corona to win, but their loss could have been mitigated with a little more foresight.
- Be sincere, but not opportunistic: Customers wanted brands to acknowledge the pandemic, but not exploit it. This was a fine line that many established brands seemed to trip over; Despite some harsh online criticism, most consumers welcomed continued advertising by brands, with a Kantar survey of 35,000 customers revealing that only 8% believed that brands should stop advertising entirely. Ikea was praised for a very on-brand message about the simple pleasures of staying at home and Honda’s “Until We Drive Again” campaign was well-received. Conversely, McDonald’s Brazil was criticized for an ad in which the iconic golden arches were “socially distanced” from each other. The ad was well designed, and subtly playing with an established logo to send a positive message should have been welcomed, but many online commentators found it too cute, cynical, or exploitative.
Are there any overall lessons going forward? It seems like one theme that underlies all the successful efforts was the presence of a solid marketing team that was able to act quickly and decisively. In some cases, protecting the integrity of the brand required making difficult decisions and planning for the far future.