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What Customers Need to Hear from You During the COVID Crisis

From Jill Avery and Richard Edelman, writing for the Harvard Business School…

As the COVID-19 virus pandemic began to sweep across the world, Doug McMillon and his team at Walmart watched in horror. Suddenly, they realized, tomorrow would be nothing like “business as usual” and everything in the company’s marketing plan, from retail execution to advertising creative and media, would need to be rethought.

Recognizing that their existing brand creative might strike the wrong tone with people fearful for their own and their community’s health, and anxious about their personal and the world’s rapidly deteriorating economic situation, the Walmart marketing team pivoted quickly to produce and air new advertising creative that tapped into the rapidly changing zeitgeist. The result, the Retail Heroes campaign, featured CEO McMillon Zooming in remotely from home to thank the one million Walmart front line employees for their dedication to their work, he calls them heroes, not just to the company, but also to people around the globe.

At the same time, managers at other global brands were similarly considering their brands’ response to the COVID-19 crisis. Nike chose to twist its consumers’ athletic aspirations into a life-saving call to action with new ad copy that admonished, “If you ever dreamed of playing for millions around the world, now is your chance: play inside, play for the world,” to reinforce the need for people to stay home, while McDonald’s team in Brazil decided to redraw the iconic arches that made up the brand’s logo, drawing the two sides of the brand logo’s “M” apart to signal social distancing.


Many other Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) pulled back from advertising during the crisis, going dark, fearful of offending or of being accused of taking advantage of an unfortunate situation for corporate gain. According to estimates from a March 2020 survey of marketers conducted by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, nearly a quarter of brands have gone dark, pausing all of their paid marketing communications for the first and second quarter of the year.

What’s the right strategy for a CMO during a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic? During the week of March 23, 2020, Edelman, a global communications firm, conducted a survey of 12,000 consumers in 12 countries (Brazil, South Africa, Italy, France U.K., Germany, South Korea, Canada, China, U.S., Japan, and India) which were all in the midst of battling the novel coronavirus’s surge across the globe, to understand how consumers are responding to brand’s marketing during the crisis and to provide guidance to CMOs for branding in crises. These survey results form the basis for our analysis and advice below.

Do consumers want to hear from brands during a crisis?

Yes, they do, but only when that communication is comforting and reassuring to them and provides specific information about what brands are doing to respond to the pandemic. Consumers consider the brands they use to be trusted partners and look to them for information about the crisis and how it is affecting their companies, employees, and the products and services they provide. Brands should try to avoid communications that cause anxiety and concern about the crisis without offering solutions and hope to their consumers. And, brands should keep their consumers fully informed about how to continue to gain access to their products and services during the crisis, particularly for those deemed mission critical.

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