Should your marketing tap into the Coronavirus buzz?

I’ve worked in the field of marketing and communications for over twenty years. In that time, I’ve seen my fair share of marketing successes and failures. I’ve never seen marketing fail for a lack of big ideas. Rather, it fails when it doesn’t connect to the people and systems that comprise the ecosystem of a business. 

A lot of the marketing failures that I have seen over the years began with someone who had the best of intentions who sought to take advantage of a trending topic or insert themselves into a conversation that’s a part of the public discourse.

In most cases, this is a small business owner or employee who posts something for the goal of “going viral” or “being funny”. Sadly, I’ve seen ruinous consequences to brands as a result of misguided messaging that values giggles over achieving stated business goals. 

Many small businesses are vulnerable to this sort of misstep when they lack an established plan for telling their brand story in the marketplace. When a brand’s messaging is developed one day to the next, it becomes particularly susceptible to influence from prevailing themes in the media or popular culture–a lot of which are often really funny. 

Lately, I’ve seen several examples of attempts at humor that are aimed specifically at the increasing media focus on COVID-19 and Coronavirus, as well as some of the public’s response. 

Sadly, I’ve seen ruinous consequences to brands as a result of misguided messaging that values giggles over achieving stated business goals.

I get it—there’s something undeniably amusing about the hoarding of toilet paper. 

Therefore, it seems an appropriate time to take a look at best practices for using humor in your marketing and specific DOs and DON’Ts for messaging during periods of market uncertainty like the one we’re facing now.

FIRST, START WITH WHY: One of the key reasons that people embed humor in advertising is the goal of their message going viral and the content being spread for comedic value. Seeing something being shared online after you’ve posted it can be wildly exciting, but the real benefit to your bottom line is dubious at best. At worst, it could actually be damaging if it is perceived negatively. 

Before considering adding humor to your brand communications, under any circumstances, ask yourself some important questions:

  • Does this message align with our core business and our culture?
  • How will this content add (or detract) from our brand story? 
  • Could this message confuse the audience? 
  • Does the ‘get it’ of this message depend on understanding particular humor or references that could alienate those who are not ‘in on the joke’?
  • Could this message drive people away? 

During this period of heightened public concern resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, my advice is to steer clear of humor around this topic because it simply does not pass muster.  

Instead, here are some important DOs and DON’Ts for your marketing messaging in these coming days when the temptation will be high to stray from your core messaging plan and tap into the trending topics: 

  • DO add value that falls within your area of expertise: Good marketing messages add value to the lives of your stakeholders and so it’s appropriate that you continue to share helpful information within the boundaries of your own core business. Unless you are an expert in the field of health and wellness, however, it’s advisable to stay away from sharing health tips. Stick with what you know and let the experts do the rest.
  • DON’T get distracted from your business goals: Your marketing should always aim at building a brand for the long-term rather than chasing buzz for the moment. Sharing a funny meme, joke, or cheap shot from your business or brand profiles is not only in poor taste, but it is also likely strays from your core business purposes.
  • DO share information that speaks to ways that your business is responding:  If you make changes to your business that your community needs to know about, then be sure to share. In one example, a local restaurant shared information about their longstanding policy of paid leave for their staff to reassure customers every effort was being taken to avoid them coming into contact with symptomatic employees. A  pawnshop sent our reminders about online payment options for customers who preferred to conduct business from their homes. Delta airlines shared information about the measures that they take to ensure a good flying experience to all of their customers and stakeholders. Now is a good time for messaging that reminds your audience of the reasons why you’re so respected in your field.
  • DON’T seek out ways to cash in: In business, as in life, everything is temporary. Resist the temptation to capitalize on a crisis through poking fun, fear-stoking, or by appearing overly braggadocious about the charitable responses made during this period. When people pick up on the fact that your message is aimed at the sole purpose of getting more attention based on a highly-trending topic, you’ll likely be perceived as desperate and amateurish rather than relevant.  

From a branding and reputation standpoint, I’d encourage you to think about how hard you’ve worked to build a business and a brand. As a practical matter, you should question the best use of your team’s time and whether or not the time invested in chasing giggles could be better spent on achieving goals. It’s essential that you firm up your marketing messaging in a way that will serve you well for the long term. 

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