Taking a look at winning communication strategies in times of crisis

Credit: Illustration by Tam Nguyen/Ad Age – Originally featured in Ad Age


This is no time to stay silent or inactive as a brand. According to a survey by the World Federation of Advertisers, 80 percent of multinationals are deferring campaigns but the same number are creating new content in response to the crisis. Not only do people want your help, but the marketing ecosystem needs you—and I need a moment of normality: a crisis KitKat! You might be struggling to find the right comforting words or the right action, as if a friend revealed the loss of a loved one. We must ask ourselves: What is the marketing equivalent during these challenging coronavirus times of “condolences,” giving a hand or sending flowers?

For over a decade, I’ve studied the different approaches to do-good messaging and their profitability, authenticity and impact. These are more relevant now than ever and I’ll share four common communication strategies: staying silent, saying something, doing something and enabling people.


Staying silent: The proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand

When not knowing what to say (or do), it can be easiest to stay silent. Like awkwardly silent. Brands, we know who you are and ignoring us might mean us ignoring you at the cash register. According to an Edelman Trust Barometer Special Coronavirus Report of 12,000 people across the world, 65 percent say how brands respond to the pandemic will have a “huge impact” on their likelihood to buy their products. This is massive.


Shouting from the roof tops

This is a crisis, a war against corona, do we really need to listen to your brand’s emotional, violin-filled message of hope and optimism featuring beautiful product shots? Volvo Trucks felt it was important to tell us how their trucks are still on the road and celebrated drivers in the commercial, “On the Road for Everyone”, but it felt more like the trucks were starring. If you really wanted to help (or celebrate) those hard-working drivers, they’d probably thank you more for a cup of coffee (that’s a free idea for you, Volvo). Dear brand, I know it might come as a surprise, but this is less about you and more about us (or for that sake the truck drivers).

Doing what it takes, whatever it takes 

Less bragging, more doing. Take Budweiser’s, “One Team” another emotionally driven ad celebrating people working to fight corona. But at least it has action behind it: 
Hosting American Red Cross drives at their stadiums. You can judge the real impact versus the media and advertising spend… Other brands do their part and let their actions speak for themselves whether creating hand sanitizers, donating funds or helping with other vital initiatives. This is coming from big names like LMVH-group (behind brands like Louis Vuitton) making hand sanitizers to small, local gin makers converting their production to do the same. In entertainment, the French house DJ Bob Sinclar plays a free live gig every afternoon – thanks for being my soundtrack as Titanic sinks! Look for what you’re best at doing – then do it for us.

Enabling others to become the heroes 

Oh yes, in times of crisis there is a need for heroes – not just sweet words and piano music. Dear brand, beware of putting on that superhero cape, because you’ll most likely plummet like a can of soup. Instead explore how you can turn people into the heroes.

Take Verizon’s, “PayItForwardLIVE”, hosting big names in entertainment to support small businesses and local hospitals –encouraging all of us to do our part by buying a digital gift card to support a community store. “A Mask For All” offers DIY open-source 3D-printed masks with the message: A mask for the people by the people. Even during a crisis, we all want a sense of normality – or at the minimum some help with dealing with all that indoor time. People are hungry for self-development, infotainment, self-care and even a good laugh. Nature’s Bakery’s website featured fun, practical advice on how to keep your kids active with the tongue in cheek message: What on Earth Should I do With My Kids.


Be a friend during good – and bad times

I’ve laughed, been humbled and impressed by people’s creativity and courage during these times, from fun online memes to Italians singing together from their balconies. If your ad agency or marketing department has given up on creativity, then give people a stage, a microphone or a supporting pat on the shoulder. Don’t run into the hero trap, instead explore what meaningful roles your brand can play; aim to be useful, offer a moment of normality – or help people help themselves or others. That’s what friends are for; during good – and bad times.


Contact us to help you respond to the crisis – we even offer 1-on-1 Expert Advisory Sessions online. 





© 2020 Thomas Kolster. All Rights Reserved.

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