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Consumer Reactions and Brand Responses – to COVID-19

There’s no escaping the dismal news — the COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc globally on lives, families, the workplace, and businesses’ bottom line both large and small. The impact that global “social distancing” and business shut-downs will have on the global economy is yet to be fully quantified. During the SARS and MERS epidemics, there was temporary pressure on the business supply chain — but the impact of COVID19 will be at a far greater scale.  

It “could be felt for as much as two years and cost up to $400 billion for business supply chains,” according to the Boeing Center for Supply Chain Innovation. HBR pointed out in late February that “the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic created just a blip in the global financial markets…[but] the relative importance of China in the worldwide economic ecosystem has increased tremendously in the past 18 years….and many more industries are now heavily dependent on China.”

Despite this gloomy outlook, many brands immediately leapt to “do their part,” which was inspiring to see.  According to Fast Company, LVMH was the first to adapt its production line to make hand sanitizer for local hospitals and communities; KFC quickly partnered with the nonprofit Blessings in a Backpack to help provide weekend meals to kids with food insecurity, and Netflix set up a $100 million relief fund, including a $15 million for donations to organizations working to support out-of-work production employees. 

But of course, despite brands’ best intentions to be good global citizens, most will feel the strain very quickly. A survey in March of more than 2,200 marketers by Econsultancy and Marketing Week showed that 55% of UK and 56% of North American marketers say that marketing campaigns are now delayed or under review. There is no doubt that marketing activities will be significantly curtailed as a result of the global economic downturn.

Consumers Have Flocked Online 

EMarketer reports that — despite the fact that the majority of marketers (77% in the UK and 64% in North America) predict consumer delays in major spending decisions — most also predict a rise in other areas. For example, with consumers now socially distancing or self-isolating at home, ninety-one percent of UK and 87% of North American marketers predict an increase in the use of online services (gaming, entertainment, social media etc), and 70% of UK marketers and 75% of North American marketers predict that there will be an increase in eCommerce usage such as online grocery shopping.  Working from home has also increased exponentially with up to half of American workers currently doing so (as of April 6), more than double the fraction who worked from home (at least occasionally) in 2017-18.

The Economist reported that — according to Verizon — overall video-game internet traffic has increased 75% since restrictions were imposed in America in March, and Bungie, a video-game developer, says that average daily user engagement on their game “Destiny 2” was up 10% worldwide and as much as 20% in the markets most affected by the coronavirus.

This is a huge opportunity to shift marketing budgets to these channels where consumers are spending even more time than ever before.

What Should A Brand’s Response Be — Right Now?

There are several ways brands can adapt to the new reality in both the long and short term to try to counteract the strain the virus will place on their bottom line.

Adapt your message

Right now — immediately — brands should be adapting their messaging as the situation evolves and review it on a weekly basis. At the beginning when the pandemic was just starting to dawn on us, The Wall Street Journal reported that brands had to quickly yank planned ad campaigns that would appear tone deaf in light of “social distancing.” The linked article is behind a paywall, but in a nutshell, one brand that needed to kill their campaign was Mint Mobile LLC whose ad showed people eating queso dip with their fingers at a party and putting their fingers in other people’s mouths. Yikes.  

There are myriad positive ways to adapt your messages. For example, in March Chevrolet started running commercials offering free OnStar emergency assistance subscriptions to current Chevy owners and offering prospects “unprecedented interest-free financing for 84 months,” as well as the chance to shop for a new car online and have it delivered to their home.  I’ve heard of some gyms that are offering virtual classes while also slashing monthly fees by 25%. It’s these little gestures that will show your customers you acknowledge their financial uncertainty, but that you still want to stay connected and provide the services that they rely on.

And by now in April, a majority of commercials you see today message toward the virus or simply staying at home, signaling that brands “get it” and cannot proceed with their regular creative.

Stay Relevant but Don’t “Virtue Signal”

On the flip side, advertisers looking to create new campaigns with the backdrop of COVID in mind should not overtly capitalize on the virus. Clearly there is an opportunity for brands to promote best practices in hygiene, social distancing, remote working, and general optimism in the face of adversity — but trying to create artificial linkages to the virus will fall flat. Social Media Today warned brands against “virtue signaling,” i.e. when your brand “conspicuously expresses its values without actually taking actions to live by those values.” One example used was a mortgage company emailing a customer to say that they take the health of their customers and employees seriously. That should be a given and is not a helpful communication. What they failed to say is what happens when a customer can’t make their payment that month or the months after.

Reallocate Campaign Budgets and Expand Your Target Audience 

This may be obvious, but worth saying anyway. Budgets should be redistributed to where consumers are spending more time (i.e. reading the news online, playing games, social media, watching TV or streaming). Make the most of the situation by leveraging “always-on” prospecting campaigns as consumer screen-time increases more than ever before, and brand awareness continues to be of extreme importance. 

One assumption —only anecdotal as this is unfolding in real-time —is that the older population is online more than previously, especially grandparents who need to rely more than ever before on email, Facetime, Zoom, Google Hangouts and Marco Polo. Even for those who live in the same geographical areas as their grandkids — social distancing makes those relationships just as challenged as cross-country families. 

What About the Long-Term?

Businesses’ migration to digital platforms and the adoption of new technology to improve current services and make them more available online will be eye-opening for consumers and companies alike.  Perhaps in the long-term, customers will be more open to 3D apartment viewings, shopping online for a vehicle and live streaming of events, for example.

And after the crisis passes (knock on wood) it’s time to plan for the second half of the year as consumers get ready to go back to normal and create a powerful post-crisis campaign with all those learnings in mind.

In the end, it’s about reassuring the customer as much as a brand can during this new reality and adapting your marketing strategy along the way to best meet their needs. Stay healthy!


    Mariona Prat Vila
    Global Director Marketing at zeotap

    Mariona is currently the Global Director of Marketing at Zeotap.She is a strategic thinker, analytical and hands-on executor with a proven track record of thriving in a fast-paced and entrepreneurial environment.
    She has more than 6 years of international experience across 3 continents as an insights-driven strategic marketer.

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