Should brands push the panic button?

When I was asked to think about the marketing implications of the new coronavirus for our clients, I thought it was a joke at first. I was busy with *actual* client work and honestly was semi-annoyed with the request. Were people just reacting to sensationalized news reporting? (Depending on who you watch, this is either a big hoax or an impending pandemic.) But then I started thinking about it some more and realized it was an interesting puzzle to solve. Spoiler alert – I don’t have any real answers for you – but the more I read up and started thinking through the lines of business we serve, it became really fascinating. We live in a highly interdependent and interconnected world.

We’ve probably all thought a little about the obvious things – supplies and products from China, if unavailable, limited, or delayed, will greatly impact a lot of industries around the world. The stock market has been volatile, and that obviously has major implications here at home. People are starting to worry about being exposed in crowds – entertainment venues are seeing decreases in attendance and conferences have been cancelled. And it seems that the travel industry may have taken the biggest hit so far. People were once only scared to travel to affected regions, and we’re now starting to see an impact on domestic travel.

We’re seeing the tangible impact of fear on human behavior. Whether the coronavirus is a real threat in your local area or not, people are changing their behavior based on fear – and that’s a powerful thing that has many economic implications.

From a marketing standpoint, when there is corporate uncertainty, we tend to see marketing and media budgets “paused” or cut. If the virus isn’t contained quickly, this could be bad news for all marketers. But we could see an upside for some industries. Grocers are reporting week over week increases as people stock up on supplies – both health-related and food. If you have a shelf-stable food client like I do, this could be a good thing. Restaurants that offer delivery may also see an uptick in sales as people opt to stay home more. People are cancelling Spring Break travel plans. Will that mean that local attractions, assuming no real immediate viral threat, will see higher attendance as families search for fun local activities in lieu of their travel? Oil demand is down which usually leads to falling gas prices. If people are scared to travel en mass but still need to feed their wanderlust, will they drive instead? The news, in other words, isn’t all bad – unless the virus gets out of hand. If that happens, I imagine marketing will be one of the least of our worries as a nation.

From a paid media standpoint, in the face of a looming crisis, we may want to consider advising our clients to heavy up in digital. It’s much easier to quickly pivot your messaging and buys versus other longer-lead channels like print or traditional out of home. And if you haven’t sold in PR to a client, this would be the time to consider it! Not every business needs to have a robust public response plan, but it wouldn’t hurt to at least consult on some of the basics.

It’s an interesting challenge we face today – and one I hope we spend more time thinking about philosophically than actually activating plans to manage. At the very least, it’s a good reminder to think through contingency plans and focus on what matters most. In my mind, our employees and customers are the cornerstone of everything we do – no matter what line of business you are in. The safety and health of people is paramount. If you’re not sure where to start planning, start there.

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posted on
March 5, 2020
written by
Wendy Mason
Senior Director of Strategy