Surviving the Coronavirus: a Marketing Perspective

woman wearing surgical mask in crowd coronavirus
Martin Bishop post by: Martin Bishop

The coronavirus has reached the point where it is becoming top-of-mind for everyone. What was, only a few weeks ago, a new virus impacting one part of China is now rapidly developing into a pandemic covered non-stop in the news. As of Feb 27th, over 80,000 cases and 2,500 deaths have been reported, and 50 countries impacted. Just this week, the US recorded its first “community spread” case meaning a patient with the disease who could not be directly traced back to travel in China.

As countries scramble to contain the virus, people’s lives are being impacted. In countries with the largest outbreaks, quarantines are in effect. Even in countries where the number of cases is relatively low, schools are being closed and events like festivals, sports matches or conferences, which draw crowds, are being cancelled. Business impact is significant as the stock market reacts to the virus and supply chains are badly disrupted. We expect even larger impacts to business and to people’s lives in the weeks to come.

So, how should marketers respond?

In LiveWorld’s white paper on responding to crisis and national events, we put together a guide for what to do when events spring up and dominate the news cycle. The coronavirus is not exactly the same type of national event we had in mind for that paper — it’s not a natural disaster (like a hurricane) or a mass shooting. Compared to those events, it’s slower-evolving but longer-lasting and suggests a modified approach:

  • Evaluate everything: In a national crisis, our recommendation is to stop everything—specifically all prescheduled social media content. With the coronavirus, our recommendation is to evaluate everything. Make sure that no planned content can be taken the wrong way based on the new context. Review and rewrite anything that is in poor taste given the situation. Consider suspending marketing activities in outbreak areas or if your target audience is entirely focused on the epidemic. It’s really important to take a look at content calendars to see what’s scheduled. Since the virus may be around for a long time, there should be a plan to review planned content weekly to ensure that it is still relevant/appropriate. Be particularly careful with content that features activities that will have been curtailed: e.g. travel or concerts, content about illness or loss, or content that is inappropriately funny or clever.
  • Actions to help: In a natural disaster, it’s also good practice to consider a simple condolence post to humanize the brand. For the coronavirus, the appropriate related action could be to find a way to help with the crisis. At a minimum, send donations to support. It’s important that whatever you decide to do is not used as a marketing opportunity to promote products. This is a time for empathy and compassion, not sales. It’s also a good idea to prepare statements (messages of support) that can be released if there is an outbreak that affects your own community. If you are a company that provides services or makes products that are relevant to helping manage the epidemic, consider how best to mobilize support. For example, P&G has sent “Loads of Hope” Tide laundry trucks to help communities recovering from hurricanes. If you are a company that makes hand sanitizers, masks, tents, or anything that can help support the effort to provide care or protect the community, should consider similar activities. Some industries are already banding together to support the relief efforts. Leading pharmaceutical companies in the PhRMA association, for example, are committed to finding solutions to help diagnose and treat those with the disease as well as provide financial support and in-kind donations to global health authorities.
  • Getting back to business: Part of a disaster plan is deciding how and when to restart marketing activity. For a national disaster, this may be 24 – 48 hours after the end of the event. However, for the coronavirus, it will take much longer to get back to normal. The time period is uncertain—it will depend on when the region and/or your customers have returned to normalcy. You may need to reconsider your marketing plans for an extended period of time.
  • Business Continuity Planning: If the epidemic does take hold in the US, it’s likely that your company will also be disrupted. Manufacturing may be impacted and employees may, at least for a time, not be able to go to work. Your company’s disaster plan for the coronavirus needs to plan for these potential internal challenges. Consider contingencies for workers who may have to telecommute for some period of time.

The coronavirus is going to present marketers with a uniquely challenging environment for an extended period of time. Marketing teams need to start contingency planning right now and develop plans for what will be a long period of significant disruption. Those that can should also be considering how they can help and what they can do to provide support to first-responders, patients and impacted communities.