Marketing in the Time of COVID-19 Part One: Advertising During the Shutdown

Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio on

In March, I wrote a post that recommended that in 2020 social media marketing shouldn’t be about “selling”.

At the time, that statement was accurate.

In fact, I would argue that it continues to be accurate not only for social media marketing, but also for most of the marketing that we do, including the advertising broadcasted on television and posted online.

That said, as we start to reopen the country again, the tone of the media and the general feeling of the country is starting to change. That means the way that brands advertise their products will most likely need to change also.

Because the underlying threat has not gone away, brands won’t want to go back to business as usual just yet. Instead they should monitor what is working and make changes accordingly.

So, what is the right way to advertise in the time of COVID-19?

The answer to that question will change as the coronavirus threat level ebbs and flows.

In this series of posts, I want to focus on how advertising is changing as time goes on.

Currently that includes the two periods that we know about now, the partial shutdown phase and the first reopening phase. Hopefully, the only other phase will be advertising in a post COVID-19 world. But that would mean that we don’t go through a second wave before we find a reliable treatment or cure.

The rest of this post will focus on what worked in the first stage of the pandemic.

It Wasn’t the Time for the Hard Sell

In my last two posts, I emphasized that during that time, “selling” wasn’t the best option. And, I wasn’t alone in discouraging the hard sell.

In an April post on the Business 2 Community website, Saul Colt, Founder of The Integration Company, is quoted as saying, “Trying to hard sell isn’t going to work in anyone’s favor right now.”

“Brands need to use a portion of advertising investment to be focused on building and maintaining a meaningful relationship with consumers rather than driving near term sales,” Colt continues.

In the post he mentions that brands should be optimistic, use humor, create new memories and remind people of old memories, and include customers in discussions and give them choices.

He also gave some useful advice in Episode 589 of The BeanCast. In the episode of the podcast, Colt and some of the other panelists suggested that during the pandemic, one of the best ways to build a relationship with customers is to find ways to help their community by donating money to organizations that will help people directly impacted by the pandemic and then tactfully inform consumers of their efforts.

Research from Ace Metrix shows that this was good advice.

Advice From Ace Metrix

A post on the Ace Metrix blog published on April 1 highlights some research findings about what advertising was working at the time. (Note: I added the bold text below for emphasis. It was not included in the original blog post.)

According to the post, they found that ads that addressed COVID-19 scored higher than average. In particular, they mention that actions speak louder words.

“Some of the most successful ads walk the walk, whether that’s giving back or adapting to customers’ needs,” the writer of the post advises.

They also mentioned that at the time the successful ads were specific and focused on a benefit being met or a problem being solved, not those that looked like the company was in it to try to make a quick buck. Furthermore, they also mention that the quality of the ad still mattered.

They also warned that in the earlier days of the pandemic, brands needed to approach sales and promotion messaging with caution.

“If you do decide to address “the times” (or any other way of referencing the COVID-19 pandemic), approach sales promotions with caution,” the author of the blog post writes. “At a time when millions of people are unemployed and stressed about paying bills for basic necessities, discounts on what might be perceived as frivolous goods is salt in the wound, and worse could be considered as exploiting the situation for brand gain leading to a social backlash. The key is understanding whether the deal or offer is going to help struggling consumers. If yes, focus sales messaging on the benefit being met or the problem solved.”

They give Olive Garden’s BOGO deal and CVS Health’s free delivery as examples of brands that did it right.

They wrap up their post by highlighting the fact that brands need to keep advertising or even increase advertising spend during this time, but also do it in a way that remains authentic to the brand.

The author of the post writes, “Brand messaging needs to have a purpose, not just a vague “we’re in this together.” Viewers want to know: Who are they helping? Is it believable and authentic? Is the brand doing its part? Can I trust this brand? Do I share its values?”

Adapt as the Environment Changes

This post focused on suggestions about what should have been done during the early part of the pandemic. This was a time of great uncertainty for nearly everyone. It was also a time where the media was trying to warn people of the dangers of COVID-19, so people were on alert and stressed about the possible health concerns.

While the threat is still out there, the tone of the media has changed somewhat. Furthermore, the government is trying to instill a sense of calm and encourage people to get back out there and live their lives. Whether right or wrong, this is the time that we are currently moving into.

My next post will focus on what experts suggest doing as we move into the reopening phase of the pandemic.

But before I end this post, I want to showcase some of the advertising that resonated with me. You will notice that most, if not all the ads followed the advice highlighted in this post. That said, I don’t know how each individual ad performed in the Ace Metrix research. If you get a chance, I would suggest reading the findings from the blog post that I cited and follow their blog for more current research.

Ads That Resonated With Me

Video credit: SamuelAdams on YouTube.

Video credit: Liberty Mutual on YouTube.

Video credit: Subway on YouTube.

Video credit Kia Motors America on YouTube.

Video credit: Dove US on YouTube.

Video credit: Jersey Mike’s on YouTube.

Video credit: OREO Cookie on YouTube.

Chad Thiele

Chad Thiele

I am a marketing analyst and strategist. I earned my master's degree from West Virginia University in Integrated Marketing Communications in 2023. I also hold a bachelor's degree from UW-Madison in Sociology with a Concentration in Analysis and Research, and I completed the Mobile Marketing Professional Certificate Program from Auburn University in 2015.