Photo: Craftivist Collective via Flickr / Creative Commons License

What passed for effective messaging a month ago could sound crass and inappropriate now. Overdoing it with the sympathy angle is equally as tricky. How can brands continue vital marketing efforts in the face of tragedy, and not sabotage good will?  

You’ve probably shaken your head in disbelief more than a few times in the last month, as tone-deaf COVID-19-themed marketing messages flooded your inbox.  

Maybe it was the one from the residential realtor you met five years ago at a picnic who wants to remind you that they’re there for “all your home-buying needs in this time of national mourning.” Or perhaps it’s the one from the overseas lead-gen service that is still trying to trick you into opening it by using the subject line “RE: Confirming our call this week about your free trial” which then continues with the completely predictable opener “I don’t know if you saw my email from the other day…” which of course you didn’t, because not only were you taking care of your kids while trying to work from home, there was no email from this person yesterday, the day before, or ever.

Sure, these folks are just trying to do their job and get new business, despite the gravity of the situation. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to approach messaging during times of crisis. Do it the wrong way, and whatever brand goodwill you’ve built up could end up in the gutter like so many used surgical gloves. 

Mainly, it’s never been more important to pivot away from the status quo, even if it means all the messaging and campaigns you and your team labored over and planned executions for down to the minute of a specific day now need to be shelved. Pandemics have a habit of disrupting even the best laid plans of mice and Mad Men.

So what’s the right way to communicate now? We’ve found that you simply should look at the nine components that make up a brand strategy: Mission, Vision, Values, The Deep Human Needs of Your Target Audience, Brand Persona, Brand Positioning, Brand Evidence, Brand Narrative, and of course, Brand Essence. All of these you’ll find in your Chromium BrandArmature (if we’ve built one for you). That gives you all you need to develop authentic, effective and appropriate messaging for how we’re experiencing our world now:


  1. Read the Room:

    At this point in the C-19 crisis, do customers need to know “you care” in these “unprecedented times?” Early messaging from brands was right to focus on this aspect, but as we’ve settled into our new work/home lives, what is it that your target audience is really looking to hear from you? The same thing as everyone else is saying? Probably not. All you have to do is turn on network television, and if the virus hasn’t made you sick, the somber, plaintive voiceovers of the commercials will. 

Get Real: What are customers concerned about now, and how can your brand be a positive force in their lives? Lean heavily on your Core Values, and use them to tell that story. Have you considered having you and your team pick up the phone, or just sending a legit, personal email? Do people want a slick 30 second commercial, or do they want honest human connection?

Your call.

  1. Alleviate Fears:  

    Telling an authentic story that shows your brand cares and is doing what it can, without saying so in a clumsy and over-direct way, can help reassure customers and reduce their anxiety. Look at your own brand’s Narrative for inspiration, and think about adding a new chapter based on the new world we’re all facing. Being human is a good place to start – you don’t have to mention the crisis specifically without reassuring customers that there is a better future, and that your brand is going to help them get there. Find a new way to say something we all universally hope for: We’re all in this together, and we’re going to get through it together, as well. You can show this as well, by giving them tips to stay physically and mentally healthy, or to receive news without becoming overwhelmed by it. Remind them how your brand is a part of a familiar routine that will certainly return, although perhaps in a new and better way, shape or form.

  1. Reduce the Burden:

    What are the drivers for you Target Audience, their Deep Human Needs? Those drivers are likely heightened during this challenging scenario. How well do you know your customers and their drivers? An interesting bit of recent research: Boomers are asking brands “Tell us how you’re contributing.” Millennials are asking “Tell us how we can help.” Doing something that meets one or more of their needs will be greatly appreciated. Can you offer a deadline extension, a fee deferment or a discount to your customers? How about rolling out a new way of doing business with your brand that allows for social distancing, or contactless transactions? Anything you can do now to help people feel more secure is an investment in the future. Goodwill is always appreciated – and remembered.  

  1. Build that Community:

    There is a tribe out there that believes in your brand. Can you find a way to bring them all together so feelings of isolation can be minimized? Tap your Brand Persona to find an authentic avenue of expression. Video is the current focus of a lot of brands, whether that’s creating fun backdrops for Zoom, having funny pet video contests, or sponsoring virtual Happy Hours. What other media channel could you leverage? Perhaps a limerick challenge on Twitter, or a themed DIY art post on Facebook would get your people to collectively exercise creativity instead of experiencing loneliness. If “fun” isn’t part of your Brand Persona, then what is? Amplify the attribute that seems most appropriate for the times, and find an outlet for its expression. 

  1. Create Deeper Meaning:

    What’s your Mission? Your Brand Vision? What’s the better world you’re trying to create? Well, now’s the time to double down on proving those are more than just words. Customers are looking for purpose in this time of crisis, and helping them cope by painting a picture of a better future you’re going to get to – together – will leave a lasting impression when this is all over.  

Perhaps you’ve been holding back, not sure of what to say? That might have been a good initial strategy to avoid missteps, but it’s not a long-term solution to building a strong brand. Are you being true to your Brand Essence? Let the heart and soul of the brand shine through. Touchstones such as Brand Essence were designed for stressful periods like this, when rational answers are elusive.  

Even more important is that the Founder or CEO be the one to deliver any messaging at this point. Whereas typically the marketing department is delivering brand, this is one of those times when a spokesperson just won’t do. This may be difficult for some CEOs who are perhaps a bit rusty when it comes to messaging, but this is one of the more important things leadership needs to do at this point. 

At Chromium, our Brand Essence is “Catalyst.” We want to be the element that helps make your brand, your company, and your people successful. There’s another side we’ll all come out on after this, and we want to help you make the best of the future when things open up. What are you going to do differently? How are you going to come out, bigger and better, and stand squarely at the side of your customer? 

Still not sure the best way to make your brand a beacon in dark times? Just drop a line to your favorite Chromium Principal. Since we’re not shaving or dressing for work anymore, let alone commuting, we’ve got some spare time to chat.