Message in a crisis: How to find the right tone of voice & create content in the 2020 pandemic
When the world went into lockdown because of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, content strategies and marketing plans were thrown out of the window. Right now, brands need to adapt to the situation and respond to their audience needs. I share 9 steps to get your brand messaging right as we navigate challenging times.
On the 23rd March 2020, something unprecedented happened.
Everyone in the UK (and pretty much worldwide) were told to #stayathome.
At the beginning of the year, no one could’ve predicted that come March, we would be in lockdown. And no one said the word ‘furlough’ ever.
Brands had worked for months on their marketing campaigns. Start-ups were on the brink of launching their new products.
Then, in one tiny virus, smaller than the eye can see, all plans were wiped out.
Life likes to throw a curve ball now and then.
So, where do we go from here?
Instead of crying into our campaigns, we need to reassess all current marketing strategies and start from scratch.
You might be a brand just trying to survive the next few weeks. Or, you might be a brand that has one eye on how the new landscape will look after the crisis fog lifts.
Right now, brands need to be:
What I want to look at today is how to send out the right message and what the message should be in your content.
9 steps to create the right messaging and tone for content during a crisis
1. Be accountable for your actions – what you do now will matter after this is over
More than ever brands are under intense scrutiny for how they navigate and operate. If you get that wrong, then your audience might never forgive you.
There’s a lot of naming and shaming going on across social media. In the UK, Sports Direct, Weatherspoon’s and B&Q have all faced anger for forcing their staff to put themselves at unnecessary risk.
Social accountability is now a critical value and brands must be seen to have a mutual interest in business and society.
Negative PR that will still hurt when this is over:
Ticketmaster is facing massive backlash for not allowing customers to obtain refunds for cancelled and postponed concerts.
Virgin Atlantic forced employees to take 8 weeks of unpaid leave. And then (multi-billionaire) Richard Branson faced backlash for seeking government support to bail out his airline.
Billionaire Jeff Bezos asked the public to donate to a relief fund for Amazon employees despite the excessive wealth of the company. Whole Foods (owned by Amazon and Jeff) were asked to donate their sick leave to other employees.
“Brands are judged less by how they operate when things go right, than by how they handle situations when things go wrong.” Tom Fishburne
2. Your messaging and content should address the 3 basic needs your audience has right now
Audiences respond the most to messages that are emotive – especially if the audience share that emotion.
Humanity has 6 basic needs but right now, audiences are predominantly looking for:
In the UK, on a Thursday night, we clap for the key workers. The collective effort of a nation coming together in that weekly moment at 8pm meets those 3 basic needs.
We feel connected to something bigger than ourselves. It’s possibly the only certain time slot in our diary. And it gives us comfort to see so many others care.
It helps the people clapping as much as it helps those we clap for.
3. Acknowledge what’s happening but don’t force a connection or try to leverage the pandemic
There are two possible approaches that brands can take right now:
- Pivot quickly and try their best to react
- Do nothing and carrying on business as usual
A brand that ignores the crisis elephant in the room is going to look self-absorbed and out of touch.
But beware, a brand that appears to be exploiting the crisis is going to irreparably damage their reputation.
There is a careful balance to get right.
Sometimes that might be being honest that you are as lost as everyone else but you’re doing the best you can. See what Emily Crisps did below.
Brands that quickly pivoted
- Time out became Time In and started to cover all the events you could live stream at home.
- Local restaurants began offering ready prepared meals and food for delivery.
- Hotel chains offered rooms and beds to be used by the NHS.
- Clothing manufacturers began making scrubs and facemasks for the NHS.
- Personal trainers conducted one-to-one training sessions over Zoom.
- LMVH quickly switched from perfume to hand sanitizer production (which they donated).
Brands that aligned their message
A YouTube campaign in Russia by McDonalds had 210 million views in two weeks. Using unskippable ads, the video showed a person washing their hands for 20 seconds – the recommended time to kill the virus.
Womanizer sex toys hired billboards to tell people to ‘Stay Home’. Respectful, with a dash of risqué humour.
Brands that used humour because they had no other option
After buying up their media space in advance, Emily Crisps were faced with the prospect of empty streets to try outdoor advertising for the first time.
But they embraced the situation with a series of parody adverts. The result was media coverage that put them in a good-humoured positive light.
Even graffiti artists have pivoted to work from home…
“My wife hates it when I work from home” Banksy
4. Be responsive with your messaging and strategy, listen to the current mood
Good marketing is all about your audience and not about you. And that is even more important now than ever.
Don’t broadcast what you’re feeling or thinking. No one cares.
The content strategy you had before the pandemic is now redundant. Start again from the current mood and completely rethink your content.
Topics audiences are focused on right now include:
- Financial stability
- Staying healthy
- Exercising solo
- Keeping connected
- Dating at a distance
- How to stay positive
- Remote working
- Finding work in this situation
Topics to avoid that are tone-deaf and crass include:
- Travel, holidays
- Eating out, going out, trips out
- Profiting from the situation
- Complaining about the situation
Topics that will become important as we come out of this:
- Family and friends bubble
- Social safety
- Socially distanced careers
- Wellness and wellbeing
- Saving and investing
Without a clear mission, you’re left scrambling, asking “how can we capitalize on this pandemic” – a dangerous question to ask. Katie Martell
5. Continue advertising and creating content even if it’s not business as usual, to ensure you’re not forgotten
As the supply chain broke down and the safety of employees was paramount many brands chose to cease trading.
Some brands redirected their entire websites to a home page message.
That website is probably never going to recover its rankings and traffic without a massive amount of work.
In WWII, because supply chains were affected, many brand products were no longer available for sale to civilians. But, some brands knew that by keeping their brand name circulating, after the war ended they would be in a strong position to resume ‘business as normal’.
Filmo Cameras ran ads telling the story about their cameras were being used by the troops – and that was why they couldn’t sell cameras to the public – but ‘their post-war products would be well worth the wait’.
General Tires ran ads that highlighted their audience to the current ‘tire crisis’ and asked them to preserve their current tires and repair them. (See the original ads here.)
Neither brand was selling, but both companies were keeping engagement and brand name recollection.
Continuing with communications that are relevant to the current situation keeps a connection with your audience and once we come out of lockdown you’re in a strong position.
The key is providing help to your audience and producing content that supports their needs.
Evans Cycles were quick to respond to the shut down with content about servicing your bike at home and keeping your wheels on the road.
Speedo gave us exercises you can do on dry land to keep your swimming fitness.
Sweaty Betty focused on keeping us positive with 5 things you can do to maintain sanity and calm.
6. Now isn’t the time for a huge marketing campaign that might fail, spend wisely
The impact on the economy and the incomes of many means that overspending or luxury sends out a negative message that’s out of touch.
Any brands that are spending on marketing need to be aware that they aren’t seen to be wasting money on anything frivolous or unnecessary.
Facebook, Uber, Tesco and the NHS have all embraced home-made feel ads compiled from real-life social media videos. I dare you to watch any of them without crying. I can’t.
That ‘budget’ homely feel really hits the current sentiment and sends out the message that we are all in this together.
Times of crisis are always incubators for great creativity. Proving that you don’t need big budgets to do great creativity. You just need a good idea.
Furloughed creatives from Saatchi London created an Instagram feed called #conceptualboredom as an outlet for their restricted creativity.
Two friends sent each other retro style postcards from quarantine to keep in touch.
#DontVisitWalesChallenge was a thread full of retro styled travel posters telling people to not travel.
There’s a wealth of messaging and content a brand can create right now. Any of these ideas a brand can jump on.
Not knowing what to say is not an excuse.
7. Beware of trying to profit or projecting any image that could be misread
The overriding sentiment for the current climate is ‘we are all in this together’. And that should underline all messaging and marketing (even if you don’t refer to it).
Anyone seen to be profiting from a crisis is not treated favourably.
Sellers on Amazon faced public anger and shaming when they tried to profit on face masks and hand sanitizer. Fortunately, the selling platforms quickly acted against price gougers and even President Putin ordered that any Russian pharmacies that tried to sell face masks at over-inflated prices be shut down immediately.
8. News topic fatigue develops quickly so carefully monitor trends to know when your audience has had enough
When the Coronavirus pandemic started to become a real threat to our daily lives (about the beginning of March) a huge spike in searches for articles on COVID-19 was seen.
As could be expected.
But surprisingly, after only weeks, Coronavirus news fatigue quickly set in as people adapted to the ‘new normal’.
People quickly become bored with a subject. Even a pandemic.
“71% say they need to take breaks from news about the coronavirus, and 43% say the news leaves them feeling worse emotionally.” Pew Research Centre survey, April 2020 (in US)
When a trend hits, people want facts. As people adapt, they want information about anything that will make their life feel more normal and comfortable. After that, they want something good to move towards.
Already people are considering how their life might go back to normal so they search for facemasks.
People don’t want hand sanitizer anymore. They want face masks so they can think about how they can adapt to a new normal of a socially distanced world.
People very quickly adapt to extreme situations.
Agility is key in marketing, and even more in a crisis when long-term planning is not possible.
Your teams must be constantly listening, reviewing and responding to keep ahead of changing sentiment and audience needs.
Google Trends is a valuable tool for monitoring.
9. Be prepared to shift with customer sentiment and embrace new values such as anti-consumerism
Over the last few years, climate change and sustainability have become key values that a growing minority of society was pushing brands to embrace.
Already this year, we felt a simmering of change in the air.
Now the pandemic has burst open the simmering tensions society was feeling that steadily built after the financial crisis of 2009.
Life will never be the same again.
Over the last few weeks, the importance of what really matters is being highlighted to society.
From basic food chain supplies to staying connected with friends and loved ones.
What’s important is protection of health, income and quality of life.
I expect the age of consumerism will begin to decline and the next age will be about staying safe and being resilient.
As we move out of pandemic, we can expect:
- Online business and distance contact-free economy will accelerate.
- Remote working and distance socialising will be new norms.
- More border controls and a drive to locally sourced products.
- Manufacturing channels will be readdressed to protect supply chains.
- Businesses will face far greater scrutiny than ever before.
- Brand messaging will matter more than ever.
All brands need to be ready to embrace the new normal.
Recap: How to create the right messaging and tone for content during the 2020 pandemic
- Be accountable for your actions – what you do now will matter after this is over
- Your messaging and content should address the 3 basic needs your audience has right now
- Acknowledge what’s happening but don’t force a connection or try to leverage the pandemic
- Be responsive with your messaging and strategy, listen to the current mood
- Continue advertising and creating content even if it’s not business as usual, to ensure you’re not forgotten
- Now isn’t the time for a huge marketing campaign that might fail, spend wisely
- Beware of trying to profit or projecting any image that could be misread
- News topic fatigue develops quickly so carefully monitor trends to know when your audience has had enough
- Be prepared to shift with customer sentiment and embrace new values such as anti-consumerism
This article was presented at Turn Digi online conference. You can view the presentation here starting at 1:01:18