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We KNOW – Things Are Difficult! 


Brand Messaging and Tone in a COVID-19 World

I listen to a lot of podcasts. One thing you get used to when you listen to podcasts is the ads the hosts read for different brand sponsors. Some popular ones include HelloFresh meal delivery, the Noom weight loss app, and the ZipRecruiter hiring app. Lately, many of these ads all share one outstanding characteristic – they’re all offering a sympathetic nod to “things being pretty hard right now” – or some variation of that sentiment.

Since COVID-19 drove people into their homes, then cautiously out again, and somewhat back in now that more anxiety has been cast about the winter months, brands have adopted an apologetic tone, couching their products or services as a way to help/escape/cope/reward ourselves (etc.) for the trouble 2020 has leveled upon us.

Every time I hear this type of ad-speak, I think, sarcastically, “Thanks for the reminder about how challenging 2020 has been!”

And then my marketing brain kicks on and I think, “Is this really working for brands?”

The answer is yes – and no.

In the first weeks and months after the pandemic broke out, many brands reacted by going dark, which was somewhat ill-advised because in truth, adapting to the “new normal” was most prudent for brands to keep business moving. 

What COVID-19 has done is force brands to rethink their marketing strategies. 

Since the early months of this pandemic, we’ve seen the integration of masks in TV or print ads; we’ve heard messaging around the introduction of contactless delivery or pickup; we’ve enjoyed discounts and deals to make purchase decisions easier during a time when many people lost or were furloughed from their jobs. 

These tactics are smart and allowed brands to forge connections with consumers dealing with a suddenly different way of life. But as the months have passed and we’ve witnessed reopenings of businesses and schools and the resumption of certain social activities, many brands are alluding to the collective struggle of 2020 as part of their messaging – regardless of their audience or what they’re selling.

Doing so is only problematic if the messaging fails to understand that many people are still very seriously impacted by this pandemic and that the challenges of March and April are persistent across the country today. 

There remains a “right way” and a “wrong way” for brands to incorporate messaging around the pandemic in their advertising, and even if the greatest consequence of the “wrong way” is an eye roll from your consumers, we think it’s always best to err on the side of caution.

When Does a Nod to COVID-19 Help Brands?

Alluding to the challenges of 2020 – which for some have been significant and for others less so – can work if it’s the right brand and the right offering. A successful delivery of this type of message depends on the product or service being offered and if it’s directly related to the COVID-19 struggle.

If your company is genuinely helpful, or in the business of making home life easier, it can be impactful to and appreciated by consumers. 

DoorDash, for example, is a contact-free food delivery service that works with local restaurants and national chains to bring the food you want right to your door. This brand realizes people are largely stuck at home and has created messaging that respectfully alludes to this situation:

“Between never-ending laundry cycles and incoming emails, you’ve got plenty of items on your todo list. Give yourself one less thing to worry about, and let DoorDash take care of your next meal.”

As a consumer often overwhelmed with being home and very much missing the experience of eating at a restaurant, the messaging resonates and feels helpful and relevant. I also appreciate that it is specific to certain challenges of being at home, rather than reminding me about the general dumpster fire of a year 2020 has been. 

When Does Referencing the Pandemic NOT Help a Brand?

With anything in life – but especially with marketing – people can tell when something is disingenuous or a blatant cash-grab. 

In the first weeks after the pandemic, brands that responded by simply shutting off their marketing now may be struggling with how to do any advertising if it doesn’t directly mention COVID-19 or the general unpleasantness of 2020 many consumers feel. 

This conundrum is why most brands, regardless of what they are offering, use language like, “We could all use a little fun right now,” or “Now more than ever we need a break from reality.”

For something unrelated to the challenge of the pandemic – a luxury item like a car or a leisure purchase like jewelry or a new mattress– the reference can seem thin and out-of-place.

For example, Heinz debuted a “tomato blood ketchup” leading up to Halloween, with this message from its brand manager, “Families have had to navigate a lot this year, and Halloween is no exception. With Heinz Tomato Blood Ketchup, we want to give families a fun way to go big with their spooky celebrations, even if they look a bit different in 2020.”

The reality? Heinz ketchup is not a solution to much except perhaps a lack of flavor with my french fries.  

References to the pandemic are not obligatory. Brands that aren’t offering direct help or relief to the real struggles people are facing each day would be better off not mentioning or alluding to the pandemic at all.

In place of brands going out of their way to keep reminding consumers of the challenges that confront us, brands can also win by using normal, pandemic-free messaging where appropriate. 

COVID-19 has certainly changed the way we do everything, and brands continue to search for the right tone in response to the events transpiring this year. 

One thing we can all agree on? 2020 has been difficult, for some more than others, and in different ways. The best brand messaging and tone during COVID-19 are those of compassion, understanding, helpfulness, and humility; consumers will see right through attempts to use the pandemic as a way to sell more products.