How NOT to communicate in a pandemic

Ouch. In the past month or so, these 5 mistakes keep turning up in brand messages. I’ve found them in marketing emails, or paid advertising, or other assorted customer comms. Whilst understandable in some ways, I couldn’t help but wince. So here’s a personal take on how not to communicate during a pandemic.

1) Serving me, serving you

Let’s say you bought a one-off gift online for a colleague 5 years ago. Now that retailer has got in touch to say that they’re thinking of you in these difficult times. Now multiply that by the number of other retailers who you have transacted with over the past few years. They’re all thinking of you too. Good to know, but your inbox is probably looking rather full by now.

And the truth is, you know that they are not thinking of their customers. They are thinking of their lost custom. So, more than ever, do an honesty check before you click send. Who is your message serving, you or your audience? Are you telling them something useful or valuable? Are you offering them something that they would appreciate? Are you sure you know how they will feel on receiving it?

I’ve had three types of communications from big corporates recently. The first tells me that their support team is short-staffed at the moment (understandable) and points me in the direction of a FAQs page instead (useful). The second type pretends that the downgrading of their service is in fact for my benefit. An example I’ve seen basically says: great news, now you no longer need to call our support team as there’s a fab new FAQs page instead (still useful, but disingenuous).

The third type shows naked opportunism, as seen in messages such as this: our service may well be delayed in the future so why not tell us your mobile number so we can keep you informed? That request may be reasonable if you’re an essential service, but it’s clearly a shameless data grab for anyone else.

It doesn’t feel honest, it doesn’t respect your customers’ intelligence, so unsurprisingly it won’t serve your brand well.

2) Rescue me

I have come across several smaller brands and services who have asked for custom out of pity, pleading loss of their livelihood through no fault of their own. Of course, such circumstances do deserve pity and compassion, but that does not mean it will solicit the desired response.
Knowing your customer base is essential for this approach. A much-loved neighbourhood business recently put out an SOS and our local community has responded in spades, seeing it through this difficult period. But not everyone could or should follow suit.

Charities have long tugged at purse strings by engaging such emotions but it’s certainly a new one for commercial businesses. Obviously, there are many essential conversations to be had with suppliers and clients about helping each other through these times. These are best done one-to-one.

Think twice before broadcasting your predicament. Times are tough, but are you absolutely sure you are at the bottom of the heap? Do you understand the circumstances of every one who sees your message? Will their hearts bleed for your downturn in sales whilst they are mourning the loss of a loved one? Are their own businesses in such rude health? It’s all too easy to attract more hostility than new customers.
If you truly feel you have no option but to appeal to people’s better instincts, then try to hit the right note and, again, offer something useful if you can. Try not to belabour the hardship story. Simply say that things are a struggle right now so do think of us if you’re looking for [product / service] and that you’d appreciate their custom more than ever.

No more needs to be said, however therapeutic it feels to spell out your difficulties in more detail. Sure, it would make you feel better but it would also make your prospective clients feel worse, which surely is not the aim of the exercise. Conversely, if you can strike the right note then you can deepen your bond with clients and customers, as of course it feels great to give as well as to receive.

3) The end is nigh

Disease. Death. Crisis. Unprecedented crisis. Unprecedented global crisis. If you were feeling calm at the start of this paragraph, your blood pressure may be rising by now. (Perhaps that’s a symptom?!). Please don’t stir this particular pot more than is necessary. After a month of every ad, blog, email and column starting with mild hysteria, it’s fair to ask whether this is helpful for your audience or desirable for your brand. I am not suggesting twee euphemisms or dodging the elephant in the room, but I do feel a touch of British restraint would be welcome. We can all follow the news; we don’t need brands to provide a violin soundtrack.

Ramping up emotion can be a very effective approach for brands in normal times. But if you cast your eye over your brand infrastructure, be it a pyramid, onion or funnel, is ‘panic’ one of your core values? Thought not.

In fact, you may find your brand infrastructure suddenly seems woefully inadequate for the new trading circumstances, so it may be worth thinking through how your brand can best stay true to itself in current times, without adding to the general maelstrom.

4) The silent treatment

Having warned you off all the things not to say, one thing to avoid is saying nothing. Your existing marketing messages may no longer be appropriate, nor the frequency of your schedule, but going silent for six months will not leave you in a good position to pick up where you left off.

Think about softer content rather than direct promotional messages. Consider what your clients are going through and ways that you could help, even if there is no direct profit in it. Share behind-the-scenes stories, or humour from the sector, or throwback photos from more vibrant times. Start dialogues and invite feedback. The aim is to keep the relationship going, like a long-distance love affair.

Staying with the long-distance love affair analogy, you may want to promise something enticing for when normal relations resume. When you’ve paused trading, it’s hard to fill the silence, but you can bridge the gap by promising to celebrate your return to business with a special offer for existing clients. This promise will help keep the connection strong, even when trade has come to a standstill.

If you can be useful, supportive or can add the human touch, then your marketing can strengthen your position for the future. You may even decide to retain an element of this softer content in your marketing mix for when business as usual resumes.

5) Diplomatic immunity

The current situation has thrown up some jarring contrasts. My social media feed has included ‘relatable’ memes about raiding the fridge during lockdown right next to desperate pleas for food bank donations. For all those who are bored and lonely at home, there are others rushed off their feet at work, covering for sick colleagues and under pressure like never before. So if you’re seeking to relate to people’s experiences, a little tact would go a long way. Don’t assume that their lockdown is like your lockdown, and remember that in hard times your audience may be feeling more sensitive than usual.

I haven’t named names in this article but the examples are all taken from real marketing clangers that I’ve seen in the past month or two (or not seen, in the case of the silent treatment). If you’ve spotted any more, I’d be interested to hear about them, however painful they may be.

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