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The Dos and Don’ts of Marketing During a Pandemic

Despite the difficulty the global health crisis and ensuing economic fallout has created, brands need to communicate clearly and honestly with their customers now more than ever.
Marketing efforts from Kenzo and Vestiaire Collective | Source: Collage by BoF
  • Alexandra Mondalek

MADRID, Spain — Babaa, a small, direct-to-consumer knitwear brand founded in Madrid in 2012, might seem well-positioned to win the loyalty of self-isolating shoppers. The pitch practically writes itself: cozy, merino wool jumpers at a mid-level price point to get you through a seemingly endless period of social distancing.

That’s not the direction Babaa founder Marta Bahillo has gone, however. On her brand’s Instagram account, she’s posted videos she shot of her children visiting the label’s Barcelona factory before the pandemic reached Spain. One shows her son exploring the facility’s knitting machines, another depicts the time she brought her newborn daughter to meet Babaa’s seamstresses.

Bahillo said she had previously avoided posting about her personal life, but felt it was necessary as the coronavirus death toll surpassed 10,000 people in Spain, where Babaa is headquartered.

“People are dying, there are neighbours who — I don't know when I come out who is going to be alive, like it is crazy,” Bahillo told BoF. “So, my message comes from that. I wasn't even thinking of money or anything.”


The posts prompted a flood of messages from followers who appreciated the heartfelt content, which attracted 1,230 “likes” and 41 comments, double the average engagement the brand sees on many of its Instagram feed posts. She said sales have been steady, though supply chain interruptions have delayed orders.

Consumers are always watching, but they are watching more intensely now.

Marketing during the pandemic has become a minefield for brands. Companies need to communicate directly with their customers, especially now that stores in most major economies have closed. But many tried-and-true marketing techniques come off as tone-deaf.

While it may not be the time to blindly push a product, it is the moment to show what a brand really stands for. Use that to make a play for customers' attention, and, eventually, their money.

1. Do acknowledge the pandemic. Don’t depress potential customers.

Many people are thinking about little other than Covid-19 right now, and the threat the pandemic poses to their health and finances. Brands have to acknowledge the crisis or they’ll come off as insensitive — or just be tuned out entirely. Campaigns showing groups of people enjoying themselves at an outdoor party are going to fall flat.

That doesn’t mean marketing has to be sombre. Apparel brand La Ligne struck a lighthearted tone in a recent email, building on the news of a social distance-abiding outdoor wedding (“Here Comes the Self-Distancing Bride,” La Ligne titled its email) which took place in New York City. The brand provided outfit ideas tinged in lighthearted irony: A pinstripe button-down blouse for the “Justice of the Peace officiating from the 4th-floor apartment window,” and a cashmere wrapped cardigan for “the self-quarantine honeymoon.”

Working from home, self-care, fitness and human connection are themes that allow brands to strike the right balance, according to Edited, a retail research and analytics platform.

Coach has pivoted its "Coach Originals" campaign away from its celebrity-centred approach to one focused on its customers. Where an earlier ad asked actor Michael B. Jordan, "Why are you an original?" the brand now asks Instagram followers, "What brings you joy?"


The brand also partnered with the Instagram account We're Not Really Strangers, which posts earnest messages, on a painted billboard in Manhattan to serve as a "mood-lifting reminder."

"It's really about striking that balance between having a voice in this environment, and not thinking that as a fashion company that you're going to lead a conversation about a pandemic," said Nicole Jennings, senior vice president of digital media at ForwardPMX, a brand performance agency whose clients include Asos and Tommy Hilfiger.

2. Do work with influencers. Don’t let them get carried away.

Major retailers like Macy's and Ulta have reduced or altogether paused their affiliate marketing programs, in which influencers post about their products and receive commissions on sales. The move may save money, but it will also reduce these companies' profile on social media at a time when they need to be engaging with consumers.

Brands unable to produce their own content given social distancing mandates makes influencer content featuring a product all the more valuable. Plus, consumers stuck at home are spending more time than ever online.

I would advise extra vigilance for brands who are using influencers during this time.

Sophia Roe, a chef and wellness influencer with 125,000 Instagram followers, posted a video on March 17 in partnership with Saks Fifth Avenue, in which she and two other food influencers zested citrus and garnished cocktails while dressed in brands carried by the store, including Proenza Schouler and Nanushka. The videos were shot and produced before the pandemic, and showed the culinary gurus in brief-but-punchy segments vying to prepare the best dish and cocktail in five minutes.

Now more than ever, brands should monitor how the influencers they’re working with are communicating with followers. For example, Naomi Davis, also known as Taza on social media, is a New York City-based parenting influencer with 468,000 Instagram followers who has worked with brands like Olay and Target. At the end of March, Davis posted about taking her family cross country in an RV across the US. The posts drew ire from followers and health professionals alike for violating quarantine recommendations.

"I would advise extra vigilance for brands who are using influencers during this time," said Thomai Serdari, a luxury marketing and brand strategist and adjunct professor at the NYU Stern School of Business. "Consumers are always watching, but they are watching more intensely now. Missteps will not be easily forgiven or forgotten."


3. Do give consumers a virtual escape. Don’t feel like you have to break the bank to do it.

With Coachella, couture week and other major marketing opportunities postponed to the fall, brands are trying to recreate an event atmosphere online.

For instance, Bottega Veneta recently launched a “residency,” featuring musical performances, artist collaborations, cooking shows and “Sunday movie nights,” all on the brand’s website and social media channels. “Stay home with Kenzo” includes weekly DJ sets and artist takeovers on the LVMH-owned brand’s social media.

Sometimes people just need interesting content.

Fashion brands are also teaming up with streaming services to create branded content aimed at housebound viewers. Eyewear brand Persol launched a capsule collection timed to the release of the second season of Netflix’s "La Casa de Papel" or “Money Heist.” H&M has also partnered with Netflix for a collection inspired by the film series “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” a teenage romantic comedy.

Salvatore Ferragamo launched a trivia game through its Instagram stories, a more-modest way to keep consumers entertained.

“Sometimes people just need interesting content,” said Christian Johnston, co-founder of men’s jewellery site The GLD Shop. The store recently called on its social media followers to vote on which items it “drops” first from its collaboration with Marvel Entertainment.

4. Do continue to send marketing emails. Don’t overdo it.

Email marketing offers a direct line of communication and is cost-efficient. That also means it’s widely used by many retailers, creating an avalanche of messages in consumers’ inboxes.

“When it comes to aggressive email advertising, I really don't believe this is the time for doing that sort of thing,” said Serdari. “The frequency of emails needs to be reconsidered and probably decreased, and that would give a brand time to rethink their message.”

Consider other marketing tools — print catalogue, for example — that can make a brand's marketing appear more thoughtful to a captive audience.

“Now that we're at home, what comes in the mail is kind of a big deal,” Jennings said. “This could be a moment in time for being in the mailbox again.”

5. Do consider discounting. Don’t make it a habit.

The pandemic has sharply reduced consumer spending, and brands and retailers are going to be stuck with a glut of out-of-season inventory as a result. Many have already begun discounting in what would otherwise be the prime full-price selling season.

But sales can inspire a race to the bottom that will be hard to reverse when consumer sentiment improves. That’s doubly true for brands that rely on wholesale, as third-party retailers would be forced to price match.

“Us going on sale would have hurt our retail partners more than it would have benefitted us,” said Marc Keiser, co-founder of Los Angeles menswear label Keiser Clark. “Discount culture ... only provides short term gains for a few, at the detriment of long-term gains for the many.”

Instead of discounting new merchandise, some brands have offered a sale on archival products. The Attico, an Italian brand known for its opulent feathered dresses, is doing both this week, launching a “charity e-store” featuring pieces from the brand’s 2019 collections. Profits will go to Italy’s Protezione Civile to help with the health crisis.

“The most important element here, and particularly for luxury brands, is that this type of sale does not train the customer to expect discounts on current or future collections,” Serdari said.

Adding a charity component to a sale also helps cement the idea that discounts won't be a regular event. Staud is donating 10 percent of proceeds from its sitewide sale to St. Vincent Meals on Wheels, and resale site Vestiaire Collective is hosting a Coronavirus Charity Sale with items from Kate Moss and other celebrities' closets, donating 100 percent of the proceeds to groups like the World Health Organisation.

6. Do rethink your marketing strategy. Don’t panic.

The pandemic is forcing companies off their marketing scripts, and the economic downturn will cut advertising budgets. But brands should look for ways to maintain some consistency in their messaging, and where they spend their marketing budgets.

For example, traditional media advertising purchases on television programming and live sports has decreased, said Joseph Kerschbaum, vice president of search & development at 3Q Digital. Instead, brands might consider digital streaming avenues like YouTube. Or, in Coach's case, tailoring a real-world billboard to an Instagram post.

Kerschbaum also advises brands to lean into the data they already have about how to best reach their existing consumers — whether that’s through email marketing, paid search or paid social channels.

“If you have a lowered marketing budget, now is maybe not the time to test a totally new channel. Stick with what you got.”

We’re tracking the latest on the coronavirus outbreak and its impact on the global fashion business. Visit our live blog for everything you need to know.

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