How to Avoid Sounding Tone-Deaf During The COVID-19 Shutdown

These are strange days to be a marketer—or a human—and we’re all acclimating to this new reality one day at a time. While brands and their agencies may be tempted to enter the conversation, they’re walking a razor-thin line between being helpful and being tone-deaf. And the latter could do lasting damage to their brand.

You’ve probably already seen a collection of cringeworthy brand emails about COVID-19 making the rounds on social media. They tend to be bland and inoffensive and also completely irrelevant. No one wants to hear from their web-hosting service or the company that sold them their refrigerator, let alone from a yoga studio they visited once five years ago.

And yet, because what we’re facing is so unprecedented, companies are feeling a sense of urgency to communicate to their customers about what they’re doing and the plans they’re making, even when they have very little of interest to share.

Though marketers are rightfully paranoid about appearing to be opportunistic right now, the urge to over-communicate has so far been winning out.  



I worry that we haven’t learned our lesson from the last time our country went through a crisis. Nineteen years ago (and during most 9/11 anniversaries ever since), some clients and agencies have tried way too hard to wrap an American flag around their brands or be clever with imagery of the Twin Towers. They’ve had little success in most cases, and have sometimes been subjected to damaging backlash.

The current moment calls for more common sense. I know we all want to be proactive at a time when so many businesses are under unprecedented stress. We have a bias toward taking action to demonstrate that we’re still open for business and positioned to weather the storm, which is noble. But we should ask ourselves whether linking a message to the pandemic serves your brand or its customers right now.

Right now, people are fearful about whether they have enough food, toilet paper and disinfectant, not to mention their job security and the well-being of their families. Interrupting that mindset with commercial messages about new cars or beauty products probably isn’t going to be welcome right now, no matter how good your creative is. Nor are mass emails that try to offer a sense of being “in it together.” We collectively need to hear that message right now, but from people we actually know.

If your brand can help alleviate real anxieties, that’s another story. Look to Ford for an example of how an advertiser perfectly read the current moment. It pulled TV campaigns promoting the Escape and Explorer that were slated to run during March Madness and instead ran spots on their plan to provide payment relief to customers impacted by the shutdown.

Figuring out whether your brand can be of service to people in tangible ways is the essential first step. If you have nothing helpful to offer but choose to insert yourself into the conversation anyway, don’t be surprised if you’re called out for it.

1 comment about "How to Avoid Sounding Tone-Deaf During The COVID-19 Shutdown".
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  1. Steve Lundin from bigfrontier, April 6, 2020 at 2:26 p.m.

    While these messages may be ill-timed, are they truly any more intrusive, off target or vapid than usual? It would seem that in a world wrestling with change, the one immutable constant is bad marketing. 

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