With the aim of supporting our clients navigate the Covid-19 crisis and steer their communication efforts in the right direction, we analyzed how brands dealt with the Coronavirus emergency and lockdowns.
Our analysis mainly focused on Italy, the country being the first market to be seriously hit in the Western world, where brands had to deal first with social distancing, new habits, and fear and uncertainty.
The question that prompted our analysis was: how and what to communicate during the Covid-19 emergency?
Based on our analysis, brands responded to the Covid-19 emergency in different ways, which we classified in three macro behaviours:
- some brands opted for silence and decided not to react;
- some brands did react to the difficult situation but with tact and consideration;
- other brands decided to lighten the gloomy atmosphere with a dash of humour.
Too many brands opted to stay silent in front of this delicate situation, even if they have strong bonds with local audiences and are followed by thousands. Brands like Nutella or oil and gas company ENI decided to carry on with their original social media plans without making any changes and without even acknowledging the situation. This practice, in our view, should not be followed. A key prerequisite for brands should be to take into account the changed social and psychological context users are experiencing. The response that works best is not to interrupt communications, but rather adapting one’s communication approach to the new needs.
Other brands managed to react to the initial shock and succeeded in strengthening their bond with their communities. Sometimes even one single message was sufficient. The key was to acknowledge the difficult situation and share a tactful message.
While still being in line with the brands’ usual tone of voice, these communications adopted a more reassuring tone, sometimes even revolutionizing the traditional messages. This is the case of Burger King, Nike, and Martini: despite the shut-down of their POS worldwide and a drastic reduction of activity and business, they invited audiences to stay home and play safe with some exemplary posts.
Pampers, IKEA and Barilla went even further by creating ad-hoc content and revolutionizing their editorial plans.
In Italy, Pampers created a series of videos and composed a nursery rhyme for kids, in order to make the practice of hand washing more fun and in line with the WHO guidelines.
Despite closed stores and hindered deliveries, IKEA created and boosted new content on how to make your home safer and more comfortable, with a special focus on how to best organize your home working spaces.
To promote social distancing and offer distraction, Barilla launched the hashtag #ACasaConBarilla (at home with Barilla). Every day the brand offers live streams where Michelin star chefs teach pasta recipes step by step.
Finally, a special mention goes to Lonely Planet Italia. Although tourism is one of the industries more heavily struck by the crisis, Lonely Planet embraced the #stayhome hashtag while promoting a revolutionary guide book. It called it “Travelling from your sofa”, to “enjoy a magical place like you’ve never done before”, available for free download and full of geographical, historical and cultural facts and tips to get to know all the countries in the world from your sofa.
Besides partnering with a lot of brands and constantly issuing official communications and actions, the WHO left no stones unturned and decided to explore a new territory – humour. This was done by teaming up with a famous influencer, @dudewithsign, who adapted his traditional signs to raise awareness to the key best practices and linking people to reliable information.
Tissue brand Tempo published what was only apparently a controversial message - “For the first time, we hope we won’t hear from you”. The message was really successful among the audience and was shared extensively as an example of great real time marketing.
Netflix is responding to the emergency with a series of actions. One of the first was offering different songs to accompany the steps of proper hand washing. All lyrics are immediately recognizable to users as they refer to very popular TV series.
Another Netflix effort focused on offering hyper-personalized tips to find your perfect new series based on funny assumptions. For instance, one post reads: “Tell us the last text message you sent, and we’ll tell you what to watch next”.
Ceres engaged its audience by reinterpreting the main social distancing messages within a “beer-drinking” context, while Ho gave users – especially young audiences – incisive text-like messages inviting them to follow the new containment rules.
Italian Funeral Home Taffo – famous for its ironic tone of voice which often plays with the ideas of death and funerals – didn’t miss this chance. Making a pun on the Italian words “casa” (home) and “cassa” (casket) it posted a message saying: “Either you stay home, or we will all end up in a casket”. It also started a fundraising for emergency care.
Irreverence to the irreverent
Except for some isolated cases, most irreverent posts were made by brands that have been using an irreverent tone of voice for a long time and can count on a consolidated audience, ready to support them. It is not advisable for brands that have not tried this communication approach to venture in a similar territory, as a PR catastrophe is always around the corner.
Silence: you need to be able to use it
Silence is not always the best choice, especially if it is “amplified” by a media strategy that moves forward at full speed while ignoring the current situation. Followers show more respect for brands that respond to the situation with some words and messages compared to those that don’t. This is especially true for larger brands, which can be labeled as insensitive in face of a similar emergency.
Humour, with moderation
Brands that opted for a humour-based communication approach still showed some restraint and never exceeded with irony or vulgarity. The best approach is a lateral approach. In fact, most of the humorous posts touched the topic of social distancing and not Coronavirus in itself, which is hardly ever mentioned. This direction proved very rewarding for brands, which got hardly any disagreement.
Tactful messages - albeit short - about the situation received a lot of appreciation. Some brands apologised, some offered entertainment solutions, but always with a touch of creativity. This proved to be an excellent choice especially for brands that are more classic and want to appear human to their followers.
Fundraising spiked shortly after the beginning of the crisis, and brands that joined in where highly appreciated and received a lot of spontaneous advocacy by consumers and institutions.
Hacks and production conversions also received identical success: from Armani that is now producing overalls to Decathlon donating face masks to be reengineered as an assisted breathing-device thanks to some doctor’s idea, users loved and got deeply inspired by these stories and plan to reward brands accordingly.
Last but not least, another important effect of this crisis is free culture. Many brands decided to give up on part of their profits to be close to users and offer some of their contents for free to help mitigate the difficult times. This was the case of a host of publishing houses, music brands, orchestras, education organizations and many others, which were promptly rewarded by the public.
Huge thanks to my IED students Giada Spera, Veronica Degan and Sara Borsi who greatly contributed to this article.