Marketing during Crisis and Recession, Part 1

Stephen DeAngelis

April 13, 2020

With millions of people furloughed as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic, brands understand consumer purchasing power has diminished dramatically. This drop in purchasing power begs the question: Why market? It’s a tougher question to answer than you might think. The current situation has doubled-over companies with a one-two punch of crisis plus recession. Some pundits insist marketing during a crisis and marketing during a recession represent two distinct cases. If true, which marketing mode should brands use — crisis mode or recession mode? The best course is probably starting out in crisis mode and, when applicable, transform into recession mode as the crisis wanes. In this part one of this article, I discuss what some subject matter experts are saying about marketing during a crisis. In part two of this article, I will discuss what experts say about marketing during a recession.


Marketing during a crisis


Benish Shah (@benishshah), Chief Growth Officer at Loop and Tie, and Bradley Johnson (@bradage), Ad Age‘s director of data analytics, offer very difference crisis marketing advice. Shah writes, “How to market during a crisis. Short answer: Don’t.”[1] Johnson, on the other hand, writes, “For this economy to function, companies must market even amid a global crisis.”[2] Shah explains her answer by noting, “In addition to managing personal anxiety, marketers and business executives/owners are facing unprecedented questions in a crisis that is open-ended and could affect every brand, business, individual, and supply chain. People are looking for information, connection points to calm their fears, and support. What they are not looking for: brands marketing to them or epiphanies on life from the ‘Personal Brands’ of VCs/Founders/Executives.” If I interpret her correctly, she is saying brands should communicate with consumers rather than trying to sell them something.


Johnson offers a very different message. He writes, “For marketers, maybe the easiest course is to batten down the hatches — cut back, stay low, just hope to survive, not fight a seemingly losing battle at a time when they figure consumers don’t want to hear from them. But the economy needs marketers and marketing. Consumer spending — ‘personal consumption expenditures’ — in 2019 accounted for more than two-thirds of economic activity (specifically, 68 percent of U.S. gross domestic product). Marketing helps drive commerce. I hope we see marketers … and media … and agencies willing to take bold risks to keep this economy rolling. Marketers have an opportunity to give consumers a reason to spend — deals, products, services — even when we are bunkered up and hunkered down.”[3]


I should note there are two kinds of crises with which companies must deal: global/national crises and corporate crises. The former affects everybody and the latter primarily affects specific companies and their customers. Anita Brearton (@abrearton), Founder and CEO of CabinetM, insists marketers need to remain adaptable and flexible regardless of the type of crisis; but, she writes, “Agility and flexibility are not enough.”[3] She explains, “You must add creativity and innovation to the mix. This is the time to really earn your salary as a marketer. Go back to your business and marketing objectives, and assess how well you can achieve them without the channel or set of programs you’ve been forced to eliminate. Now look into the void and start brainstorming with your team new ways to fill the gap.” Allison Schiff (@OSchiffey), a senior editor for AdExchanger, adds, “Media plans that made sense two weeks ago might come off as dissonant today. Set-it-and-forget-it is never a good idea, but especially not now.”[4] That doesn’t mean brands shouldn’t advertise. Even Shah admits, “Brands cannot stop marketing altogether.” She shares some guidelines that may help marketing efforts during a crisis:


1. Know the purpose of your brand. Shah writes, “This is about knowing what your company does and not just what it stands for. Brand and company are often used interchangeably and at this time, it’s really about what your company does.”


2. Focus on what your customers RELY on you to do. “Instead of creating new things to attract customers that are outside the norm,” Shah writes, “identify what your customers already rely on you for. … If you are in the business of providing mental health services, increase capacity to do so. If you are not in that business, don’t capitalize on the world’s anxiety. Notice that the brands being applauded are not the ones creating something ‘new’ for you to buy, participate in, or consume outside of their core company product. The ones being appreciated are doing what they can to increase capacity to support what you already rely on them for.”


3. Evolve your tone of voice. Shah insists companies need to be sensitive to real-time events. “Evolve your tone of voice on a day by day basis, as the crisis changes. It is important to understand how vulnerable populations are being affected by this crisis. Certain types of humor are not appropriate right now, empathy is.”


4. Share, once. Telling people they are not alone over the television probably doesn’t make them feel less lonely. Telling them you understand their loneliness is probably a better message. Shah writes, “The key to being genuine in this moment is to know when to share and when to stop.” She believes doing anything once is enough. “After that, it is opportunistic marketing.” Schiff adds, “The virus is having a palpable impact on how consumers shop and consume media and goods, and marketers need to figure out how to communicate with people in a new way. Or not communicate, as the case may be.”


5. Listen to the collective pulse, not yourself. Listening is always a good thing to do. Shah explains, “What you, as an individual, need or believe right now is not what your customers need. It is CRITICAL to remember that. Their economic, life, mental, etc. circumstances are different. … If you are not continuously interacting with people outside your social circles, you are not aware of the collective pulse, you are only aware of yours. Step out of that circle.”


Concluding thoughts


Shah concludes, “In times of crisis, people want credible information and reliable companies. If you have important (and credible) information to share about the crisis itself, share it. If you are a retail/e-commerce brand that can keep the public updated about merchandise stock to prevent panic-level buying, that’s valuable information. If you are a company that understands distributed workforces and work from home policies, share that knowledge. As brands, and their leaders, look for meaningful ways to engage during an unprecedented crisis — remember that how you behave is more meaningful than any brand message. … People will remember how you made them feel.” Schiff adds, “It’s less about advertising and more about trying to be helpful, useful and informative.”


The very worst thing you can do is spread false information. Marketing professional Indrajeet Deshpande (@IndrajeetAD) writes, “There’s naturally fear among people when a crisis strikes, which paves the way for misinformation. In the early stages of the crisis, news, many times, may not be most reliable due to the lack of facts available. Therefore, organizations should evaluate their news sources and news itself before communicating with customers and making decisions.” Schiff relates one of the worst examples of poor behavior she’s seen She writes, “The Miami New Times reported that Norwegian Cruise Line managers were encouraging their salespeople to share falsehoods about the coronavirus in order to drum up bookings, including that the disease doesn’t spread in hot weather. A whistleblower leaked emails in which a manager shared talking points for sales reps to use if potential customers expressed concern about COVID-19, such as ‘The only thing you need to worry about for your cruise is do you have enough sunscreen?’ After the story broke, an executive sent an internal memo with the statement: ‘One of our own ratted.’ That email was leaked as well.” The bottom line is this: Do what’s right and your customers will remain loyal.


[1] Benish Shah, “How to Market During a Crisis. Short answer: Don’t.Noteworthy – The Journal Blog, 14 March 2020.
[2] Bradley Johnson, “Opinion: What 9/11 Can Teach Us About Marketing in the Time of Crisis,” Ad Age, 17 March 2020.
[3] Anita Brearton, “Marketing in a Time of Crisis,” CMS Wire, 11 March 2020.
[4] Allison Schiff, “The Dos And Don’ts Of Marketing During A Global Crisis,” AdExchanger, 19 March 2020.
[5] Indrajeet Deshpande, “Your 2020 Crisis Marketing Strategy: Marketing Communication and the Coronavirus (COVID-19),” MarTech Advisor, 13 March 2020.