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When Pandemic Marketing Goes Too Far: How to Avoid #COVIDwashing

Sentimental commercials about how we’re all in this together are beginning to fall flat. There are other ways to reach consumers.
An American Eagle billboard in Times Square | Source: Getty Images
  • Alexandra Mondalek

NEW YORK, United States — Commercials have a certain sameness to them these days. Primetime viewers might see McDonald's thanking first responders while promoting free "Thank You Meals" for essential workers. Or Apple, between images of people looking out of their windows and empty streets, avowing that "creativity goes on." Or Target stating that its "hearts are open, and [its] teams are here." Or Macy's, interspersing Thanksgiving Day parade footage with New Yorkers cheering health workers under the slogan, "together we give thanks to the frontline heroes."

According to VAB, a video industry trade group, 253 brands have aired television ads that reference the coronavirus through mid-April. Countless of others have done the same online, or filled customers’ inboxes with “quarantine recipes” and stress-relief tips. Most follow one of two templates: an uplifting message of solidarity in the face of disaster, or an uplifting message of solidarity followed by a sales pitch. They are almost always scored with soft piano instrumentals.

The deluge of cookie-cutter, if seemingly well-intentioned marketing messages has not gone unnoticed by viewers. A YouTube video splicing together commercials from dozens of consumer brands into one “we’re in this together” mega-ad has more than one million views.

“It’s hard to think of Covid-related ads that have felt sincere,” said Kevin Agee, a 35-year-old marketing professional in Springfield, Mo. “Everything I’ve seen has seemed like it’s copying everything else.”

The problem brands face is that the sort of marketing they did before the pandemic feels out of touch, but there are only so many ways to work a deadly virus into ads for bags and shoes. Many “we’re here for you” ads are powerful, or at least inoffensive, in isolation. It’s only when consumers see them back-to-back-to-back that they tune them out.

In some cases, brands even risk being accused of “#COVIDwashing,” the Covid-19 equivalent of greenwashing — co-opting images from the crisis in order to sell clothes.

“I’m so grateful to repeatedly see so many different variations on this new disaster capitalism marketing campaign y’all got going on right now…so tasteful!” one Facebook user wrote of a promotion by the Los Angeles-based brand Christy Dawn, which promoted $200 dresses with the note “We’re all in this together. Our entire collection is available to you at 20% off — use TOGETHER20 at checkout.”

Fashion marketing is particularly fraught right now because consumers are being bombarded with headlines about brands laying off employees, or workers risking their health to ship online fast-fashion orders. Advertisements — even those that don’t overtly try to sell clothes — risk reminding consumers of these issues.

“Brands are trying to say something without appearing completely tone-deaf, but now that the consumer mindset is rapidly evolving and adjusting to this new world,” said Bridey Lipscombe, co-founder of the marketing agency Cult London. “We’re starting to see some backlash towards brands who are getting it wrong.”

It's hard to think of Covid-related ads that have felt sincere.

Even when brands avoid offending consumers, they’re increasingly having trouble getting them to pay attention. Residents in many US states are in the middle of their seventh week in lockdown. For many, fear is giving way to apathy.

The designer Christian Siriano, for example, began posting to his Instagram channel about his brand's efforts to make masks for healthcare workers in March. After a round of good press, his Instagram posts saw a 179 percent increase in engagement, according to Obviously, an influencer marketing agency. Burberry and Gucci, brands that have also posted repeatedly about the virus on their Instagram profiles, also saw smaller bumps around that content.

But engagement has fallen to below pre-pandemic levels for all of these brands, for both virus-related and other posts, Obviously found.

Soaring unemployment and the rising death toll are souring the overall national mood, which in turn makes it harder for marketing to reach consumers. A Forrester survey in mid-March found more American adults reported feeling sceptical that companies would prioritise consumer wellbeing when making business decisions in response to the pandemic.

There are signs consumer outlook is starting to improve, as lockdowns are eased in some places. In an April follow-up survey, Forrester found feelings toward brands had partially rebounded.

“Consumers have sort of reached their ... emotional rock bottom and are beginning to very slowly orient themselves towards the idea of engaging with brands again,” said Anjali Lai, a senior analyst at the research firm.

To take advantage of the improving mood, brands first need to pivot their marketing strategies away from the messages that dominated the airwaves and Instagram in the pandemic’s first weeks.

That means paring back the frequency of “we’re here for you” ads, and finding a new way to speak to customers other than a concerned but ultimately uplifting email from the CEO. Basically, any ad that could run under a different company’s logo without changing a word is out.

We're starting to see some backlash towards brands who are getting it wrong.

Lunya, a direct-to-consumer sleepwear brand, sent emails to subscribers featuring interviews with team members. One featured founder Ashley Merrill describing her life at home managing the business and her young children, answering questions about everything from what she’s eating (lots of salami) and listening to (the Frozen soundtrack) to how she’s feeling about her brand — all sandwiched between images of the chief executive in her Lunya pyjamas.

“Every brand was sending that email like, ‘just in case you're wondering how we're handling Covid,’ and I'm like, ‘No, random company that I haven't heard from for years, I wasn't wondering how you were handling Covid,’” Merrill told BoF. “We didn't want to be that brand.”

Rather than blitzing the airwaves with ads about the pandemic, brands could try donating some slots to causes they support, Lipscombe said. For example, The North Face donated European television ad slots to healthcare and frontline groups that are still operating during the pandemic such as medical distributors and other social care services.

“A brand could say, ‘you know where to find us, but in the meantime, you should hear from X organisation,’” Lipscombe said.

Brands can also provide counter-programming to the endless stream of Covid-19 news via their own social media channels. Sustainable sneaker brand Veja recently released a 10-minute video on the brand’s YouTube channel and Instagram page documenting its origin story, a format the company usually shies away from, they said.

Nike has seen strong engagement on social media and its apps with free workouts, according to Obviously. The brand is also running emotional “stay at home” commercials featuring celebrity athletes like Lebron James, though its message centres around celebrating those who are staying active at home rather than on what the company is doing in the wake of the pandemic.

“When it comes to the kind of advertising and storytelling that we all know and love, there’s a place for it,” Lipscombe said. “But be respectful that people will come and find out when they're ready.”

Otherwise, they risk facing the wrath of jaded consumers. “T-minus one week until every pastel Millennial brand is like, ‘ugh Coronavirus giving u sad vibes ??? Wash your hands and chill anyone ????? Buy our CBD quarantine sheets,’” New York comedian Steven Phillips-Horst tweeted in early March.

He said his predictions have more or less come to pass.

“What I find really amusing is how these major brands have essentially reframed their exact same offering as somehow altruistic,” he said.

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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