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Bias Toward Actions During the Pandemic to Avoid “COVIDwashing” Backlash

By Augie Ray | April 18, 2020 | 0 Comments

MarketingCustomer Experience

Cut and paste ad template: “<Insert Brand Here> has been here for <you/your family/your business> for <Insert number> years, and we’re here for you today during these unprecedented times. Our commitment to our customers and employees has never been greater. At our core, our company has always been about people, and that fuels our belief that together, we can thrive during this difficult and challenging period. We may need to stay apart to ensure the safety of our families, but we’ve never been closer. <Insert Brand Here> thanks you for making us part of your life and allowing us to support you–yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”

Does it feel like every brand is using the same “tragedy template?” That’s a term used in a recent Wall Street Journal article about the endless stream of lookalike advertising currently filling the airwaves. A month ago (or a year in COVID-19 time), I wrote about the dangers of “Virtue signaling.” In March, our inboxes were flooded with nearly identical messages as brands raced to express how they empathized with our concerns and deeply cared for their employees and customers. Too often, those messages said brands cared without demonstrating the necessary actions and decisions to help customers during a period of worry and challenge. And now marketers are transitioning the same strategy to our televisions.

It seems every TV ad today tries to affirm how intensely each brand cares, the many years it’s been there for us, and its hopeful message that we’ll get through this together. Just as with the wave of emails in March, consumers may have welcomed and appreciated the first brands to offer empathetic 30-second spots. But, the stream of undifferentiated commercials now risks boosting the perception brands are leveraging the pandemic for marketing purposes.

People are beginning to notice. Frito-Lay produced an ad, “It’s About People,” that gently mocks other brands; “The world doesn’t need brands to tell us how to think or feel,” it says. A video called “Every Covid-19 Commercial is Exactly the Same” is beginning to circulate among marketers on social networks. The video, which has earned 250,000 views in two days, strings together the indistinguishable music, copy, and imagery used in the current deluge of COVID-19 TV ads.

And, while nascent, the term “COVIDwashing” is beginning to appear in articles and on Twitter. The New York Times used the term in an article about Draper James, Reese Witherspoon’s fashion label, which stumbled into a PR crisis by making a well-intentioned but ill-conceived offer. Two weeks ago, the brand took to Instagram to say to teachers, “We see you working harder than ever to educate our children. To show our gratitude, Draper James would like to give teachers a free dress.”  The post generated a lot of publicity and interest, and soon the brand had to backpedal as the application form crashed. The company realized interest was much greater than anticipated, offered a raffle for a limited number of dresses, and many consumers took to social media to accuse the company of reneging on their promise.

Terms like greenwashing and pinkwashing have been in the marketing vernacular for years. They describe the risk that a brand adopts an issue about which people care deeply only to inadvertently convey more interest in helping the brand than the cause. Last year while traveling, I sat in an airport lounge and saw a tarmac full of airline ground support equipment painted pink for breast cancer awareness. I couldn’t help but wonder at the cost and how pink pushback tugs and luggage dollies assisted those suffering from cancer. COVIDwashing ads may raise the same questions in consumers’ minds, such as “If the brand can afford a huge ad spend to say it cares, why can’t it afford to waive this fee while I’m unemployed?” Or “Is this brand’s offer really about helping me or more about helping its sagging revenue?”

I think we need a new word to describe the flood of identical ads competing to out-empathize each other: “pandempathetic,” a combination of “pandemic” and “empathetic.” (“Empathetic” and “pathetic” share the same Greek root, “pathos,” meaning “suffering,” “experience,” or “emotion.”) These pandempathetic brand ads are out of step with consumer desires. One recent survey found that 44% of consumers prefer ads that communicate service adjustments & updates, 24% want ads that indicate what brands are doing to help, and just 10% favor ads that acknowledge the situation and express concern. (That last category may be low, but it still beats the 8% who want offers.)

COVID-19 is raising consumer sensitivities, and that increases risks for brands. Be cautious about acting upon research that suggests consumers want and expect your brand to offer expressions of care. We’ve seen evidence in the Gartner consumer panel that people’s concerns and expectations are changing rapidly. Our research in mid-March suggested a low level of consumer anxiety about COVID-19, but just weeks later, we found consumers had a host of concerns about COVID-19’s impact on them and their families (subscription required). Cares that ranked high included the economy, product shortages, and local businesses failing.

There is a particular risk for brands taking to the airwaves to thank their employees. What may seem a sound and safe strategy to show appreciation may backfire if employees complain the brand is spending on ad buys while failing to invest appropriately in safety and compensation for their “essential employees.” Taking real and helpful actions for employees before your brand produces a gratitude ad can help to reduce risk. For example, Albertsons Cos. installed plexiglass barriers in its checkout lanes and announced an “appreciation pay” program to lift wages for frontline associates by $2-per-hour temporarily. Be sure you show appreciation in the ways employees most value before you air an ad that says how much you appreciate your team members.

In a recent report on advertising during COVID-19, my peers Andrew Frank, Eric Schmitt, and Anna Maria Virzi discuss ways to protect your brand (subscription required). These include shorter planning cycles, rapid testing to determine if campaigns are producing desired effects and independent review and approval processes.

Another recommendation is to prepare a crisis-scenario-specific business case for advertising and to start to look past the crisis. This doesn’t mean you should assume your customers (and your company) will rapidly return to business as usual. There is evidence that suggests your scenarios must consider the possibility of a long period of uncertainty, but marketers can expect that this initial period of crisis will transition to something different–a steadier state where consumer sentiment becomes less volatile, the business challenges are better understood, and the needs, wants, and motivations of our customers become clearer. All of which demands our brands must act before they speak.

“Your actions speak so loudly, I can not hear what you are saying.” 

Ralph Waldo Emerson

That Ralph Waldo Emerson quote resonates even more in times of crisis. Ensure your brand takes more care, invests more money, and dedicates more time being there for customers and employees than saying you are there for them. Bias towards actions first, PR and advertising second, and you’ll help to ensure whatever you communicate is genuine and appreciated. The skin your company puts in the game is what can protect you from COVIDwashing damage.

The Gartner Blog Network provides an opportunity for Gartner analysts to test ideas and move research forward. Because the content posted by Gartner analysts on this site does not undergo our standard editorial review, all comments or opinions expressed hereunder are those of the individual contributors and do not represent the views of Gartner, Inc. or its management.

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