The Marketing Messages Brands Must Adopt Now

After a flood of COVID-19 messages, here's what brands should do now.

Apr 01, 2020

SMITH BRAIN TRUST  As our lives began to change as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, consumer brands rushed to our inboxes with statements. There were updates about store closings, tips for staying healthy and lots and lots of expressions “We’re all in this together!” solidarity.

It didn’t take long for consumer messaging fatigue to settle in.

Now, Maryland Smith marketing professors Henry C. Boyd III and Amna Kirmani say, it’s time for marketers to stop selling and start taking action.

“The time for showing concern is over,” says Kirmani, the Ralph J. Tyser Professor of Marketing and editor of the Journal of Consumer Research. “This is not a good time for companies to be persuasive. They need to be seen as caring, benevolent and informative.”

That means demonstrating how you’re helping local communities, employees, medical professionals, and others.

The NBA, Boyd says, is one organization that stands out in terms of its communication during the pandemic. The league suspended play indefinitely with fewer than 20 games left in the regular season. It was a tough, but decisive move – one for which the league is likely to be remembered and rewarded.

“What resonates with audiences out there is that this decision, while difficult, was made swiftly and helped set the tone as other companies followed suit,” says Boyd, a clinical professor of marketing. “Years from now, consumers will recall which companies stepped up to make our lives a little bit better and safer during this pandemic.”

Companies who haven’t put out initial statements about coronavirus yet likely shouldn’t bother at this point, he says. Instead, they should look to ride the next wave of emails, looking to capture attention and to stand out by detailing how they can improve the lives of their customers.

“The second wave is all about who’s sending the message and how are they making a positive impact?” Boyd says. “If Procter and Gamble puts out a statement on toilet paper production and provides information on how consumers can safely get it, that’s invaluable and people will take note.”

Marketers should also consider whether their message is relevant to all customers and whether it warrants a mass email, Kirmani says. For example, getting a message from Starbucks about their cleaning habits and steps they are taking to keep customers safe is understandable, she says. But promotional emails from companies that consumers haven’t patronized in years are both irrelevant and irresponsible at this time.

“What companies need to be careful about is walking the fine line between sending just enough information to their customers and bothering them,” she says. “If I keep receiving unimportant emails from them, I’ll tune out and if I keep receiving emails from companies I haven’t interacted with in several years, then I’ll feel like my privacy is being violated.”

Moving forward, Kirmani says, companies must begin preparing a strategy to connect with their customers once social distancing and stay-at-home restrictions are lifted. She recommends not blasting emailing lists with an “open for business” message. Instead, she says, focus on high-frequency consumers and let the rest find out through them.

“Opening back up might not be something that every single one of your customers will want to be notified about. The most loyal customers would, but infrequent customers will find out one way or another,” Kirmani says.

“Companies that downplay themselves, rather than upsell, may find more success once this all comes to an end.”



About the Expert(s)

Hank Boyd is a Clinical Professor in the Marketing Department at the Robert H. Smith School of Business. He is also a managing director and principal at Ombudsman LLC, a diversified consultancy. He is licensed to practice law in Maryland, Wisconsin, and the U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin. Hank received his Ph.D. in Marketing from Duke University (with an emphasis in Consumer Behavior) and his J.D. in Intellectual Property from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At the age of 24, he received his MBA in Marketing from the University of California at Berkeley. Prior to graduate study, he obtained his A.B. in Chemistry (with an emphasis in Biophysics) from Princeton University. Hank’s opinions have appeared in The Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, Washington Business Journal, Wisconsin State Journal, Sports Illustrated, Crain's Chicago Business, Morning Consult and CNBC. He has participated in live interviews on Maryland Public Television, NBC News (local affiliate WMTV Channel 15 News), CBS News (local affiliate WISC-TV Channel 3 News), WTOP, WMAL, WIBA and Knowledge @ Wharton.


Amna Kirmani is the Ralph J. Tyser Professor of Marketing at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. Her research interests include ​morality, persuasion knowledge, ​online communication, ​and branding. Her work has been published in several journals, including the Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Marketing, and Journal of Consumer Psychology. Her papers have won the Paul Green Award in the Journal of Marketing Research, the Maynard Award in the Journal of Marketing, and the Best Paper Award in the Journal of Advertising. She is Editor of the Journal of Consumer Research and former Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

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