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Beware of Virtue Signaling or Outright Greed in Brand Communications About COVID-19

By Augie Ray | March 15, 2020 | 16 Comments

MarketingCustomer Experience

Like everyone else, marketing and communication professionals have had a challenging few weeks. As the pandemic expands, marketers and customer experience professionals have done their best to keep up with and bridge swiftly shifting consumer and brand needs.

We rapidly transitioned from a period when brands debated if they should communicate about COVID-19 to now, with brands tripping over each other to broadcast their coronavirus email messages to customers. If your inbox is like mine, you received almost no brand emails about the virus before a week ago. But in the past week, the volume has exploded. Brands seemed to go from COVID-19 denial to COVID-19 FOMO in a matter of days.

The global pandemic may or may not be a business opportunity for your company, but trying to make it a marketing opportunity for your brand is risky.

On Friday, I received more than two dozen brand emails about COVID-19. The problem is that few of these messages took a customer-centric approach; instead, the race to email consumers reflects a growing sense of brand virtue signaling or outright desperation for business. Consider what customers need and want to hear from your organization to best help your brand while dodging potential risks.

Avoid Virtue Signaling

Virtue signaling is when your brand conspicuously expresses its values without actually taking actions to live by those values. Today, it is not enough to tell consumers you are aware of and reacting to the pandemic — everyone is. We also don’t need to know that your brand is keeping your employees safe — we hope that’s business as usual. Finally, no one needs to hear how your brand is striving to continue its operations uninterrupted — it would be real news worth sharing if you weren’t! If that is all your brand has to report to customers, then you do not need a special COVID-19-themed brand communication at this time.

For example, my mortgage company, with whom I have a completely digital relationship, felt it needed to email me “An important message” simply to say, “The health and safety of our customers and team members is — as always — the most important thing to us.” How does this company, which merely processes my auto-payments once a month, have any impact on my physical health? And why would it be necessary for any organization to state it cares about the health of its team members? Put that on the list of the many things I assume is true of every brand and thus need not be said, such as that it follows laws and that its CEO puts pants on one leg at a time.

The problem with marketing messages that merely signal your brand’s virtue without doing anything further is that they waste customers’ time and do little to impact your relationship.  In fact, messages like that do more to hurt brands because of what’s missing — anything meaningful for customers. What one might expect of “an important message” from a mortgage processor during this global health crisis is information about what will happen if customers are unable to pay their mortgage. This email didn’t address this topic, and the glaring omission of content to help or comfort customers only makes the brand-centric virtue-signaling that much more evident and damaging.

Don’t Signal Your Brands Desperation

These are tough times for businesses large and small, and they are going to get tougher in the coming weeks and months. Companies can be excused for wanting to keep customers buying. But they cannot be forgiven for making their self-interest and desperation evident in marketing communications.

About a quarter of the COVID-19 messages I received Friday came from businesses with physical locations that wanted me to know they are regularly cleaning, urging employees who are sick to say home, and are still open for business. Those sorts of notices, absent any offer or helpful content, do nothing to differentiate the brand from every other brand that is saying the same thing.

Furthermore, if your company is considering a message to drive physical traffic to real-world locations this coming week, hit the pause button long enough to consider if that train has already left the station. Here in the US, the CDC is recommending social distancing of six feet, the media is full of guidance that urges people to stay home, and the social pressure to take action that saves lives is growing — this morning on Twitter, “#StayTheFHome” is trending. Unless your business is essential (to others, not just to you), then it may be time to shift strategies away from driving physical visits.

For example, a Sonoma winery sent me a message intended to seem comforting but instead sounded tone-deaf: “Our doors will remain open, the live music will carry on, and our staff would love to say hello and treat you to a cup of coffee.” Nothing conveys how much your brand cares for customers like telling them to violate CDC instructions that save lives amid a global pandemic.

The other three-quarters of COVID-19 messages in my inbox are from digital brands with little to tell me other than “we still want your business.” A clothing brand I love disappointed me by sending a seven-paragraph, 382-word missive that said, well, absolutely nothing. This brand thanked me, told me communication is key in times like this, expressed its commitment to my health and safety, disclosed it set up a COVID-19 task force, suggested I monitor the CDC site, and reminded me it has a website. At first glance, that may seem harmless enough, but what part of the message says anything that isn’t painfully self-apparent? It was a three-minute read to convey nothing unexpected or meaningful to the customer during troubling times.

That sort of message may have seemed helpful and differentiated last week before customer inboxes were flooded with soundalike brand emails. But, broadcasting such a message now will only make your real intent clear — not “We care deeply for our customers,” but “We’re still here, need your business, and hope you’ll spend money with us.” This isn’t to say your brand doesn’t have something important and valuable to say during this crisis, but the onus is on you to make sure your message is essential and useful to your customers and not just to your brand. Don’t forget the WIIFM.

Four Questions to Ensure Your COVID-19 Marketing Communication Has WIIFM

It is becoming impossible for consumers to separate the useful and crucial signals from the noise during this health emergency as their inboxes overflow with brands competing to be top of mind. Your customers are growing more fearful and anxious by the day (just like you are), and the brands that gain trust are the ones that bring comfort and clarity rather than adding to anxieties and buzz. Littering your customers’ inbox with indistinguishable and interchangeable emails won’t reduce customer worries; what will do that are messages that lead with customers’ WIIFM — “what’s in it for me?”

Take that mortgage company email message, for example. It was labeled “important,” but what is most important to customers right now? It certainly isn’t that the brand cares for the health of its employees and customers, just like every other company on the planet. At a time when many are growing fearful of their income stability and ability to meet obligations, the WIIFM questions a mortgage company should answer are: What do I do if I can’t pay my mortgage? Are you willing to waive late fees? Do you offer assistance programs to customers in need?

The same is true of companies encouraging customers to visit their real-world locations. Unless your physical operations are vital, such as medical facilities or retail selling essentials, it may already be difficult or impossible to drive foot traffic. Instead, think of what your customers need right now, shift to WIIFM messaging about physical alternatives, and make useful promotional offers. Restaurants concerned about short-term cashflow might offer a free gift certificate for people who buy one, encouraging spending without suggesting people take risky actions that ignore necessary social distancing. That winery who messaged me missed an opportunity to boost its wine delivery or shipping, and rather than promote live music events, people quarantining at home may appreciate live streaming concerts, instead. Free streaming concerts won’t cause the winery’s cash register to ring, but they may create brand affinity and help struggling musicians simultaneously.

If you’re a retailer that wants to encourage people to do essential shopping, now is an excellent time to give a discount on your pick-up or delivery services or extend a promotion on products that can help assuage the anxieties customers feel right now. Consider how to craft offers in ways that will appeal to anxious customers but also reduce your employees’ stress about managing stockpiling havoc. Promoting deals and communicating buying limits on in-demand necessities like toilet paper and hand sanitizers can make life easier on employees while providing WIIFM content and offers for customers.

Some brands are showing how to strike a balance between brand-oriented goals and customer-oriented WIIFM messaging. Laugh (or cringe) all you want, but Pornhub offering free premium content to quarantined people in Italy is an example of a brand raising awareness with a clear WIIFM giveaway to consumers. Spectrum is extending free internet service to students who must attend school from home.  SAP is opening up free access to its Ariba Discovery platform so buyers can more easily satisfy their sourcing needs. As consumer worries continue to escalate, the demand will only become greater for your brand to do something and not just say something.

The global pandemic may or may not be a business opportunity for your company, but treating it as a marketing opportunity risks reputation and relationship damage. This isn’t to say your marketing and communications teams shouldn’t consider and execute helpful and timely communications about COVID-19, but don’t miss the two operative terms — helpful and timely. It is okay to carefully and appropriately promote your brand and its products or services if you are helping customers deal with the health, economic, and emotional issues they are experiencing.

Launch your COVID-19-themed marketing email campaign only if you can answer yes to four questions:

  • Am I telling customers something different from other brands versus saying the same thing as everyone else?
  • Am I telling customers something they don’t already expect of my company or brand?
  • Is the WIIFM conspicuous in the subject line and opening paragraph?
  • And, most importantly, is the WIIFM attuned to your customers needs right now?

For many customers, last month’s campaign or offer may be as relevant as last decade’s. Consumer context is changing day to day, and it will into the foreseeable future. Broadcasting a brand message that helps customers deal with their situation today requires speed and agility, but the brands that do this will improve their chances to exit the pandemic with stronger relationships.

Leave a Comment

16 Comments

  • Carmen Hill says:

    Augie, this should be required reading for every brand, from the C-suite on down to the customer support folks. It’s always good advice for businesses to ask customers, “How can we help?” Especially in a situation like the one face now. It’s been gratifying to hear my clients actually focusing on how they can help their clients and customers get through this extraordinarily challenging time. I’m passing this post along to them for further inspiration.

    • Augie Ray says:

      Glad you found it helpful, Carmen. It’s easy to get caught up in FOMO and do things that sound helpful but aren’t. I hope brands learn fast during this crisis.

  • Cynthia McCollough says:

    Great article. I received a standout email today from a law firm whose focus is on employee rights. It was a list of FAQs on work from home issues, with links to the relevant federal regulations. It was helpful to me as an employee and as an employer. Timely and relevant.

  • G Gardiner says:

    Great article
    The voice of reason in all the madness!!!!

  • Natasha D says:

    One of the best reads on the topic with actionable steps on how to message.

  • Gerry H. says:

    Augie,

    Great piece! Learned two valuable insights:

    #1. Don’t Be a Jerk (this should always be the case but the folks who create and send these emails are clueless sods).
    #2. The inbox is their lifeline and if you overstep – beware that consequences will be severe – as in – I’ll never do business with these folks – ever!

    Thanks and be well…

  • M Rush says:

    Great read with salient points. It seems like your on-point observations and perspectives should be obvious to companies. WIIFM is rule one if you want consumer attention.

    My husband I were just joking about the emails we’ve received from businesses “who care” and are “here for you.” They had no business writing a me-too email. COVID FOMO is hilarious, BTW!

    Let me step onto my soapbox that’s been thoroughly sanitized for good measure.

    A few brands that sent us emails with similar tones as noted above:

    – Wedding Wire: They could have actually solved real problems but chose to virtue signal/VS—I mean, come on, people cancelled weddings, lost deposits, etc.

    – Shutterstock: Sent an 8-paragraph e-mail that was 95% VS and 5% helpful (and I’m being generous) by offering a free, curated collection of images. Morbid curiosity drove me to download that “sure to be artful” collection. It was the most random, lame bunch of images—with an inexplicable number of coffee-related selections.

    – Canva: The dove head first into the pool of self-righteousness with #stopthespread messaging and templates and info to “spread accurate information.”

    – Walgreens: This one kind of surprised me. They sent an email that was fairly well balanced with promoting existing services “as new” (which wasn’t the big offense), helpful info on updated store hours and temporary drive-thru shopping for certain items. The faux pas was sending an email with most of the content as images that most ISPs block now until you actively mark them as safe. So, I opened up an email loaded with empty boxes and meaningless copy.

    – CheckMarket: A company I’ve never heard of nor done business with, sent me an email about “supporting our employees, “coming together” and “ensuring uptime for clients.” I can only guess, from the sales pitch micro-thinly veiled as support during trying times, that the company offers virtual services—just why?

    – Dropbox: It’s a file-storage and virtual-collaboration tool. I was so annoyed to see I got a message from them on the topic that I deleted before reading. The subject line telegraphed, which SLs should do—normally, the message was going to be a big ole box of nothin’, apart from virtue signaling. If there was useful information in the message, it’ll have to remain a mystery.

    • Augie Ray says:

      Lots of brands can be doing better–but I’m also forgiving of brands for wanting to say something but struggling with what to say in this crisis. Still, as I noted in the post, marketers need to quickly shift to a stance of saying nothing if they can’t say something meaningful, differentiated, pertinent and helpful.

  • Sue Mayer says:

    Thank you! Some excellent common-sense advice.

  • Thank you for this article! I’ve noticed exactly what you described and now have a term for it – “virtue signalling”. It’s hard as a business not to fall prey to FOMO. We are trying to stay helpful to our Plastic Surgery patients by eduating them from afar and letting them know we will continue to care for them virtually. Do you have any other suggestions we could put to use?

    • Augie Ray says:

      I’m not sure I do have other advice. For a lot of brands, this might just be a time to say less. I think it comes down to:
      Am I essential right now?
      Can I be helpful right now?
      Can I be meaningful right now?

      If so, the direction is clear. If not, then it might be best to wait for a more opportune time to engage customers.

  • Alison says:

    Thanks for the great tips! I couldn’t agree more that authenticity is always key to a successful marketing campaign, but more so than ever.