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Marketing Themes in the era of COVID-19

As we weather the COVID-19 pandemic and try to figure out ways to work from home, we also need to face the idea that attitudes are changing.  The way we approach our brand’s strategy may have to change.

It might not be permanent, but it is at least true for the short and medium term. It makes me think of the brand response to 9.11. After 9.11, patriotic imagery became more commonplace. I guess that’s obvious, but that may not be the direction brands need to take today.

What 9.11 and the COVID-19 pandemic have in common is that they shake our sense of security. If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, when our sense of safety and security is at risk, we no longer can operate at higher levels. Instead, we need to focus on safety needs. Patriotism after 9.11 was one manifestation of that the safety theme. Today, you can see this in statements that I got in emails from businesses and the government such as:

  • Protect yourselves and others
  • Please take care of yourselves, your families, your employees, and your customers.
  • Your and your family’s overall health and well-being is our top priority
  • We hope everyone is staying safe and healthy
  • Few things feel more important than to have good, safe food available for ourselves and our loved ones

I saw a different manifestation of this in my parents’ reaction to growing up during the depression.  They were very frugal and stockpiled non-perishable food.  An increased emphasis on safety and security is one potential outcome of COVID-19.  That is the first theme that I predict will emerge.  What form it will take is still to be seen.

Beyond that, I get a sense that at least some people are focusing on a communal sense of well-being instead of individual achievement.  If your brand has been focusing on helping people achieve their individual goals, I would put a pause on that.  Instead, I would consider how your business can tap into the emphasis on the common good. But it shouldn’t be just a marketing strategy, it has to be real and has to have some teeth.  The perfumers and distillers who are repurposing their production lines to make hand sanitizer generate a lot more good will than the gentleman in Kentucky who tried to profit by cleaning the local shelves of hand sanitizer and selling it at a much higher cost.
These are represented by statement such as:

  • We are all in this together.
  • Give the world your love.
  • We all have to help each other.

Thus, theme two that is emerging is solidarity.

Until now, these two themes have been more common among Conservatives, but this threat is making us all realize the value of the values that act as underpinnings of a Conservative mindset.
That doesn’t mean that the emphasis on Progressive values has gone away.  For Liberals, the emphasis on is on global solidarity instead of national solidarity. Thus, statements such as the one that President Trump made that this is “Chinese virus” have fallen flat among progressives.

The counterargument to this could be an increasing nationalism and attention on borders.  Tyler Cowen’s piece on March 20 argues that COVID-19 represents the end of the progressive left, that it will be unthinkable to have open borders when they can bring a pandemic.

We need to watch this closely.

So far, I continue to see a great emphasis on the two themes of care/harm and fairness that have been extremely relevant for Progressives for a while.  This is manifested by the concern about the workers who are losing their jobs and who might not be able to pay their rent or buy food. There is also a great deal of appreciation on the workers who need to continue to work despite their kids being home from school because they are needed to feed or protect or clean up after the rest of us.

The final area that we need to pay attention to in terms of themes is that of Authority.  (For those who are familiar with moral foundation theory, yes, I am using it as a framework for this analysis.) The progressive left has been unrelenting low on Respect for Authority, and I see those themes continue in what I read today. This will probably not change.  What might change is the extent to which moderates come to believe that people in power are doing a good job of handling the pandemic.  This doesn’t only apply to governments; it applies to doctors and hospitals.  And yes, it applies to companies and brands.
What is your brand doing to promote the common good?  Have you been aware of how your brand touches these themes? What are you doing to address these themes?
This shouldn’t be just a marketing strategy; it should be a business strategy.  The purpose led Business Roundtable statement issued in 2019 calls for both “Investing in our employees” and “Supporting the communities in which we work. We respect the people in our communities and protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses.“ It’s time for companies to examine what they are doing to make these statements a reality.  Even if they haven’t paid attention to this issue before, you can change strategies now.

When Apple and Levi’s commit to paying employees despite store closing, that isn’t a marketing strategy but it is part of the business strategy that the Business Roundtable statement calls for. When Marriott doesn’t lay off its workers but instead gives them zero hours, which makes them ineligible for unemployment insurance, is that “investing in employees”? When LVMH and distilleries change over their production lines to that of hand sanitizer, when GM starts making ventilators, they are stepping up for the common good.  So are Teva, Bayer, Mylan and Novartis when they donate supplies of drug that has shown some promise in treating COVID-19 patients. 
Things will change.  These themes might not be as strong as COVID-19 moves into the rear-view mirror.  But we will be changed – we will never be the same.
Is your strategy relevant to the changing values today?  How are you tracking those values?

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Karen Tibbals @KarenTibbals

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