Commentary

Careless Brand Messaging During Pandemic Could Have Long-Term Effects

The coronavirus crisis has transported brands and consumers alike to a strange new world, one where comforts and certainty have been replaced by anxiety and confusion. Brands sense that now is a time to take action -- but some seem to be reacting with hastily scripted public service messages. Worse still, a few are combining barely disguised sales pitches with high-minded themes. 

While the uncertainty of this moment may seem pervasive, and possibly a cloak for generally well-meaning brands to hide behind, the truth is much different. Consumers are watching and listening  with the same eyes and ears they will be using after the crisis passes. Brands inclined to “message now and ask for forgiveness later” could be taking risks they never imagined.

In fact, new research from GfK’s Coronavirus Consumer Pulse shows that 85% of U.S. consumers feel that the way brands behave during the COVID-19 crisis will affect their desire to do business with those companies in the future. Fully half of those people (43% of the population) agreed strongly -- meaning that there is passion behind this answer. 

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We also found that brands already have a strike or two against them in consumers’ eyes. Almost three-quarters (72%) say that they have seen companies “trying to take advantage” of the crisis, up from just over half (54%) only a month ago. 

This sentiment is extremely pronounced in larger households, where the level is 17 points higher than in single-person homes – and people with at least one child under three years old. Those in urban areas and with higher levels of education are also more likely to see brands as exploiting the pandemic.

We have also seen that “big companies” rank near the bottom of those seen as helping out during the crisis. Only 14% of consumers feel these companies are “taking positive action” -- but they rank among the top five of groups that “could do more” to help, with “the national government” landing at #1 on this list.

The effects of the pandemic are also playing into a number of trends obvious long before COVID-19 came into full force. Trust was already an eroding commodity between consumers and brands, with data breaches, phishing, and aggressive online marketing all playing roles. And, on the flip side, the emerging phenomena of click-and-collect and other frictionless shopping options have gotten extraordinary exposure -- with sometimes mixed results -- during the crisis.

The lesson here is simple: While it may seem we’re living in a strange parallel universe -- one that will ultimately give way to something more familiar -- the impressions brands make today will not disappear. What consumers see of and feel about brands now may well be imprinted more deeply into their psyches; in the midst of the chaos, almost nine in 10 are predicting that they will care. 

Moreover, brands are getting more exposure than they might in normal times to their messaging. More than one in three (34%) consumers say they are watching advertising on TV or the Internet more than they did prior to quarantine, and just one in ten (9%) say they are watching it less -- with some of the largest increases in advertising attention coming from larger and more educated households..

So to companies wondering about the future of their brands, we can only say: The future Is happening right now. Be careful today to give your brand a fighting chance tomorrow.

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