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5 Common COVID Misconceptions

“During this difficult period …”

“In times like these …”

“The [blank] team is here for you …”

Any of these sound familiar? Of course they do.

I get the same emails. I’ve been keeping track for about two weeks, and I’d guess I’ve received more than two dozen messages that start just like this. Well intentioned, perhaps, but far too many of them are the same, nearly word-for-word.

Despite what’s clearly a once-in-a-generation crisis, many brands seem to be intent on communicating just one idea: Please don’t forget about me. And this is just not what people need right now.

This is a momentous era we’re living through. The last time humanity faced down something of this magnitude was in 1918, over a century ago, and between 17 and 100 million people died globally. So, the rainy-day plans your team has stowed away to strategize around some ordinary crisis may not apply, unfortunately. This moment is unique. It’s a generational, cultural dividing line in history. And, for better or worse, we won’t be the same once it’s all over.

Of course, none of that means that branding, marketing, and business just go away altogether. In fact, I’ve seen quite the opposite—an uptick in demand for marketing ingenuity and smart messaging. To be certain, if you want your own brand to survive this, you will have to have some combination of creativity, boldness, and fast-on-your-feet thinking. Also, empathy. Genuine empathy right now is important above all.

Plenty of marketing teams, however, continue to labor under a few false impressions, and I want to take a moment to go through five of the misconceptions I’ve seen regarding marketing during the covid-19 crisis. If you can confront these and transform your way of thinking, you’ll be on your way to getting through this without sounding completely out of touch.

Misconception 1: No One Wants Marketing Right Now

Not true. In fact, in my experience, the opposite seems to be the case. My team and I are in overdrive.

Many of the clients we have at TopRight offer essential services, either free of charge or for entirely reasonable rates, and their continued ability to reach people and get their message across is extremely important, even a matter of life and death. Doing this can be challenging, to be sure. When panic—justified or not—is widespread, the public’s trust in institutions and service providers drops accordingly. For many people, the instinct is to shelter in place, prepare, hold tight, trust no one. Getting around that is difficult. But it’s also critical, because many depend on what our clients offer. If we fail, they don’t get what they need. But their lack of trust can be frustrating—and that’s where empathy comes in.

And I don’t mean ordinary, boilerplate empathy, I mean true thoughtfulness. To succeed right now, marketers have to put themselves in other folks’ shoes for a while and think through how to reach scared people. And we may have to do this at significant cost. Brands must try to see with new eyes.

If they can do that, even for a moment, they’ll stop sending out underwhelming emails and standardized messaging and, instead, get serious about what they need to do.

Misconception 2: Just Stick to the Plan!

Nice idea, but in a true public crisis there is no plan. Whatever you had going before this, throw it out the window.

That means, first, get the information you need. What are people doing differently, what are they needing because of the crisis? My team has been tireless in pursuing these details: constant meetings, phone calls, changes of plan, on top of last minute up-endings of smart campaigns that took months to plan. We know that sticking to the old strategy, created in the old context, will not only not be a disservice, it will actually work at cross purposes for us and our audiences. Media campaigns featuring people gathering, hugging, shaking hands, even just chatting? Under social distancing, this kind of imagery is out. Which means potentially thousands of dollars of well-crafted ad buys are to be trashed.

That’s just one obvious example but there are plenty more, and not all of them are as obvious at first glance. To do it right, you’ll need to open up new lines of communication, do fresh research, and above all just forget about the old plan.

A nice local example I came across of a brand completely reshaping their approach is a bookstore here in Atlanta called A Cappella Books. A beloved business in the area, they closed their shop promptly and began offering book delivery throughout the crisis. This was an excellent, smart move. Not only do they continue to move inventory, their customers appreciate it—and not just because they like to read but because the store’s ownership took the crisis seriously from the start and it shows.

Misconception 3: But Acknowledgment of a Crisis Is Brand Suicide

This one seems to have come and gone—thankfully. But I remember in the early days, around late February or early March, when there were still plenty of voices urging a business-as-usual approach. This was a mistake.

Whatever your brand may be selling, ignoring a crisis of this size will make you look out of touch and, worse, cruel. It’s an old marketing chestnut that total consistency at all costs is necessary. And often that is true—except during a crisis like this one.

Right now, you will have to let your guard down, and acknowledge and accept what’s going on. Many folks don’t like doing this because it betrays a certain vulnerability. Know what I say? Tough luck. Now more than ever: be open. Acknowledge the crisis. Acknowledge the difficulty, fear, and uncertainty. Only then will you be able to cope, move forward, and earn people’s trust.

Misconception 4: Be Optimistic—Or Else!

Optimism has its place, but the peak days of a pandemic is not it.

I’m willing to bet that plenty of brands are looking back on some of the messaging from earlier in the crisis and they’re cringing something awful. Many of them were looking for the “silver linings” or “sunny sides” of the issue. But sunny-siding it, especially right now, will only be a liability for your brand down the line. You will lose trust because, once again, you aren’t showing empathy, you’re trying to sell at all costs.

And look, I hear you out there, in better times that kind of devoted focus on the bottom line can pay off. But trust me, from what I’ve seen and experienced, this is no time for that. It’s time to slow down, think things through, pay attention, and tell the unvarnished truth. Dispense with the optimism for the moment.

Misconception 5: All Covid All the Time

You may have been under the impression, as I was for a while, that all anyone wants to hear about right now is the coronavirus. In some areas this may be appropriate, but not all.

Everyone still has a life to lead. They have other concerns, goals, needs, even other health issues. Plus, not every product is relevant to the virus. Case in point, I received some emails from a travel agency not long ago, and they were telling me, with heartfelt sincerity of course, that they had a new international service to offer me in my time of need. The absurdity of this is more than off putting. Yet at the same time, I may still be required to travel for work—though hopefully not—and I may well want to know about flights, prices, and departure schedules. So, do give me that information. But a long “personal” letter from the CEO? Just don’t do it.

If you and your brand are in an awkward or particularly difficult position regarding the pandemic, get in touch with our team right away. We will work with you. There is always a way through it, I know this from experience. Otherwise, as long as you don’t enter the fray with these preconceived notions, you can find the clarity and the insight you need to prevail even in a crisis as tough as this one.

Sign up for the TopRight blog. Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn and follow me on Twitter @bill_fasig. And if you want to go deep on transformative branding, pick up a copy of Dave Sutton’s new book, Marketing, Interrupted.