Does a small business do marketing during the COVID-19 crisis?

Brendan Egan summarized the current state of things perfectly, “…these are uncharted waters full of speculation, self-appointed gurus and presumptive forecasts, leaving business owners unclear on what they should or shouldn’t be doing with their business.”

Consider what should be the goal of any business during any crisis – to stay alive.

Any of these sound familiar?

“There’s one word for ad spending: uncertain.”

“The terrorism attack also led to cancellations of sporting events.”

“The commissioner of baseball canceled all Major League games. The Emmy Awards were postponed. Broadway shows were shuttered.”

“Dozens of conventions and trade shows were canceled this month due to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.”

“Video conferencing [is rising] as some aren’t ready to fly.”

Terrorism attacks? These aren’t from the current pandemic, instead printed in Advertising Age shortly after 9/11. Prognostications continued…

“At this point, the future is unknowable. We don’t yet know how the U.S. government is going to respond. We don’t really know how the consumer is going to respond going forward.”

“We are on hold, and taking it day by day. Nothing is typical anymore.”

“Some advertisers believe their current campaigns are inappropriate for today’s business environment and consumer sentiment and are working to revise their messages.”

Six years later during the 2007-08 financial crisis we realized brands that continued to spend were those that remained strongest and recovered most quickly afterwards.

So should you advertise during this crisis? If your long-term strategy is to be top-of-mind and create awareness of your brand, why would this situation change that strategy? Unless you are doing a direct call to action (which most brand advertising is not), then this is simply a blip on the advertising spectrum.

Another put it this way: “for this economy to function, companies must market even amid a global crisis.”

Go back to post-9/11… September 21st – 10 days after the attacks – GM went on-air with a campaign intended to drive business forward. On the eve of that campaign, Ad Age quoted Ron Zarrella, then president of GM’s North American operations: “We know this is a difficult time to talk about an incentive program, but GM has a responsibility to help stimulate the economy by encouraging Americans to purchase vehicles, to support our dealers and suppliers and to keep our plants operating and our employees working.”

GM’s campaign worked. U.S. auto sales broke a record in October 2001, powered by the automaker and copycat promotions from rivals; 2001, a recession year, ended up as what was then the second-best year ever for U.S. auto sales.

We don’t have to tell you with tourism at a standstill, restaurants and shops hanging on for dear life – if even open – the economy is being ravaged. That’s why the economy needs marketers and marketing! Consumer spending—”personal consumption expenditures”—in 2019 accounted for more than two-thirds of economic activity (specifically, 68 percent of U.S. gross domestic product). Marketing helps drive commerce. If we’re going to recover from this – and we will – we’ll do it through marketing driving consumer spending.

Immediately, how should our marketing react?

  1. Review your Brand Promise. All brands are likely to be put on test on if they’re living up to their purpose. Ask yourself: How we can bring to life our brand purpose / promise / essence. Be an ally to your consumers, “prove” that you care, “demonstrate” empathy. Reinforcing an emotional connection is vital.
  2. Take control of things that are easily changeable, such as social media advertising, search engine ads, video ads and other types of digital promotions that can be closely monitored and adjusted as needed. This probably needed to be done two weeks ago, but check scheduled messages! A local entertainment venue sent an email promoting Spring Break specials two days after all were encouraged to stay home. A national retailer sent my wife a birthday IN STORE coupon days after stores were closed and stay-in-home orders were in place.

Brands that have pivoted and changed their advertising:

  • Insurer Geico pulled an ad that features the ‘Perfect High Five’ – yes, people touching each other.
  • KFC suspended a campaign featuring people licking their fingers after eating the chain’s fried chicken.
  • Chocolate brand Hershey pause its ‘heart-warming the world’ campaign full of hugs and handshakes and replaced it with more product-centric ads.
  • Personal care brand Axe suspend an ad where the character imagined his smelly underarms caused a crowd in a basketball arena to flee in fear, with airline masks dropping to give them protection. Not relatable with college and NBA basketball suspended.
  1. Update your website. Provide business information, updated hours, updates on product availability. Many restaurants are reducing their menus. Are there online purchasing options? Now is the time to develop the e-commerce aspect of your website.
  2. Update online listings. Same as your website. Correct online business information is crucial. As store opening times change and shoppers are limiting trips to the store, it’s vital that customers know when exactly your business will be open, what you can offer and how they can reach you.
  3. Send regular email campaigns. (You should be anyways.) You’re your customers. Check in on them. Communicate simply and clearly about how services will be affected and those that offer a helping hand will be one step ahead.
  4. Produce signage sharing time changes, offers and how customers can reach you.
  5. Put money into SEO (search engine optimization) and climb ahead of competitors who are sitting this out.
  6. Consider going digital with advertising. With fewer people traveling, billboards and other types of off-screen advertising will be less visible. Naturally more and more consumers are staring at screens as they quarantine. Your digital ads will be delivered right where they are.

Content marketing during the outbreak is vital

First and foremost, this isn’t the time for one-upmanship against your competitors. Suspend any ‘we’re better than them’ or ‘their deficient because…’ ads!

Don’t ignore the crisis. People who follow your brand will be looking to hear your news and know what you’re doing to get through. You approach should be one of helping them over selling your product or services. Be positive and spread goodwill with your social media platforms, rather than crack a joke and share memes, share some good news or inspiration to your followers.

Lead with empathy. Understand that everyone is on edge right now. Let others know that you’re really in this together and you also share their anxieties. Put yourself in the consumers’ shoes! (Which you should have been doing all along!)

Consider starting or increasing a loyalty program. Most people are likely to get extremely careful of their spending. Reward their purchases with a free meal their next visit (after a return-to-normal date.)

“Dinner Bonds” is an idea we saw. Customers buy a ‘bond’ (gift certificate) now for $75. After that return-to-normal date, it’s worth $100.

Offer DIY Tips. A LOT of spare time at home. What projects can they take on and complete at this time with your tips? Fitness centers offer home workout ideas.

Really drive brand loyalty by opening up any member only content to the public. Chris Hemsworth’s workouts are available without any subscriptions.

Audible is also “advertising” with actions not words. They have made available kids books. This has driven instant awareness and fame for Audible amongst parents and is probably cheaper than any advertising campaign they could have run.

Develop some over-the-top service strategies. A local pizza place developed the Family Kits – dough, sauce, cheese, and two toppings. You prepare at home and have fun with the family.

And that’s what people need right now – feel good moments. People are generally appreciative of feel good and/or entertaining content during these times. Brands need to harness the mindset of a publisher, shift from outbound marketing to content marketing, and create cultural value by either entertaining them or inspiring them. Even minor light-hearted and entertainment can also go a long way provided you are thoughtful with tonality and are true to your brand.

Long-term changes?

Don’t make any long-term changes at this point. As conditions and forecasts change, businesses should adapt their strategy accordingly, but for now most companies should hold tight and not make any dramatic changes that will hurt them in the long run.

Use this time to develop a promotion or event that will drive traffic to their store once this situation is over. And think a change in shopping habits. Whether out of boredom, necessity, or both, this crisis means we’ll start to see an uptick of people shopping from phones and laptops. Long-term, new shopping habits could take hold, as people become more comfortable browsing and buying online and frequenting physical stores less often, what you offer online should reflect these new habits.


No better – and hopeful conclusion than what Advertising Age offered post-9/11:

“President Bush had it right when he urged that normal national life must return promptly; that the nation has to get back to business after last week’s horrors. This is as true for those who work in advertising and marketing as in any endeavor.

“The economic life of this country, a foundation of our well-being, cannot be put on hold. Consumers, already anxious about the economy, need to see that business is not retreating and uncertain.

“In returning to our particular business challenges, there is no disrespect for the victims in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. We are a caring nation that responds when disasters strike.

“Yet emergencies must give way to normalcy. Baseball and football games will, and should, resume. Sitcoms and quiz shows and Macy’s weekend sales will return. Companies—employers—must sell products, and so they must market. Ad schedules need to be planned and purchased, and businesses must look to the future.

“Time stood still during other crisis events. … After each, we sought explanations, took actions and grieved. We did not forget those times, and we will never forget what happened Sept. 11. But we moved ahead for the good of the nation in the wake of other crises. So it must be now.”



Many resources went into this article:
Marketing Dos and Don’ts During a Crisis
What 9/11 Can Teach Us About Marketing In The Time of Coronavirus
As Coronavirus Spreads, Digital Marketing Becomes More Important Than Ever
Should You Market During the COVID-19 Crisis? Heck Yes
How To Appropriately Market Yourself and Your Firm During a Global Crisis
Top 3 Digital Marketing Tips to Reach Customers During Coronavirus
Should You Be Advertising At The Moment… And What Sort of Content Should You Be Putting Out?
Rethinking B2B Content Marketing In Response To COVID-19
Six Actionable Content Strategy Ideas During Challenging Times
Ideas For Rebalancing Your Marketing Campaign During This Current Pandemic