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6 Crisis Marketing Strategies: Lessons from Pandemic

6 Crisis Marketing Strategies: Lessons from Pandemic When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

COVID-19 has turned marketing upside down. Businesses need to react quickly to adjustments in buyer behavior and pain points. But what do you do in an unprecedented crisis? There’s no tried-and-true roadmap to a corona marketing strategy. If you’re looking for crisis marketing ideas to get your business through this pandemic, these six strategies are the perfect place to start.

Marketing in a crisis is all about being responsive. That cool, creative marketing strategy you ironed out last year might look great on paper, but it’s no longer relevant. In fact, sticking to it could do more harm than good. American buying habits and budgets are still shifting (in some ways permanently). We continue to socially distance ourselves, rely on technology in unprecedented ways, and adjust to each new wave of new rules and restrictions. 

It’s tough to settle in when the goalposts keep shifting. And yet, there are definitely some things you can do to improve your marketing during a recession, a pandemic, or any other crisis that creates a hesitant market. Effective crisis marketing can be the difference between closing shop and coming out stronger on the other side of the COVID times. 

We recommend the following six crisis marketing strategies to put your business on a sustainable path towards recovery.

1. Always Start With the Data

Buyer behavior has already changed during the coronavirus outbreak. Folks are spending more time online than ever, communicating via social media, and shopping via ecommerce. Some of these changes will stick after the pandemic.

Don’t waste time with guesswork—always start with the facts. Online analytics are ripe for the taking. With socially distant life boosting internet-based activity, folks are creating more data points now than ever before. It’s worth learning about the new habits and routines that 76% of consumers have adopted due to coronavirus—and which 89% plan to keep up after the crisis (at least in part). 

Google Analytics can journey map website visits and consumer decisions to help you visualize how your audience is behaving differently. Compare with pre-pandemic trends to highlight new gaps in the customer experience and predict what new talking points will resonate most today.

Look at what other companies are doing, too. A recent Adweek study found a ton of new trends in Facebook advertising during COVID-19. Automated analytics and AI have already spotted drops in imagery showing travel or human connection, with corresponding spikes in ad copy terms like “sleep” and “rest.”

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As McKinsey says, this is a time to get ahead of the “next normal.” Consider a few of the critical questions the research firm asks in their call to action for Marketing leaders:

  • Will household inventory levels stay elevated?
  • Will video conferencing permanently replace some interactions previously conducted in-person?
  • Will digital ordering displace shopping previously conducted in-store?
  • How will attitudes change regarding healthcare, or carbon usage, or investments, or institutions?

Only data can paint a realistic picture of what that will look like, how attitudes will have shifted, or which tech will have permanently embedded itself in people’s lives. 

2. Shift Online Ad Spend Towards CPC and Lower Funnel

The skyrocket in online activity during national or global crises has consequences for your advertising budget. Impressions and views tend to spike in these circumstances, but conversions tend the other direction. People may be on their laptops and mobile devices more frequently to check news and communicate with loved ones, but they’ll often have a reduced desire (or capacity) to spend.

This makes it advantageous to shift ad spend from channels or platforms based on CPM (cost per mille, or per 1000 impressions), into spaces where you can pay CPC (cost per click) instead. Clicks are a much better indicator of intent than page views in a time of crisis.

You’ll also want to maximize (and stabilize) your sales margins by focusing your crisis marketing on channels that have the most potential to convert opportunities at the bottom of the funnel, such as:

  • Social advertising (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn)
  • Google Ads
  • Google Shopping
  • Retargeting ads

Anything that earns you a quick win can keep cash flow alive while you’re weathering the storm.

3. Make Your Message and Product/Service Relevant

In March 2020, Uncommon Goods sent out a marketing email titled “Create a boredom-free indoor zone” that looked like this:


The brand understood that their products fit into the context of the crisis in a unique way—they help keep bored, cooped up folks occupied—and they harnessed this connection in their messaging. Whereas they’d typically market towards folks who attend parties and give gifts, the company discovered they could pitch “stay inside gifts” to fight boredom for folks isolating at home.

Find a crisis marketing angle to position your brand as a solution to your audience’s current pain points—or at least as a brand that is thoughtful, empathetic, and conscientious about the circumstances. The worst thing would be to come across as tone-deaf to the context of the crisis.

McKinsey recommends avoiding “holiday ads or overly optimistic messages,” and admires the relevancy achieved by brands like Lululemon (with their embrace of “the community carries on” messaging) and Molson Coors (with their pledge of $1 million for the Bartender Emergency Assistance Program). 

Several of the most critical concerns for buyers are things like delivery times, product or service availability, and safety measures. KFC has done a stellar job promoting its contactless delivery through its smart social distancing campaign on Instagram. Check out this infographic they accompanied with the following reassuring message: 

“KFC is committed to providing delicious, home-style meals for your family. Our drive-thrus are open and we’ll continue to offer order-ahead and free contactless delivery on kfc.com. Visit kfc.com/coronavirus for more information.”

crisis marketing strategies - KFC

Other brands have also made efforts to stay relevant and spread positivity and awareness. Dove used an advertising spot to shine a light on courageous healthcare workers. Sam’s Club praised their employees as “retail heroes” and thanked them for their service. Domino’s encouraged its customers to do their part by staying home and ordering online:


4. Cut Less Than Your Rivals

It’s common for businesses to make sweeping cuts in marketing during a recession or time of crisis (among other departments). However, the companies that cut less and refocus their spending tend to perform better in the long run.

Harvard Business Review studied 4,700 public companies during and after recessions. Their research focused on the percentage of brands that outperformed their competitors.

  • 21% for companies that focused on prevention (cost-cutting)
  • 37% for companies with a more progressive focus (refocused spending)

The study discovered that “firms that cut costs faster and deeper than rivals don’t necessarily flourish. They have the lowest profitability (21 percent) of pulling ahead of the competition when times get better.” These findings are supported by a series of similar studies outlined by CXL here

The lesson in the data is that smart, strategic refocusing in tough times is more likely to create future success than cuts for short-term profitability.

5. Local SEO (and Reviews)

Stay-at-home initiatives have reduced the distance we’re willing to travel for services and supplies. Folks want to stay close to home, so this is the time to optimize your relevance for the “near me” searches that have exploded in popularity over the last decade (including a 900% jump between 2013 and 2017, according to HubSpot).

Your crisis marketing strategy could leverage local SEO goldmines like Google My Business and Yahoo Local and localized directories like Foursquare, Angie’s List, and Yelp. The easier it is for local customers and clients to find you, the more convenience you’ll provide in a precarious time for families.

The value of positive reviews can’t be understated, either. Online reputation management is critical to your business’s sustainability during a crisis like the COVID pandemic—a time when buyers are hedging their bets and leaning towards safe, reliable solutions. 

Google My Business (GMB) did temporarily disable the publishing of online reviews in March and April of 2020, but that functionality is back in business, spreading your company’s best marketing resource—glowing word of mouth recommendations. Encourage current customers to leave reviews during the crisis with a humble, grateful prompt, and/or a more concrete incentive.

6. Take Some Creative Risks

Finally, a crisis is the right time to spice things up from a creative standpoint. Take risks and break the mold (Hint: It’s a crisis. It’s already broken!). Get innovative with how you deliver for your audience. If you can do something different to solve a pain point of crisis or just make life easier for your buyers, you can stand out in a good way and build momentum for your full recovery.

An intriguing Forbes article from July 2020 suggested testing out unique offerings that cater to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as:

  • Mail-delivered DIY kits
  • Company care packages
  • Virtual classes, meetings, and showcases

Many clothing retailers have revamped return policies to allow for convenient try-before-you-buy shipping. This helps customers test a few sizes before committing to a purchase from the comfort and safety of their own homes. Autotrader has started an ad campaign to promote its “home test drive” option while injecting timely humor about relatable experiences from the Age of Zoom.

Do some brainstorming and see what you might be able to do that you wouldn’t have dreamed of last year. Lots of companies have made leaps of faith with radical new ideas. Their courage is not only helping them power through the coronavirus pandemic but is actually changing our culture—permanently—one step at a time.

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