Adapting Together in Strange Times

Best practices for marketing during COVID-19

Author: Kim Chrystie, Sr. Director of Strategy at Media Matters Worldwide

Marketers usually thrive on new phenomena – but when “social distancing” and “stay in place” have become global realities seemingly overnight, what does this mean for Marketers?  How do we persevere?  How do we stay connected and keep moving forward?

Here are some insights and tips about how marketers can be smart and efficient during uncertain times.

Learn from the past

In the weeks after 9/11, the ad industry responded with uplifting messages. GM’s campaign is the most memorable from that period, offering up “Keep America Rolling,” combining a pro-America pitch with zero percent financing. GM’s president of North American operations said, “We know this is a difficult time to talk about an incentive program, but GM has a responsibility to help stimulate the economy by encouraging Americans to purchase vehicles, to support our dealers and suppliers and to keep our plants operating and our employees working.” GM acted forcefully with a marketing campaign and financial incentives at a time when many marketers were tentative and uncertain. And GM’s campaign worked. U.S. auto sales broke a record in October 2001, with the second-best year ever despite the recession.

Now is the Time to be Strategic

Think long-term and keep building your brand, protecting your staff, honoring your values, and being there for your customers. Focus more on your long-term brand-building mission, because this virus shall pass and consumers will return. Keep the brand light burning, because the cost of snuffing it out for the rest of 2020 and then trying to reignite it next year is gigantic.

Great brands build their equity during crises like this. They stand out by exemplifying their brand values in the face of the crisis that surrounds it. They invest in brand-building media because, with many of their competitors cutting their budgets and losing their share of voice, there is a rare opportunity to come out of the crisis not just alive, but ahead.


Twitter has a word of caution for brands: “This is not a ‘marketing opportunity’ for brands to opportunistically link themselves to a health scare. What we are facing is unprecedented. This is global, this is open-ended, and this could affect every brand, every business, and every individual. In times of crisis, people look to leaders and institutions for guidance, reassurance and information. Increasingly, they also look to brands.” Brands need to be thoughtful about their message, and step up as responsible voices. Companies in the travel industry, for instance, need to update consumers about the status of flights, cruises and hotels. Retailers need to inform the public about buying high-demand products. Home-cleaning brands need to communicate about the effectiveness of their products in a health crisis. It’s about understanding the unique role their brand plays in people’s lives, how that has changed, and how your brand can help or be useful during this crisis. It’s also about looking for opportunities to lead by example, do the right thing where it makes sense for your business, and drive thoughts and action with authenticity and empathy.

In challenging times and a fast-changing global landscape, communicating brand identity and values remains important. COVID-19 provides a new challenge for marketers that shines a light on the importance of relying on strategies outside of traditional channels, while remaining agile during ever changing times. As cases of COVID-19 increase internationally, brands have begun scrambling to navigate the pandemic – both internally and externally. Marketing teams are forced to switch gears and think of alternative outlets to accelerate pipeline while keeping the health of others in mind.


Content marketing can be an effective way to keep in touch with customers and increase pipeline during the COVID-19 pandemic. With the right content marketing strategy, communication and engagement with your audience can remain undisrupted.

With notable conferences being canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, many marketing teams are focusing on digital lead generation channels as alternative outlets to accelerate pipeline. Brand leaders like IBM have adapted their plans to include digital events. In doing so, they can scale their events globally while increasing engagement. Digital events allow brands to become storytellers to the masses, and provide valuable content, thus increasing brand awareness and engagement. Customers and prospects seek out content that entertains, inspires, educates, and informs – and a strong content strategy will give you the opportunity to leverage important elements from experiential marketing online.


By investing in influencers, brands can increase favorability, consideration, product usage, and customer loyalty.

Education is important – Responsibly associate appropriate and authentic influencers with your brand
Entertain & inspire – Find subtle ways to address the new “at home” behavior
Promote philanthropic efforts – Spotlight your brand’s contributions, ethics, and social responsibility
Maintain consistency – Continue to message brand benefits in the same manner


According to eMarketer, in 2020, total media ad spending worldwide is expected to reach $691.7 billion, up by 7.0% from 2019. That’s a decrease from the previous forecast when we expected worldwide ad spending to rise by 7.4% to $712.02 billion this year. Note: that forecast was completed on March 6, 2020, before President Trump announced a 30-day ban on the entry of most Europeans into the US, which temporarily halted the stock market.

Out-of-home (OOH) broad spending could feel the most impact from social distancing. However, through programmatic OOH, brands can invest dollars in units where they may want to drive direct actions or traffic, such as grocery stores.

Digital media is likely to experience a boost across the board as people spend more time at home and communicate less in person. We expect digital consumption to increase across social media, over-the-top video and online gaming.

Social networks could be a major beneficiary, as people turn to these platforms to connect with friends and family or to access news content. Despite the concerns many have about social platforms as reliable information sources, more than half (55%) of US adults got news from social media often or sometimes in 2019, up from 47% in 2018 (Pew Research Center). eMarketer estimates that US adults will spend 55 minutes per day on social networks in 2020.

Streaming video services are also likely to benefit as people seek out more entertainment or news content. The biggest bumps in usage and time spent are likely to go to dominant SVODs, like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, and could even drive subscriber additions. Ad-supported VOD services like Roku Channel and Pluto TV could also see sizable lifts in usage and streaming hours, as these services can lend themselves to more lean-back viewing and feature some live national and local news programming options that aren’t available on most SVOD services.