What COVID-19 Has Taught Us About Marketing

6 min
young people with masks looking at phones
Korrin Bishop

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted nearly every aspect of the way nonprofit and for-profit organizations operate, from budgets and strategic plans to community engagement and marketing. This experience has shed light on how brands can be resilient through these challenging times with the right messaging.

After four months of crisis marketing, organizations have learned a lot about how to speak to their audiences during this time, and, just as importantly, how not to communicate with them. In many ways, nonprofits had a jumpstart on this moment, as their marketing already centers around the empathy, storytelling, and collaboration that have only become more important.

In this post, we’ll cover eight marketing lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with examples of both successful marketing and some that missed the mark. We’ll finish with what this all means for your nonprofit moving forward.

Download: The Nonprofit Digital Marketing Checklist

1. Accept When You Need to Change Course

You can never know when a crisis will hit, and when it does, it may mean that marketing strategies you’ve already invested time and money into have to be put on hold. International fast food chain KFC pushed forward with an advertisement in March 2020 that the public quickly lamented as “irresponsible.” 

“Finger Lickin’ Good” has been KFC’s tagline since before the pandemic, but this public health crisis placed it in a new light. As public health officials stressed the importance of handwashing and social distancing, a television advertisement in the U.K. showed a couple licking fried chicken grease off each other’s fingers. This marketing was not only insensitive, but also encouraged a behavior that could spread contagion. By mid-March, the company had pulled the campaign in response to public outcry.

Your nonprofit may have spent the last year working on a marketing campaign, but it’s important in times of crisis to remain nimble and know when to change course. Pulling your marketing plans can be a tough pill to swallow, but doing so will be a much better look than pushing forward with potentially tone-deaf messaging. During a crisis, you want to be known as the nonprofit that acknowledges people’s concerns and is proactive in responding to them.

2. Don’t Prioritize Funding Over Safety

The global pandemic has caused financial strain for many industries. However, even if a company needs to find ways to stay afloat during these challenging times, consumers want to know that businesses are still prioritizing public safety.

As public health officials encouraged people to shelter in place, Spirit Airlines sent out emails boasting cheap fares alongside the message, “Never A Better Time to Fly.” While the company said they had prepared the messages before the outbreak and didn’t mean to send them, the marketing sparked frustration among customers who viewed the airline as putting sales over safety.

During times of crisis, your nonprofit might be facing financial uncertainty, but remember that your donors could be, too. Ensure your appeals for donations during these times don’t come across as prioritizing money over people. You can do so by acknowledging the increased stress people are experiencing, highlighting the work you’re doing to respond to your community’s current needs, and emphasizing how grateful you are for anyone able to donate during this difficult time. Remember to put the well-being of your audience first in every decision you make.

3. Know When to Put Humor Aside

While laughter and well-timed humor can be a useful tool for connecting with your audience, there are times where it can come across as insensitive to the situation at hand.

Coors Light markets its beer as the “Official Beer of Working Remotely.” The company’s planned advertising campaign meant to make light of the loss of productivity experienced during the March Madness basketball tournament. However, the campaign’s expected launch coincided with many employees being required to work from home to slow the spread of COVID-19. The company chose to pull the advertisements, as it feared the humorous messaging could be seen as making light of the need for people to self-quarantine.

If your nonprofit is planning something lighthearted or humorous during a time of crisis, make sure to test the messages before making it public. Run your marketing message by colleagues, friends, and family members to get a pulse-check on whether it might come across as insensitive to the moment. If the answer is yes, wait until the current crisis has passed to launch that marketing message.

Read Next: How to Nail Your Nonprofit’s Story [VIDEO]

4. Center Around Real People

While celebrities may be treated as heroes under regular circumstances, times of crisis highlight the true everyday heroes like first responders and healthcare workers. 

Personal care company Dove is known for its marketing that emphasizes natural beauty. During the COVID-19 crisis, the company stayed on brand with that messaging, but pivoted to highlight the real faces of healthcare workers at the end of their shifts. In doing so, Dove created an emotionally powerful portrait that humanized the moment and the brand. 

As a nonprofit, your work likely interacts with everyday heroes on a regular basis. These might be caseworkers at your nonprofit helping people experiencing homelessness find safe and sanitary shelter during the pandemic, or volunteers at your food bank helping you meet increased demand for good nutrition in your community. During times of crisis, these helpers are the people your audience wants to see. Elevate those stories in your marketing. 

5. Be Authentic

Even when there isn’t a crisis happening, 90% of consumers report that a brand’s authenticity impacts whether or not they’ll support it. Moments of crisis aren’t a time to sugarcoat things. Your audience can tell if you are not being authentic about the difficulties of the current situation and will be less engaged as a result.

Well.Fit Asheville, a locally-owned spin studio and fitness center in North Carolina, has used honest email marketing to connect with its members while the business’s physical space is closed during COVID-19. In the example below, the studio’s owner speaks frankly about how she, too, has struggled during this unprecedented time. She also mentions how seeing members’ faces in their virtual workouts keeps her going, and emphasizes the importance of self-care and supporting one another during the current challenges.

email example from workout studio

 

In times of crisis, be transparent about how your nonprofit is doing. This is a good time to share thoughts directly from your staff members. Use this moment to highlight the people behind your organization and how they relate to what your audience is going through. Doing this underscores how we’re all in this together.

6. Offer Helpful Opportunities

In times of crisis, your audience is hungry for solutions. People often feel helpless during crises and knowing they can make a difference with your cause can give them a feeling of empowerment instead. People are also looking for things that can ease their anxiety, so offering them something in return for their support is a great way to demonstrate that you care and to create a mutually beneficial relationship.

The Yellowstone Forever Foundation did a great job of delighting their supporters during the COVID-19 pandemic. To help slow the spread of the virus, the majority of National Park Service sites closed to visitors this past spring. Many people felt cut off from seeking refuge in their local public lands, and others had to cancel travel plans to these places. As a response, Yellowstone Forever Foundation launched virtual programming while the park was closed to bring the Yellowstone experience to everyone who had to postpone their trips or otherwise just wanted to learn more about the area.

During a crisis, focus your nonprofit’s messaging around tangible things that can help your supporters get through this difficult time. This could mean creating virtual programming to help them beat quarantine boredom, or doing something as simple as sending out a list of tips on how they can support the community while maintaining social distance. Pivot any prior events to virtual events so that you can not only still raise funds for important programs, but supporters can also continue to take action on behalf of your cause. 

Download: 9 Email Templates to Engage Donors Year-Round

7. Don’t Go Dark

Rather than navigate the uncertainty of marketing during COVID-19, brands may feel compelled to go quiet and just ride out the crisis. However, this can leave you playing catch-up to re-engage your audience when things do start to improve. It may also make your audience question how much you care about your community if you disappear when times get hard. 

The Nashville Food Project recently had to respond to both the COVID-19 pandemic and the devastating tornadoes that tore through the city. The nonprofit made it clear to its supporters how it was responding to these crises through various updates to its website. It added a colorful bar at the top of its homepage to click for information and posted a note detailing how the pandemic would impact its specific operations.

Sixty-six percent of consumers say that it is comforting and reassuring to hear what a brand they follow is doing about COVID-19. The pandemic has shown that when a crisis occurs, your nonprofit needs to have a clear, easy-to-find statement about how you are responding to it.

8. Emphasize Collaboration and Empathy

Eighty-six percent of consumers believe that brands should act as a “safety net” during COVID-19, filling in gaps to the government’s response. 

Many for-profit companies have done this by partnering with nonprofits focused on food insecurity, homelessness services, healthcare access, and more. You can also see this spirit in how clothing manufacturers shifted their resources to make and donate face masks, or how distilleries began producing hand sanitizer for emergency responders. However, nonprofits can partner with other nonprofits, too. 

Sundress Academy for the Arts, a Knoxville-based nonprofit literary arts organization, used its virtual author reading series to solicit donations for the Asian Cultural Center of Tennessee, which had to cancel its main fundraising event due to COVID-19. Rather than focusing on fundraising for itself, the nonprofit highlighted the value of community partnerships by providing a spotlight for another organization in need of support.

During a crisis, your audience wants to see how you’re working together with others in your community to fill the gaps. Center your messaging around collaborative efforts and collective empathy.

How to Use These Lessons to Shape Your Continued Marketing

While some current marketing changes may be temporary, experts predict the shift to a more empathetic approach may be here to stay. This means nonprofits will be competing with for-profit companies to get their mission-driven message in front of their audience. There are a few ways you can use marketing lessons learned over the last four months to stand out.

1. Use Data to Inform Content Choices

Sixty-four percent of consumers said they prefer content about COVID-19 news or public service announcements from brands, and 46% said they look to brands for optimistic messaging about better times ahead. 

Use available data like these to shape the type of content you produce. By knowing what your audience wants to see, you’ll be able to produce content that results in higher user engagement. You can also gather your own data through a survey using tools like Google Forms or SurveyMonkey to ask your supporters questions about how they have felt about your messaging on the pandemic, if there’s anything they’d like to see you do differently in the future, and what types of content they prefer.

2. Focus on Your Expertise

Psychologists explain how during the coronavirus pandemic, we want to feel like there’s something we can rely on. Make your nonprofit that thing to rely on. By producing messaging that highlights your nonprofit’s expertise in your cause sector, you will communicate a sense of security to your audience. They will come to know that they can count on you both during and after challenging times to provide mission-driven results.

3. Listen, Listen, Listen 

Psychologists mention that stress and anxiety make people hypervigilant. During times of crisis, people may be urged to find something to blame so they can channel that stress and anxiety into something outside of themselves. Be extra careful with your messaging during times of crisis. Focus on listening to the concerns of your supporters to avoid missteps. Once calmer times come, continue to listen and adapt to your audience’s needs. Let your supporters know that you hear them regardless of what else is going on.

Learn From COVID-19 Messaging to Shape Your Future Crisis Marketing Plans

As COVID-19 has shown us, the timing of crises is unpredictable and it’s critical to have a marketing plan that can pivot to respond to the moment. Your nonprofit can prepare for future crisis marketing by using the lessons learned over the past four months. By maintaining an agile, compassionate approach to your messaging, your nonprofit can be a beacon of hope during difficult times.


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