Marketing in challenging times

by Zoe K

“Weird times”. It’s a phrase I’ve both used and heard on multiple occasions over the past weeks as people try to make some degree of sense of the significant changes to all aspects of their lives.

Read Time: 5 minutes

In the urgency to stay safe and protect the most vulnerable, people have had to form new habits from how they wash their hands to how they buy their groceries.

The high street is closed. Nearly everyone is at home.

This unquestionably needed change has set marketers a very challenging set of circumstances. Seemingly overnight, the rules of the marketer’s game have changed.

At this time, marketers need to remember they’re serving “people”, not faceless “customers” or data points in a CRM.

Those people are anxious about the near future and currently focusing more on covering basic needs than making decisions on luxury purchases. Their priorities have changed, and marketers need to be sensitive to that.

There are brands that are “getting it right”, which is a phrase so nuanced it’s almost dangerous to use.

“Right” can mean not being overtly commercial.

“Right” can mean doing good for others, and only letting brand tag along for the ride if it sits in the back seat.


McDonald’s – (kinda) lovin’ it

Sometimes there’s value in making a creative statement that reflects the mood of the times.

The Brazilian arm of McDonald’s responded to the call for social distancing by posting an image of the infamous golden arches split into two parts.

The idea was to say that we are “separated for a moment to always be together”.


This gained a lot of traction and scored some initial brand points. But some marketers were unsure.

Mark Ritson on Marketing Week wrote that “for all the creativity and agility on display there was something not quite right about the cleverness of the response”.

The problem is that the viewer processes the famous logo first, rather than the cause. The takeaway (pardon the pun) is more that McDonald’s did something clever with their logo, and less than how they’re helping in a meaningful way.

And this is what I mean by “getting it right” being so nuanced – McDonald’s didn’t do anything wrong.

They did put some attention on the need for social distancing, but it could be construed as somewhat secondary to the focus on themselves.



It has been humbling to see the lengths some brands are going to in order to do good.

Luxury brand group LVMH, owners of Dom Perignon and Christian Dior amongst others, will reportedly see revenues drop 10-20% in Q1 2020.

But rather than focus purely on overhead reduction they’ve repurposed perfume-making factories to produce hand sanitiser, which they are giving to the French medical sector for free.

Several brewers and distilleries have done the same.

BrewDog, who are having to work around a reduction in beer drinking due to pubs being closed, heeded the call to create alcohol gel by producing “BrewGel Punk Sanitiser” announcing it on Twitter:


Let’s be very clear – this is a wonderful thing for BrewDog to do. They should be wholeheartedly applauded for thinking and acting so quickly and for doing real, selfless good.

When BrewDog’s James Watt first shared the photo of the branded packs on Twitter it was immediately met with disapproving comments, calling it a “pure PR stunt” and “an opportunity for self-promotion”.

So why did a selfless act draw negativity?

Well, the image was a glossy product shot featuring branded labels and the post didn’t mention that Punk Sanitiser was being donated for free. So, it was misinterpreted by a few people as act of profiteering because it looked like a new product that BrewDog were aiming to sell.

James posted clarification five hours later:


Again, BrewDog did nothing wrong, and they didn’t deserve criticism. Messaging just needs to be finely balanced at the moment. Audiences need to be treated with sensitivity.


Pin Gin

The team at Lincolnshire-based Bottomley Distillers also heeded the call to create hand sanitiser.

The creators of Pin Gin switched production to creating alcohol gel and worked hard to manage the rising costs of the raw materials for sanitiser.

Lincolnshire is a rural county and relies on nearby volunteer first responders from the charity LIVES to get to casualties before ambulance crews. So, when Bottomley Distiller’s first batch of sanitiser was ready, they kindly donated it to LIVES.

The news was shared in this LinkedIn post:



Like BrewDog, the Bottomley Distillers team have done a very generous, selfless thing. The photo is quite different from BrewDog’s though – the Bottomley brand isn’t visible. Here the message is much more about the organisation being helped, than the brand that did the helping. It doesn’t feel at all like this photo was taken to gain praise.

Bottomley Distillers didn’t include their logo in the image, didn’t mention their name in the post, but still raised the profile of their brand purely by the act of doing good.

And that’s an example of something marketers need to be ready to address – the idea of creating brand value by not doing what they would normally do. Don’t necessarily turn these moments into brand activities. Let the empathy shine through.


Now what?

If you’re going to show empathy, do it genuinely and carefully.

Empathy that is forced will be routed out and could damage a brand. And if you’re being genuinely helpful, don’t consider the action as an opportunity to promote your brand.

Remember that to the greatest extent the market hasn’t gone away, it’s just on hold.

The people in the market still have the same hopes and aspirations, the same pain points.

If your business was in a good position before the crisis you stand a good chance of it succeeding again afterwards.

Of course, there are arguments for continuing with the same marketing messaging that was working beforehand and not addressing the current challenges at all. But this also must be carefully done, or there’s a risk of your messages seeming out of touch or insensitive.

When a group of people are asked to adopt a new behaviour, individuals will often become enforcers trying to regulate that behaviour in others.

Remember in school when the teacher said “Sshhh!” and a few kids turned to the others still making noise to do the same?

Since entire populations have been told to stay home and maintain a distance from others, any marketing featuring creative that doesn’t follow these new social rules could inspire your audience to think about the infraction, rather than your original message.


Don’t stop

Marketing is very challenging at the moment.

On one hand, brands that stop stand to lose out, but on the other, they can’t just continue to market like in “normal times”. Indeed, there will be opportunities for brands to grow and emerge stronger, but they must act with integrity.

A degree of normal life will resume at some point. But brands need to be very sensitive to the difficulties and emotional stress that so many of their customers will have been through.

Before putting out any marketing or advertising, review, review, review. Then review again.

This is just one of the checks marketers need to be doing, and we’ll cover some of the others in our upcoming content.

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