Covid Crisis Brand Behavior We Can Learn From

Our society will change a lot in the coming months, as will the most effective ways to communicate. We don’t know exactly how things will change, just yet, and it will be months before we really do. It’s not always easy to predict which Covid crisis comms efforts will be seen as meaningful, and which will backfire.

** Visit this page for a list of our articles on COVID-19 communications measurement. **

But one thing we do know is that the techniques necessary to do good communications measurement are exactly those we need to adapt to whatever changes are ahead. Measurement is all about adapting to change: collecting data to learn what works and what doesn’t, and then adjusting behavior to make improvements. For advice on just what sort of research will be most helpful in this Covid crisis, read “Research Is the Communicator’s PPE—and the Fastest Way Back to the New Normal.”

Your good measurement skills are what will get you through the tricky times ahead. Here are some current examples to learn from:

1. You don’t know it won’t work until you try it. So measure the results, and learn from the exercise.

Not all brands can be like @steak_umms. They successfully adapted their existing Twitter campaign to our current science-filled times. Their Twitter stream initially featured the iconoclastic ramblings of a millennial. Now, amid the Covid crisis, it urges people to use data and reason. They were so inspiring, in fact, we’ve named them our Measurement Maven of the Month.

But what really set the frozen sliced meat brand apart was that they already had the data to judge whether or not their new strategy worked. Back when they started on Twitter they tracked their account carefully, and knew within months that it was paying off in increased demand for their product. So doing more of the same, but with media literacy and a science slant, was an easy decision to make. And the success of that decision was easy to demonstrate.

They also knew that long tweet threads on social issues paid off by introducing or reintroducing the brand to new customers. The fact that they also tied it to fund-raising for Feeding America was nice extra, but nothing that unusual these days.

What was unusual was the total transparency and honesty with which they approached the campaign:

We understand that if you’re selling helicopters, or missile systems, or high-end technology, then adopting the voice of a self-referential millennial will probably not work for your audience. But something will work for your audience. And you will never know what that something is unless you try–and measure your results.

2. When the moment is right, roll out your expertise.

Toilet-paper manufacturer Georgia-Pacific could very well have decided to just keep its head down in the great TP panic. Instead it reached out to the media and opened up its plant and supply-chain expertise to anyone who wanted to see it or generate T-Roll. They didn’t just issue boring press releases, they had fun with headlines:

For consumers, G-P’s Director of Communications and Public Relations Fligg Meg produced her own video, offering advice on where and how to find toilet paper:

Meg Fligg used to be my client, so I reached out and asked her about her measures of success. Her response is one for the ages:

“I’ve been waiting 20 years for all eyes to be on TP 🙂 .

Our goals for the effort include:

#1: Dispel the rumor that TP is made in China. (90% of TP used in the USA is made in the USA. Rare for a consumer product these days, but true.)

#2: Discourage hoarding. Assure people that we continue to make it and that it will be on the shelves.

#3: Be human and embrace our authentic voice. (We were TP nerds before TP was too cool for school.) Share our love for this essential product, show others that it’s made by real people in their communities.

My posts will continue to offer a behind the scenes look at our products, blended with an education. Preview: look for a video from me soon about the value of recycled fiber and how the things you recycle turn into products you use every day. We are tired but we continue to work hard to get people the products they need!”

That point #3 above is the key to their success. They were themselves—authentic—showing off what they’ve been doing for 20 years. Just taking advantage of the spotlight to show their passion and expertise. And they demonstrated empathy for their employees and customers.

I have to admit I never guessed anyone would wait 20 years for all eyes to be on TP. Georgia-Pacific certainly made the most of the opportunity.

From the media coverage, it’s clear that they certainly got their messages across, and having good visuals really helped. Now, the media is calling them for their expertise in supply chain management, again positioning them as subject-matter experts. G-P just keeps rolling along.

3. Traditional motivations need not apply. Adhering to the status quo may be the riskiest thing to do.

One of the characteristics of the new normal is that the old rules don’t apply. It used to be that big corporate PR stunts were designed to raise visibility and sell things. Not so much anymore. The reality is that in these strange new times, traditional decision-making is upended. Pretending that anything should adhere to the status quo is the riskiest thing to do.

Here are a few examples of PR and marketing done right, and done wrong:

Those who adapted to do good…

I’m not a big fan of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, but even I don’t think he had ticket sales top-of-mind when he sent the team’s plane to pick up 1.2 million N95 masks from China.

I know that Dean Kamen wasn’t calculating how many robots he could sell when he paid for and delivered 91,000 pounds of PPE to New Hampshire’s hospitals.

Companies like LL Bean, Cuddledown, and New Balance took a giant leap out of the box to start working with local hospitals to make protective equipment. Not because it would sell more product, but because it would keep their employees employed.

… and those who flunked the test.

On the other hand, the brands that are suffering the most, and being pilloried on social media for their missteps, are the ones that weren’t nimble enough to shift gears from traditional marketing-think.

We know who they are because they bombard our inboxes everyday with thousands of emails that are irrelevant to our times. Probably based on whatever data analysis some marketing person did back in December. The consumers they targeted then were in a very different mindset. Today’s consumers are fearful, financially precarious, and definitely don’t intend on buying whatever gadget they’re being sold.

Other businesses simply can’t change direction fast enough to avoid looking like idiots. GrubHub took far too long to realize that their existing model had to change in the new environment.

Market Basket, the New England supermarket chain, had a great customer-friendly reputation, but took far too long to accept the reality of social distancing. It lost a lot of long-time loyal customers because they didn’t feel safe in their stores. Shopper after shopper reported employees ridiculing the severity of the disease, telling stories of shoppers that tried to keep a safe distance in line being having other customers cut in line, and bemoaning the lack of masks, gloves, or sanitizer.

If Market Basket were the only store open, it probably wouldn’t have mattered. But shoppers realized that other local stores were limiting the number of shoppers, carefully sanitizing every cart, putting masks and gloves on most workers, and having one-way aisles and lots of signage. So that’s where they went to shop.

One major factor in that decision-making was conversations on Next Door, the local social platform where neighbors exchange warnings, advice, and help. It’s kind of like what Twitter and Facebook were in the very early days. So, while Market Basket continues to fill up my mailbox with flyers that I only keep for starting fires, I ask my neighbors where it’s safer to shop. ∞

Thanks to NECN for the image up top.

About Author

Katie Paine

I've been called The Queen Of Measurement, but I prefer Seshat, the Goddess.