Marketing during a pandemic presents a challenge that nobody was ready for.

But as COVID-19 rages on and brands worldwide are left in survival mode, struggling to plan for an uncertain future, and navigating uncharted territory when adapting to the new normal, there is at least one opportunity for those nimble and proactive enough to see it: 

Building an emotional connection with consumers by shifting marketing strategy to do good and be better, even during a global crisis.

In this article, I’ll cover:

But first, can you even believe this is happening?

Yes, I’m getting sidetracked before I’ve begun, but WTH 2020? This year started off strong, and then, in what felt like less time than it takes a Kylie Jenner Lip Kit to sell out (i.e. 30 seconds), everything came to a screeching halt. 

 

Events canceled, budgets slashed, a skyrocketing unemployment rate, and most of the direct-to-consumer (DTC) industry suddenly struggling to survive.

 

Brands spanning every vertical have been impacted. While some are taking off and scrambling to keep up with unprecedented demand, many others face plummeting conversion rates and/or revenue. 

Regardless of your specific situation, one thing unites us all: the world right now is scary.

So as marketers, what are we supposed to do? In a time when business is anything but usual, how should we navigate the rapidly shrinking line between legitimate advertising and insensitive opportunism while also trying to stay on brand and make it out of this in one piece?

Great question folks; please read on. 

Part 1: How actions speak louder than words, especially in times of crisis

In mid-February, I got my first COVID-19 “response” email. I read it from start to finish. It was from Southwest Airlines, detailing the hospital-grade disinfectant they’d be using on their aircrafts. 

Despite a lack of innate interest in airplane cleaning policies, I was intrigued by their fast and public response to the growing concern.

I soon got a few more emails from other brands. I read those too from start to finish, inspired by the commitment these brands were saying they had to customers and also finding their grave reactions to the impending crisis were helping the reality and severity of the situation sink in.

But then I got, like, 700 more emails, many from brands I hadn’t heard from or interacted with in years. It felt overwhelming and impersonal, and I stopped reading them because I very quickly realized they all said the same thing. I went abruptly from interest to indifference, and soon found myself doing the old “select all/delete” every time a new wave rolled in.

How did this shift in mindset happen so quickly?

With a lack of original content and personalization, we, as marketers, simultaneously saturated consumers’ attention span and created so much clutter that a simple email response statement to COVID-19 became more annoying than anything else. The first-responders stood out initially, but were almost instantly drowned out by the crowd that soon followed.

But in the midst of a pandemic, you can’t not address the crisis. So the real question becomes,  how do you do so in a way that builds connection with consumers, feels (and is) sincere, and reminds your customers that there’s a real human running your company?

Part 2: Why it’s important to ALWAYS be buildin’ emotional connections with consumers

A month into 2020, we launched our new brand. From a year’s worth of interviews, surveys, market research, competitive analysis, and countless hours writing, discussing, and re-writing our new brand messaging, we ended up at the concept of “human connection.”

I realize this is likely coming across as a shameless plug. I swear it's not. I share this to further validate the concept of human connection; a concept we found so important after an entire year’s worth of research that we based our entire brand around it. 

Human connection is a phrase we define as the emotional tie between brand and consumer. And, in a digital age where convenience and speed threaten experience and personalization, we believe that human connection is what sets brands apart.

So if human connection sets brands apart, a global crisis seems like the right time to be there for your customers… does it not? 

Regardless of how much planning, strategy, and budgeting went into your marketing plan for 2020, no one could have prepared for the reality we face today. It’s time to pivot and act fast, because times like these - very publicly - put us to the test.

COVID-19 has created a sudden and drastic shift in consumer behavior as people rush to stock up on “essentials,” while simultaneously scaling back spending on everything else. Brands in verticals like food and beverage, health and wellness, some consumer electronics, and pet food may be struggling to keep up with demand, while fashion and apparel, accessories, automotive, and certain consumer packaged goods face plummeting conversion rates and/or revenue. 

Depending on the scenario you find yourself in, it may be challenging to think of anything other than operations and your bottom-line right now... but if at all possible, we encourage you to consider your external response to the crisis before it’s too late. 

Remember that while you have many customers, they only have one of you. How your brand responds could affect how you are perceived well into the future; the result of which could be very positive - a stronger relationship with your customers that leads to higher lifetime value… or it could hurt that relationship forever. 

Brands that are nimble, proactive, and act with compassion and empathy are the ones that will stand out in the eyes of consumers. And luckily, there are tons of brands and companies setting an incredible example as they put people first in unprecedented ways. 

In an effort to inspire creativity, compassion, and empathy (or, to simply put a smile on your face during these scary times), I’ve gathered 19 creative and heart-warming responses to COVID-19 by the DTC space that are truly building long-lasting emotional connections, starting with a deep dive into one of my favorite examples, “The Restaurant Project” by Haus.

Part 3: A kick-a$$ example: “The Restaurant Project” by Haus

Haus is a DTC alcohol brand born and bottled in California. Dreamt up by Helena Price Hambrecht, a Silicon Valley creative, and Woody Hambrecht, a 3rd generation winemaker, they set out to revolutionize alcohol, an industry that hasn’t evolved since prohibition.

“We wanted something better, so we made our own apéritif,” they said. And the people loved it (myself included). 

When it comes to COVID-19, Haus is in a better position than most as they experience increased sales and demand. Makes sense, right? The party doesn’t stop for quarantine, and flavorful, all-natural apéritifs delivered directly to your door are in compliance with every stay-at-home mandate I’ve seen.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for restaurants and bars across the US; the National Restaurant Association forecasts the loss of $225 billion and up to 7 million jobs.

Helena and her team at Haus reacted quickly - launching a program called “The Restaurant Project” as a way to reinvest some of their brand’s own success to help others less fortunate.

Through this program, Haus is working with restaurants across the country to co-create apéritifs that reflect their unique culinary approach. 100% of the profits of the apéritif sales through Haus go to the restaurants, enabling them to support employees and cover costs during COVID-19.

Here’s some more color around the program in the words of Helena Hambrecht herself, Co-Founder & Co-CEO. 

What inspired this idea? How did you pick restaurants across America as the beneficiary of your program?

We're one of the few businesses that are lucky to be seeing growth during this time. At the same time, our industry as a whole is in crisis. Our friends in the restaurant industry are closing their doors left and right, and while many people are looking for ways to support them, there aren't any ways that are truly sustainable. 

We realized that if we could shift our focus to creating and selling products for restaurants, we could give them a shot at surviving. That's how this project was born.

When you buy an aperitif from one of our restaurant partners, that money goes back to the restaurant immediately, helping them cover their costs, support employees, and keep them in business until they can open their doors again.

In selecting partners, we looked at cities where our customers are, and reached out to local institutions with an engaged community looking for ways to support them. We feel lucky to be working with some of the best chefs in America.

How and why did you think it was important to prioritize this initiative in the midst of trying to keep up with increased demand as a result of COVID-19?

We're in a unique position where we own almost our entire supply chain, produce our products ourselves, and can iterate quickly. While not something we've done before, it's possible for us to create 9 new apéritifs in a matter of weeks while still supporting our core business. The restaurant industry is in a state of crisis and we're able to help, so we should.

Do you have any advice for brands that maybe aren't performing as well right now and can't fathom the idea of donating 100% of profits, but still want to find a way to help? How and why should they prioritize a program like this?

The best way to help is going to be different for every brand. For some businesses, the best thing you can do is prioritize keeping yourself afloat so you can continue to keep your own staff employed. 

If you're lucky enough to be doing well, then take the time to think about how you are best positioned to help in this crisis. Don't jump the gun. Be as thoughtful and strategic with how you approach charity work as you would with your own business - it's better for everyone involved. 

Part 4: 18 more creative & heart-warming responses to COVID-19 by the DTC space

I set out to pick 19 total responses (Haus included), and man, was it hard to just pick 19. I chose the following due to their relevance to the DTC space, creativity, and variety. While many of these do involve donating money or products to those in need, remember that “doing good” is different for every brand. 

After all, and as Helena pointed out, for some brands, the best you can do is prioritize keeping yourself afloat so that you can continue to keep your staff employed. And that’s OKAY. At the end of the day, “you do you boo” and remember that we’re all in this together. 

Without further ado, here are 18 additional responses to COVID-19 by the DTC space:

  1. Brands x Better: A coalition of DTC brands who have pledged to donate 10% of their proceeds to charities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The 80+ members include DTC leaders such as Boll & Branch, Enso Rings, Faherty, Greats, M.Gemi, Rhone, and more.

  2. Glossier: Glossier donated a variety of skincare and moisturizing products to hospitals and healthcare workers. They also announced that they will launch a new hand cream in late April and will donate the first 10,000 products to healthcare workers in the US.

  3. Shopify: While many brands and organizations are doing good externally, others look to provide extra support internally. One example comes from our partners at Shopify, who gave each of their employees a $1,000 stipend to buy supplies to work from home.

  4. Black Rifle Coffee: For a week in April, Black Rifle Coffee, a veteran-owned coffee company serving premium coffee to people who love America, matched purchases by donating coffee to medical centers and personnel fighting COVID-19.

  5. Kopari: Kopari Beauty, a line of all-natural, coconut oil-based beauty products, is donating $1 from every purchase to Direct Relief, an organization that is helping provide care to the world’s most vulnerable people during the COVID-19 crisis.

  6. Chili: With payment options available, Chili is collecting donations and sending certified refurbished and new chiliPAD sleep systems to first responders and healthcare professionals that are battling COVID-19 through their program “Kryo Cares.”

  7. Loop Returns: Our partners at Loop launched a free version called Loop Lite with the following statement: “We know your team is being asked to do more with less, because we are too. That is why we are offering a free version of Loop to help you operate more efficiently without tying up the working capital your business needs right now.”

  8. Nike: Nike recently launched a campaign encouraging people to 'play inside' as social-distancing measures are enforced by governments. The heartfelt and inspiring ad includes the following copy: "If you ever dreamed of playing for millions around the world, now is your chance."

  9. Google: Google has lined up an $800 million relief package to benefit small businesses and organizations working to keep the public informed about COVID-19. This package includes $250 million in free ads for the World Health Organization.

  10. Harry’s: Advertised on the home page of their website, this DTC men’s shaving brand is promoting free, confidential support from trained crisis counselors around the clock, courtesy of their partnership with Crisis Text Line.

  11. Farmacy Beauty: Farmacy Beauty partnered with Feeding America to donate 10,000 meals each day over a period of 30 days as part of Feeding America's COVID-19 Response Fund, and is also matching all donations made on this page.

  12. Mattel: Mattel, a multinational toy manufacturing company, began producing face masks fashioned from Barbie and Fisher-Price fabric for healthcare workers in need as national supply became scarce.

  13. Rogue Fitness: Rogue suspended manufacturing of fitness equipment so they could instead manufacture masks and ventilators that are desperately needed by hospitals and medical workers on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  14. Crocs: Crocs is donating a pair of shoes from its classic clogs and at-work collections to healthcare workers across the US as part of its “A Free Pair for Healthcare” program. Recipients are advised to select their shoe of choice on Croc’s eCommerce website, where shipping is free.

  15. Burrow: When its physical retail locations shut down in response to COVID-19, Burrow responded swiftly by making its store specialists available virtually. With what the brand is calling “Burrow House at Home,” shoppers can make 15 or 30-minute appointments with store employees for any design or product questions.

  16. Carhartt: Workwear brand, Carhartt, announced that it will shift its production to face masks and medical gowns, and plans to produce 2.5 million masks and 50,000 gowns in total for healthcare workers responding to COVID-19. 

  17. Pura Vida Bracelets: A brand that already exists for a bigger purpose, Pura Vida Bracelets provides full-time jobs to artisans worldwide and donates millions to charity through products that give back. In response to COVID-19, they’re adding to the list and donating $1 to Feeding America for every order placed in April. 

  18. Hedley & Bennett: Hedley & Bennett traditionally makes premium kitchen wear, but in response to COVID-19, converted their factory to produce face masks instead. And what's even better? When you buy a mask, you support the production of two masks - one for you, and one that will be donated to those working on the front lines and putting their lives at risk for us every day.

So in conclusion, what is marketing with heart anyways?

To me, marketing with heart means marketing with purpose; one human to another human, looking to forge emotional connections based on trust, empathy, and passion.

Yes, a global crisis certainly puts this theory to the test. But, I am proud to work in an industry where I can list out 19 examples and then mention that this was just a sample set from hundreds more quickly adjusting marketing strategy to do good and be better, even during a pandemic. 

These brands recognize that they have a responsibility to do what they can to help, whether that means collecting donations, making donations, adapting production lines to produce hand sanitizer or masks, encouraging hand washing and social distancing, or providing support and guidance to the people worldwide struggling to adapt to this new normal.

At the end of the day, whatever doing good and being better means to you - that is marketing with heart, and building stronger emotional connections with customers always wins. 

Stay safe and be healthy, everyone!

Chelsey DeBalsi Chelsey DeBalsi is the Director of Marketing for BVA, a commerce agency that incubates and grows the DTC brands that people love. As Director of Marketing, she is responsible for managing the agency's branding, positioning, events, and digital marketing initiatives.