People Before Profit: Promoting products and services during COVID-19

covid-19 marketing

COVID-19 has posed many commercial challenges for business; some have gotten their response very wrong and others very right.

As is the case in any crisis, an organization’s values are now on full display. It is a make-or-break time for many brands.

Take Delta Airlines, a member of an industry that has it tough right now. In a first—at least in North America—the airline announced on 5 April that it would extend its frequent flyer status by an entire year. Delta lists its core values as honesty, integrity, respect, perseverance, and servant leadership. If ever there was a time to live out “servant leadership,” it’s now.

Let’s take a look at the announcement from Sandeep Dube, Delta’s senior vice president of customer engagement and loyalty, and CEO of Delta Vacations.

“On behalf of all of us at Delta, I want to thank our customers for your continued loyalty during these unprecedented times. While our focus is on keeping customers and employees safe and healthy today and always, you are a part of the Delta family and we know how important these benefits are to you. That’s why as coronavirus continues to dramatically impact travel across the globe, you don’t have to worry about your benefits—they’ll be extended so you can enjoy them when you are ready to travel again.”

The core of this message is what we frequent flyers most want to know: What’s happening to those hard-earned points?

Be relevant

In this strange, locked-down world, brands need to ask: How relevant, helpful and useful are we? Are we sending out the right message?

Gratuitous, generic messages of support are, quite frankly, useless. At the beginning of this crisis, there were way too many of these types of statements. Take this one from Barnes & Noble:

Dear Reader,

We’re living through turbulent times together. Our booksellers are your neighbours, your friends and family. Your stories are our stories, and we know how resilient our communities are.


The Booksellers of Barnes & Noble

Contrast that nothing message with Unilever CEO Alan Jope, who has been highly vocal on the importance of brand purpose since stepping into the role last year. This what he said recently:

“We are deeply saddened by the terrible impact that coronavirus is wreaking on lives and livelihoods everywhere. The world is facing its greatest trial in decades. We have seen the most incredible response from the Unilever team so far, especially those on the front line of our operations in factories, distribution centres and stores.

We hope that our donation of €100m of soap, sanitizer, bleach and food will make a significant contribution towards protecting people’s lives and that by helping to safeguard our workers’ incomes and jobs, we are giving some peace of mind during these uncertain times. Our strong cash flow and balance sheet mean that we can, and should, give this additional support.”

Both Unilever’s and Delta’s messages exemplified what to do and say in this unprecedented crisis by:

  • Directly addressing what is happening and how it is affecting its demographic.
  • Getting to the heart of what their audience was feeling, right now.
  • Providing concrete examples of how they were helping their audience.

My fellow crisis management colleague, Jonathan Hemus, managing director of UK-based crisis management consultancy Insignia, asks three important questions to assist your decision making about marketing relevance during the pandemic.

As Hemus states, it’s all about relevance. Is your product or service more relevant now (PPE/medical supplies), just as relevant (food), less relevant (clothing) or not relevant (travel)?

Be helpful

As Leif Stromnes, DDB’s managing director of strategy and innovation in Sydney, Australia, said in a recent article, “Brands that have made a sacrifice for their customers, their communities and their staff are being rewarded,” citing Australia’s Westpac bank, which is offering mortgage holidays for customers affected by the pandemic.

The Coles Group is another example. One of Australia’s leading retailers with over 800 supermarkets across the country serving millions introduced “community shopping hour” for the elderly and vulnerable to access groceries. That proactive action, which directly addressed what was happening in a particular demographic, has been very well received. Indeed, that brand initiative recently topped a poll of COVID-19 initiatives that were best received by Australian consumers.

Like Delta and Unilever, Coles was seen as helpful and relevant, the key brand attributes for this crisis.

Be generous

Apart from the core intent of being helpful and useful, be genuine in your messaging and generous in your actions. This is not the time to try to capitalize on disruption, as was highlighted in the recent Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report on COVID-19. As reported in PR Week: “Consumers are demanding that brands act and communicate differently during the COVID-19 crisis, with nearly two-thirds (65 per ent) saying how brands respond to the pandemic will have a ‘huge impact’ on their likelihood to buy their products.”

Respondents in the Edelman survey were asked whether they agreed that companies’ priority should be “to protect the well-being and financial security of their employees, even if it means suffering big financial losses.” Fifty-two percent of respondents said brands “must do this to earn or keep their trust.”

As Without Bullshit‘s Josh Bernoff, says, “Be generous. Give stuff away to your customers.”

If you breach the consumers’ trust right now, putting profit before people, your relationship with your customers may not recover.

Whatever you decide, it is imperative when communicating in a crisis that empathy is at the forefront of your message, and people are seen to be at the center of your decision-making.  Your tone is important. Transparency, empathy and compassion are paramount.

Janie Jordan

Janie Jordan is recognized globally as a leader in crisis management. She is the author of The Four Highly Effective Stages of Crisis Management. A former journalist and award-winning PR consultant, Janie’s career spans over 30 years working with senior management teams on strategic communication, reputation management and risk mitigation in Australia, New Zealand and North America. Her work is evidence-based and derived from a four-stage methodology that was pioneered at The Jordan Templeman Group, a media training company she co-founded and led from 1997-2001. She is now offering coaching and strategy sessions via Zoom on best practice crisis communication to support clients globally. Contact her at

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