• Alex Cosham

Re-Enter Humanity: Marketing in a Crisis

Brands embedding genuine humanity in their marketing will see success far after Covid-19 has passed, those ignoring it will see lasting damage.

With people, business and the world in constant flux, there’s no doubting the challenges collectively faced. Marketing could be seen as an afterthought in times like this. Yet it is often in times exactly like this that brands consolidate the genuine values they are built upon…or reveal their hollowness. How we experience a brand, digitally or physically, continues to be a key differentiator of success. In a crisis, showing humanity arguably elevates this experience across marketing. I’ve observed several heart-warming examples of this done right, and some concerning examples of it being abandoned. So why is humanity key to successfully marketing in a crisis?

Because doing good, looks good

Let’s face it, not many people really want to spend their money with a person or brand they perceive as doing the wrong thing. Whether intentional or not, putting out communications that are insensitive or ignorant to the current situation is not a good move. This applies just as much if not more so, to those enjoying success in the wake of a crisis like Covid-19, as to those who are struggling. As Mark Williams-Cook, Director at Candour put it: ‘If your business is doing good right now, that's great! However, it's tone-deaf to brag about this right now. There's a lot of businesses suffering, breaking and on the edge - if you're doing good, do something to help them.’ There is a time for, as much as the word makes me cringe, ‘banter’ between brands. This is not it. Wider sentiment cries out for a sense of community and not competition during a crisis. Good marketing should be sensitive to this.

This commitment should permeate all layers of a brand. Certainly doing good and looking good as a bonus, is a strong rule to apply across your external marketing channels, but ensure this is also applied to internal actions too. First and foremost, values touted as selling points should be tangible very real parts of a brand. More and more, those promising hollow values to clients are being exposed. People want to buy from people, with renewed focus on a brand’s moral, ethical and indeed ‘human’ credentials as much as price point, service, uniqueness… so on. It’s not to say that the whole package isn’t important, but wrapping a rotten apple in gold foil only hides the flaws so long.

Speaking of apples, remember the seeds, tree, soil, water, the life behind your apples? Managing employees during a crisis with humanity should be a complete given, however as we’ve seen from many brands, it’s not always the case. Even big advocates of the importance of employee wellbeing such as Virgin have been criticised for their poor consideration of staff, directly impacting sentiment toward them at a time when the public are heightened to such insensitivity. With wider calls to boycott Wetherspoons and Sports Direct for equally uninspired management decisions, ensuring values and humanity are genuine inside and out, goes far beyond marketing. It drives to the core of what is expected of a modern brand, how do you like them apples?

Because after all, there will be an after all

This is by no means underplaying  the significance of the now. The undeniable impact of crises like Covid-19 on society should be acknowledged clearly. However, it’s also advantageous, perhaps even healthy to remind ourselves that there will be an ‘after’. Actions taken now will be viewed through a critical lens of the future. No, your clients may not be in a position to buy anything right now,  you may not even be in position to sell it, times are tough. However the actions taken now will no doubt fuel your chosen future. Whether it is coffee houses offering free drinks to NHS staff; supermarkets protecting  hours for the elderly and key workers; brewers converting production to provide sanitiser to charities, all these actions not only benefit society now, they suggest a permanence of values, decency and moral responsibility that will long be remembered.

Mark Ritson gives a perfect example in his own article Marketing in the time of Covid-19‘Marks & Spencer spent most of World War II manufacturing ration clothing for the British public. No one remembers that these days, but during the heyday of M&S in the 60s and 70s it was a commonly known and widely admired fact. They were with us when the shit hit the fan, and we were with them afterwards because of it.’With many references to the ‘wartime’ spirit and similarities being drawn by the UK government rightly or wrongly, this example is a valid reminder of how a physical experience of brand doing the right and human thing, long influenced them afterwards.

Because it’s not normal, and that’s okay

After reading Gay Times Magazine CEO Tag Warner’s views in Campaign on how this situation is ‘not the new normal’, I couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty. I’ve fallen into the trap of touting ‘normality’ and ‘consistency’, often across tongue in cheek emails and social media posts as I grapple with this sudden change. Truth be told I like to plan. Moreover, most businesses and brands however ‘disruptive’ like to plan too. Having no tangible way to predict or plan is tough and leaves many seeking to enforce normality across their marketing, in what is truly an abnormal situation…the equivalent of hammering a square peg forcibly into a round hole, while being watched. It feels uncomfortable for everyone and looks weird.

In light of this, we have tried to keep our communications open and honest, accepting the uniqueness of the situation as an active part of our marketing. Note that we haven’t just stopped marketing, or seeking work for the future, or doing that very human thing of asking for help, but we have accepted change is required. Accepting that we need to change tactics and acknowledge this crisis makes us human, because well, we are. In a time of isolation, we need connection and empathy, this extends to business too. Yes life goes on, but to push ahead as if impervious to the challenges across the globe would be jarring and as Warner highlights ‘ignorant’.

Chances are that as we all recover, we will deeply and desperately want to rekindle our connections. We sincerely hope this means a renewed value seen in our industry. However we can all leverage the connection we all share right now in how Covid-19 has impacted us, and how it will continue to for some time yet. Brands that get onboard with this, tap into the core human need for connection at times of crisis will no doubt be thought more of for it. Whether PornHub or Pret a Manger, all brands have a means to show genuine humanity at a time we need it most, and we’ll remember if they do.


At this time when we all need a little connection, feel free to get in touch with me on Linkedin or via email: - our marketing and design services remain on demand for clients and I'm always happy to lend advice where I can or talk over strategies for the future.

Plus, it's nice to chat with like-minded people...conversations in lock down with the dog can only offer so much.

Thanks for reading!

Alex, Image Development

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