Brand Strategy | May 25, 2020

How Brands Are Using Digital Marketing to Bolster Customer Relationships During Coronavirus

coronavirus marketing and advertising customer relations

Use digital marketing to strengthen customer relationships during COVID-19.

As coronavirus spreads across the U.S. and the world rapidly, brands and their audiences are swiftly adapting to a new reality. Both external and internal operations are being modified: prepared companies are activating their business continuity plans in employee-facing efforts and pivoting to new digital marketing strategies on the customer-facing front.


What successful steps are brands taking to meet their customers where they are now? And how might companies emerge from a widespread challenge like the coronavirus? 


Here’s what the landscape currently looks like: social distancing efforts to keep the coronavirus at bay are ramping up, and employees have turned their homes into offices and their laptops into conference rooms. 


Shopping aisle crowds have given way to online browsing; and weeknight dinners and weekend brunches have been replaced by take-out and delivery orders. 


Retail and branch closures marked the second half of March 2020. Companies are adapting and embracing digital transitions, if the virtual happy hours are any indication.


Needless to say, these are challenging and uncertain times for brand marketing efforts and business continuity. But with strategic, honest, and reassuring steps, brands can ensure that their values and missions are aligned with those of the customer, while making sure that their internal processes are well-oiled and ready to roll.


Communicating with Customers during Coronavirus: Honesty, Empathy, and Clarity


Most planned marketing strategies have halted as brands opt to reach customers where they are: online and looking for information. This is not a time to capitalize on a crisis; but, brands can still communicate with their customers about what they are doing to prioritize safety and well-being at all levels to help customers make the same choices they did before.


The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, following the guidance of the CDC’s recommendations for businesses and workers, has provided helpful messaging for what that communication can look like.

Credit: U.S.Chamber of Commerce Coronavirus Response Toolkit

For small businesses who still want to communicate with their customers and keep them informed, but without the resources or time to fine-tune their messaging, the Chamber of Commerce has also provided shareable infographics on its website.

Credit: U.S.Chamber of Commerce Coronavirus Response Toolkit


Each of the graphics has a “Preview” option pop up as the cursor hovers, and leads to an option to “Share/Download.”


Drafting a Business Continuity Plan

A business continuity plan is a system of prevention and recovery from potential threats to a company, per Investopedia. A business continuity plan outlines roles, responsibilities and processes that need to be put in place in the event of emergencies to ensure that business operations continue as robustly as possible for all workers. 


A survey of over 300 global companies conducted by Mercer in February highlighted some gaps companies needed to plug to ensure minimal disruption: 27.2% of those surveyed did not have a Business Continuity Plan in place and nearly 24% are developing one now. 


Investopedia summarizes the steps in creating a successful business continuity plan in clear and concise form:


Business Impact Analysis: Here, the business will identify functions and related resources that are time-sensitive. 

Recovery: In this portion, the business must identify and implement steps to recover critical business functions.

Organization: A continuity team must be created. This team will devise a plan to manage the disruption.

Training: The continuity team must be trained and tested. Members of the team should also complete exercises that go over the plan and strategies.


What does this look like during coronavirus?

Typically in a situation like the coronavirus crisis, companies issue directives to follow, such as work-from-home requirements, business travel considerations, upgrading and digitizing communication and collaboration, and keeping employees and clients informed of the steps the company is taking to weather emergencies.


One immediate step for brands to take for the employees and customers—if they choose to go ahead with an elaborate communications strategy—is to keep them well-informed. 


In the case of the coronavirus, that means keeping an eye on regular updates from the World Health Organization, the U.S. Center for Disease Control, local political leadership, and health experts.


Sweetgreen, the fast-casual salad chain, appears in a later example for laudable frontline efforts—but, through email marketing, it has also achieved the goal of keeping its customers informed about its practices in keeping with CDC guidelines.


Beyond addressing health and safety practices at its locations, Sweetgreen also lets customers know at the bottom of the email that there is “no evidence to support the transmission of COVID-19 through food” per the CDC—which lets customers know that it is safe to order from Sweetgreen.  And importantly, it lets them know that Sweetgreen is monitoring official health information and updates as a key part of its customer outreach. 


Risk assessment and analysis during coronavirus


All business continuity plans discuss contingencies. Once a company identifies, evaluates and analyzes all possible risks and threats to its business, it conducts an audit of next steps: how exposed each department in the company is to each of the threats, the likelihood of a threat to materialize, and procedures to follow in the event of a threat. 


Supremus Group, a consultancy focused on HIPAA, has put together several Risk Analysis templates that companies can guide their directives with. For a free option, the Department of Homeland Security has useful material with an easy-to-follow template, seen below:

Credit: U.S. Department of Homeland Security


In the case of coronavirus, some considerations include: paid sick leave, remote work and travel capabilities, office closures, health screenings for employees, and regulating how the office functions in terms of safety and cleanliness. 


Considering office and branch closures

Several brands, like Patagonia and Glossier, closed their locations in the U.S. and beyond by mid-March and in statements from the CEOs, explained their decisions and expressed their uncertainty in navigating an ongoing crisis— and determination to do right by customers and employees. 


As this Harvard Business Review article notes, these types of steps display critical empathy and humility “in the face of a force larger than all of us.” A letter from the CEO or Founder establishes this modicum of authority and trust between brand and customer.


Switching to remote work

A crucial step in re-adapting daily operations disrupted by coronavirus is making sure employees have resources to work remotely, like laptops, team collaboration tools, devices and VPNs. Setting up online communications channels, like Slack, Google Hangouts, Skype for Business (or Microsoft Teams), WebEx and Zoom, creates a seamless transition from in-office to remote communication.


Planning Ahead and Tracking Trends

Harvard Business Review recommends that brands track consumption and sentiment trends across their platforms, websites, social channels and e-commerce product pages to gain better insights that power their next steps. This type of tracking also helps detect opportunities and any “looming crisis.”


Brand Communications and Initiatives: Who’s Doing What?

As brands shelve their messages of marketing past, they are now reconsidering what messages are essential to relay to their customers. Most brands, at this time, know to tread carefully and to refrain from any marketing activity that could be seen as exploitative or as capitalizing on a crisis.


Some brands, like Square and LinkedIn, are rebranding some of their existing brand values to best fit their goals during the coronavirus crisis. Others, like Nike and Coca-Cola and many more, have set up donation funds to direct much-needed help to populations hit hard by coronavirus. Still more, like Sweetgreen and World Central Kitchen, focus on feeding frontline health workers—manifesting their original value proposition.


Read on to see how these brands and more are connecting with customers—and resonating with what’s on their minds.


Square: Boosting Local Business


Square helps sellers – from large retailers to local businesses and entrepreneurs— establish and grow their business. 


Thirty million small businesses operate in the U.S., and as customers remain housebound, small businesses are feeling the strain as they shutter brick-and-mortar locations. 


Square stepped in with its Give&Get Local marketing campaign to encourage customers to support their local businesses by purchasing gift cards, ordering online, and getting takeout. On the homepage, the customer uses a zip code to narrow down a list of small businesses in the area from which they can purchase gift cards. Square also filters all sellers by the nature of their business: like food and drink, healthcare, transport and so on.

Credit: Square Give & Get Local

Credit: Square Give & Get Local

Patagonia: Continuing to Save the Planet

Outdoor gear company Patagonia has made activism a core tenet of its brand and mission. It gives customers ample evidence—through its involvement in community grassroots efforts, climate change petitions, and sustainable practices— that it’s making good on its promises. 


Continuing in that vein around the coronavirus crisis, Patagonia revived its efforts around Patagonia Action Works, its activism wing, to encourage customers to devote some time during this crisis as volunteers to match their skills with vulnerable organizations in the climate, community, and biodiversity arenas.


Patagonia Action Works takes the user to their chosen city or Patagonia grantee, where they can filter by volunteer and skills needs and sign their name to all the petitions and causes Patagonia is focusing on. 


At a time when customers might be wondering how best to help those affected by the coronavirus, Patagonia has taken steps to ease the search with a ready database of causes.

Credit: PatagoniaActionWorks

Credit: PatagoniaActionWorks


Peloton: Staying home and staying fit 

People can no longer go to their gyms. 


Peloton, a fitness brand that makes in-home exercise its value proposition, stepped right in to fill the gap by offering new subscribers a 90-day free trial as opposed to a previous 30-day option. 


Considering most free trials expire in a month, this offer —which comes with several classes dedicated to strength, yoga, running, stretching, and cardio, and until recently, live studio options for all— is especially tempting for people who might not have considered Peloton as a viable fitness option before. 

Credit: Peloton App

Plus, the idea of the Peloton Community—the company often name-drops its trainers in its messaging, knowing that its subscribers will know who they are—is also appealing for people who still want to participate in group exercise from their homes. 


At a time when old subscribers and customers might be falling off, Peloton is making the bold move of tapping into a new subscriber base with its new offer. 


Sweetgreen: Staying healthy and putting frontline first


Sweetgreen, the fast-casual salad chain, pivoted to relevant digital marketing practices on all its fronts and let customers know how its practices would carry on, with regard to a) customers b) employees c) social responsibility.


Since early March, Sweetgreen’s typical marketing strategy has moved from highlighting new bowls or stories to strong delivery and takeout messaging. Sandwiched between these messages were emails candidly talking about branch closures, hand-washing practices, and transparency about wellness leave policies.


Credit: Sweetgreen                                                                                       

Sweetgreen, to much praise, also launched Impact Outpost Fund in partnership with World Central Kitchen to donate free Sweetgreen meals to hospital workers and medical personnel. 

Credit: Sweetgreen x World Central Kitchen


The double-whammy paid off for Sweetgreen: not only has it reassured its customers of the ways they can still eat Sweetgreen salads during an unprecedented time, but it has also reassured them that as a company, their mission to use food to heal and connect achieves their employee health and social responsibility goals. 


LinkedIn: Making learning resources free as a one-stop shop for all things economy and work


LinkedIn noted on a recent blog that searches for content on remote work grew by 2.6x from March 2018. As the world’s professional network, LinkedIn has programmed its feed to focus on three main things: bringing news and reports about the economy and workplaces for a dedicated coronavirus feed; bringing health and safety updates from experts, including the WHO and the CDC, and unlocking learning courses.


That last one falls in line with other brands, like Loom, making some of their services free to reach the most customers as the consequences of the coronavirus hamper the regular workday. 


LinkedIn unlocked 16 of its learning courses to make the transition easier; these include videos on working remotely, learning how to use tools like Zoom, ways to increase productivity and improve time management, as well as advice on how to balance well-being and productivity.

Loom: Making remote work easier and more accessible


Video-conferencing service Loom usage shot up in late February as more and more teams and organizations began working remotely. In a candid letter written by Loom CEO and founder Joe Thomas, he observed that Loom, if it kept its pricing unchanged, stood to make a profit as the global coronavirus crisis unfolded.


Calling it “obviously and unequivocally wrong” to pursue that model, Thomas noted that he’d follow the same path G Suite and Microsoft in terms of easing a transition from working in the office to the home by cutting the price of Loom Pro in half, extending all trials to 30 days from 14, and upgraded recording to unlimited on their free plan. 


Loom topped off its offer by making Loom Pro free for education: for all teachers and students from K-12, universities and other educational institutions. 


Thanks to these steps, Loom was able to maximize the value it added to its consumers’ lives: a product that helps those “who, for whatever reason, can’t be in the same room.”


IKEA: Positioning Products for the At-Home Customer

IKEA is a great example of how to position products and services in a completely unprecedented situation where large numbers of people are staying home. The landing page now reads “Home. The most important place in the world. We can help you make the most of your time together at home.” 


The customer navigates to a page with advice: how to construct a well-functioning home office, what toys and games to enjoy with your kids, how to get organized for spring—and all the IKEA offerings that can help them check off the list.


These are real-time considerations that stay-at-home workers, roommates and families are facing, and IKEA’s new messaging hits right at the heart of these conversations. 

Credit: IKEA

Merriam-Webster: Using Social Media to Keep People Occupied

The dictionary company has carved out a name for itself on social media platforms, especially Twitter, for giving language-lovers something new to chew on every day. It routinely publishes blogs about what lookups are surging and keeps up a wry patter with its audience. It also uses a Word of the Day feature as a consistent strategy to start discussion threads and push a daily social conversation, no matter what the world looks like on that particular day.


The coronavirus situation is no different. 


Since March 19, the Merriam Webster Twitter handle has started a thread listing several “beautiful, obscure, and often quite useless words.” 


While this is part of its typical digital marketing strategy, Merriam Webster caught on to the fact that its customers might be looking for a respite from constant news updates—and what better way to distract them than by gathering them en masse under a list of obscure and useless words?


Credit: Merriam-Webster Twitter                              Credit: Merriam-Webster Twitter

Nike and Coca-Cola: Leveraging Social Reach for Social Distancing

Footwear and sportswear giant Nike and soft-drink titan Coca-Cola both decided to use their considerable brand strength to emphasize social distancing by weaving in messages of unity and community. 


Nike has over 114 million followers across Instagram and Twitter, and Coke has nearly 4 million across the two platforms. Leveraging social reach is one way to deliver a message of reassurance and safety and bolster brand awareness. 


Nike debuted a star-studded #playinside #playfortheworld ad on all its platforms asking its followers to play for the world by playing inside. 


Sports stars including LeBron James, Carli Lloyd and Cristiano Ronaldo reposted the ad to their millions of followers with their signatures—an example of how the Nike brand can leverage its celebrity currency to push a social message.


Of course, customers want to see action, too. An Ace Metrix survey report from late March noted that 84% of over 2,400 customers think brands have a responsibility to help the general public in weathering the pandemic.


In that vein, the Coca-Cola Company donated $13.5 million in grants to nonprofits and had its plastic recycling wing partner with the nonprofit MakeIt to donate and transport plastic sheeting to make face shields for first-responders. 


And on April 7, the brand also made the significant decision to turn over its social channels to the organizations and nonprofits it was working with—both to keep its consumers informed and in what seems like a strategic move to shift from its usual lighthearted marketing tone.

Credit: Coca-Cola Twitter

#RaiseYourSpirits: Bacardi’s three-pronged marketing strategy


The spirits company Bacardi has moved its marketing strategy forward in three directions to help bars and bartenders who have lost business with its #RaiseYourSpirits initiative. Partnering with Deliveroo Editions, Bacardi is set to bring customers cocktails from 120 local bars and pubs in London and Manchester. 


The brand has also tapped into what has occupied a large share of marketing strategy in recent years: influencer marketing. Bacardi signed on bartenders to make YouTube tutorials with cocktail recipes for all its customers at home, and has also booked them for training events after the crisis passes. 


Finally, per Yahoo! Finance, Bacardi has also repurposed its factories for Bombay Sapphire gin and Dewar’s Blended Scotch Whisky into hand sanitizer production centers.


This approach of pivoting to need-of-the-hour products for frontline workers as well as refocusing priorities for customers at home is an ideal way to ensure that the brand aligns itself with positive messaging surrounding its response to the pandemic. 


World Central Kitchen and Washington Nationals: Feeding Solutions


In an example of brands working together to achieve a common goal with expanded abilities, chef Jose Andres’ nonprofit organization has joined hands with professional baseball team Washington Nationals. 


World Central Kitchen, a global nonprofit disaster relief organization focused on providing food to those hit by natural disasters and human rights violations, has partnered with the Washington Nationals to ferry food to communities in need.


World Central Kitchen and the Nationals are using an empty baseball stadium to increase their abilities to get prepared meals out to those in public housing and at-risk communities. They started with 1,000 meals a day and hope to expand to tens of thousands each day, per Eater.


This is not the first time World Central Kitchen has stepped up during the coronavirus crisis: as the quarantined Grand Princess cruise ship prepared to dock off the coast of California in early March, the nonprofit provided meals and prepared to-go lunches to disembarking passengers and crew who remained on the ship. 


The Heart of It

The coronavirus is a crisis no one saw coming. As the world fits into a new normal, brands, too, are reconfiguring what their place is in the changed lives of their customers. As Harvard Business Review concludes, what is important to keep in mind is that  both brands and customers will have to learn together with confidence and humility during these uncertain times—where leadership and goodwill are showing up in new, unexpected, and potentially lasting ways. 

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