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How not to market during the COVID-19 crisis

Marketing and public relations experts weigh in on what, if anything, natural products brands should share with consumers during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the days and weeks that have passed since the impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic first began to hit home in the United States, many brands have adapted their communications to reflect the current times and speak to this ongoing crisis. For some, the tendency has been to immediately switch gears to take advantage of new sales opportunities. The result has been a deluge of pithy marketing emails that use language like “keep calm while quarantined,” “stock your pantry” or “boost your immunity with these five products.”

But in a time when many people are anxious and unsure about the future, these messages not only seem to miss the mark on a sensitivity level but also stop short of offering consumers any value that goes beyond a sales pitch. With this in mind, we asked two marketing and public relations experts what, if anything, should natural products brands be saying to consumers right now, and what should they keep in mind as they walk the fine line of communicating during a global crisis?

Is this email really necessary?

Jess Saba, of Good Point PR, points out that while it may be tempting for brands to send an email encouraging people to buy more of their product, they need to realize their extremely fortuitous position as essential product providers. Therefore, it’s important to take a step back and ask: Is this email really necessary? What’s the most important message for consumers right now? Now’s the time to be human, she says. “Turn off any automated emails and deploy only timely updates or information that can provide some service, comfort or transparency to consumers.”

This might take the form of communicating any efforts underway to ensure product availability or other pressing issues. To this end, says Saba, “address the challenges, closures, layoffs, uncertainty and offer up-to-date insights that might be helpful to your customers, including information on what you have in stock.”

This is also the time, she stresses, for companies to ask themselves if there’s something they can do to offer assistance. Can they donate any product that’s not moving at this time, or close-to-expiration food? Can they offer a site-wide discount to ease the burden for families? Brands shouldn’t be afraid to share these types of useful messages with their customers—they should just remember to triple-check their tone with their team before they do. Most importantly, they need to keep in mind that, “As part of the natural products community, they are in a position to help get better-for-you products into the pantries of Americans across the country—so they can feel prepared, healthy and ready to face the incredible challenges ahead.”

Compassion is key

Rachel Kay, CEO of Rachel Kay Public Relations, agrees that brands need to use their platforms to support consumers from a place of compassion, by acknowledging the problem and speaking to consumers’ needs, rather than brand benefits. “The biggest thing consumers want right now is a solution that is safe and convenient. If you offer free shipping and direct-to-consumer delivery, let your audience know this. If you are offering a deal that gives back to a community in need, share it. Most importantly, do not tie your product back to the coronavirus if you are truly not offering a solution to help people feel safe or cared for.”

Kay urges brand marketers to remember that, in these rapidly changing times, what may be acceptable today might sound tone deaf tomorrow. For this reason, brands must take an agile approach to what they are sharing with consumers and “be able to pivot quickly based on the constantly changing landscape, and to avoid over promotion.”

A COVID-19 crisis marketing checklist

What to do:
• Turn off automated emails; be a human.
• Keep customers informed about any service or initiative that might help them or positively impact people's lives.
• Communicate stock quantities and availability as relevant.
• Triple-check any communications before sending them.
• Be compassionate; remember that people are anxious and scared.
• Be flexible. What's OK today may not be OK tomorrow.

What not to do:
• Don’t capitalize on people’s fears to sell more products.
• Don’t be tone deaf or glib.
• Pause any emails written more than two weeks ago. The world has changed and you need to adapt your message to this extremely uncertain time.
• Don’t encourage pantry stocking. Find other ways to help consumers get what they need.

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