How to Connect With Your Customers During the Coronavirus Pandemic

8 min read
Apr 9, 2020
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We’re all living in unprecedented times and adapting to a new reality, not only in our personal lives but also on a professional level. Everyone who can work from home is doing so, but not all companies have the luxury to operate in this way. COVID-19 has taken a toll on almost all industries. In the wake of the pandemic, many businesses are shutting down indefinitely. A disrupted flow of customers who, rightfully so, were advised to stay home is the main reason for this.

While keeping your business up and running is a priority at the moment, companies are also struggling with adjusting their communication to fit the current situation. On the flip side, some businesses have already adapted their messaging and started doing whatever they can to help mitigate the effects caused by the virus. They are the ones who, despite the damage done by the coronavirus, are on the right track to get closer to their customers. Yes, getting closer to your customers during the pandemic sounds counterintuitive. But even with social distancing and limiting physical contact with other people, there are still a few ways to bring brands and their customers closer together.

GDPR flashback

Do you remember what your inbox looked like after the introduction of the GDPR? All websites that you had ever given your email address to were sending you messages about updates to their privacy policies. The situation is similar these days, although the circumstances are a lot more serious. 

Suddenly, every company wants you to know that they are there for you. It didn’t take long for people to make fun of the most cliched messages. Tom Fishburne, better known as Marketoonist, summed it up nicely in one of his cartoons. 

As a marketer, you might think you just have to add something to the conversation. If you're about to say something along the lines of what the cartoon says, find a different way. Here’s a pretty handy guide on what to avoid:

The sad reality is that there are more of those poorly written messages than good ones. I just had a quick look in my inbox, and a suit manufacturer sent me an email titled, “We’re together.” Fair enough, I thought. Then, I opened the email only to learn that they offer an additional 20% off of all their items. Not exactly what you’d expect from that subject line. 

AdWeek did an interesting analysis of what brands are communicating to customers in emails about COVID-19. They used a word cloud generator, TagCrowd, and analyzed emails from 18 different brands to find out the 100 most frequent words used in a series of coronavirus updates. 

It turns out that brands like Crocs, Delta, and Hertz, among others, were mostly focused on a few common themes. “Cleaning,” “community,” and “travel” were some of the most frequently used words. I understand where those brands are coming from with those messages, but they don’t necessarily make me feel like I could get more connected to those brands. 

The three tiers of brand coronavirus emails

In his article for Fast Company, Jeff Beer distinguishes three tiers of coronavirus emails: 

  1. The service message
  2. The brand friend
  3. The completely random

Ideally, all brand emails should belong to the first tier, but we already know that’s not the case. According to the author, the first tier is the most important and helpful. Those are emails from brands informing us about any relevant changes related to their service, store closures, travel restrictions, etc. 

The second tier, the brand friend, encompasses all emails from brands that are trying to build rapport with their customers. They are simply acknowledging the current situation. These are the compassionate emails delivering a message along the lines of, “We’re here for you.”

As it turns out, thanks to tier three, tier two messages are not the most irrelevant kind of email you can receive right now. That honor goes to tier three. The completely random essentially stands for “we-just-happened-to-have-your-email-thanks-for-buying-our-cat-food-three-years-ago message.” I know how to classify my suit email now. 

While those three tiers are basic dos and don'ts, they give you an idea of what to aim for in your communication during the coronavirus outbreak. One of the best examples of thoughtful and empathic copywriting I found was created by Levi’s:

The HEART framework

Another concept that could benefit brands struggling with their communication now is the HEART framework. Ted Waldron and James Wetherbe came up with this idea based on their decades of experience with businesses dealing with crises. The acronym stands for:

Humanize your company

Educate about change

Assure stability

Revolutionize offerings

Tackle the future. 

Each of these strategies, as the authors call them, is a part of “the framework of sustained crisis communication.” To put it simply, we’re talking about the communication dos and don’ts in crisis management.

Humanize your company 

Show understanding and empathy, not only for customers but also for employees and other people who keep the wheels of your business turning. The authors mention a sushi restaurant chain in the US that temporarily changed their front-of-house employees’ responsibilities to instead having them deliver food. The restaurant wanted to make the experience similar to what customers would get in a restaurant. 

At the end of the day, what’s most important is the value you deliver to your customers. While humanizing your brand, stay true to your tone of voice. You don’t want your customers to think you’re communicating in a way that makes you look like someone you’re not.

Educate about change

Educating your customers resonates with the tier one of brand coronavirus emails that I mentioned earlier. It’s all about letting your customers know what changes in service are taking place. New hours, closures, online orders, and anything else that will help them communicate with your brand more effectively. 

Assure stability

Waldron and Wetherbe advise focusing on emphasizing that you’re doing your best to provide the products, services, and experiences that made them choose your business over competitors. Outline how you’re going to maintain your standards to keep them satisfied. For example, people that regularly pay for their gym memberships can now access online workout sessions that will keep them in shape.

Revolutionize offerings

LVMH and Anheuser-Busch are two companies that took this one to heart. The French luxury goods company and the American brewery adjusted their production lines to make hand sanitizers which are in huge demand right now.

If actions speak louder than words, these are perfect examples of how to contribute to minimizing the coronavirus outbreak. 

There are new ways for your company to serve its customers, and that’s a great way to go. Whether it’s making sanitizers, baking bread, or sewing new masks, going the extra mile and beyond your existing value propositions is only going to help you when the coronavirus dust has settled.

Tackle the future

The final component of the HEART framework relates to what you can learn from the current situation and how you’re going to implement that once everything is back to normal. As the authors put it, “The temporary improvements that satisfy customers now may become permanent improvements to your company’s business model in the future.”

“Well done is better than well said”

Brands trying to create a closer bond with their customers should take this Benjamin Franklin quote to heart. Drafting a perfect email or copy for your social media update can only help you. However, your actions have to back up those words if you want people to remember you as a brand that genuinely supported its customers in these difficult times.

McDonald’s donated over 1 million masks and $1 million to the state of Illinois’ COVID-19 fund, along with donations in China and Italy. Dominos gave away 10 million slices of pizza in the US. Bacardi has been helping bars and bartenders in the UK as a part of an initiative called #RaiseYourSpirits. They have also been making hand sanitizer with its Bombay Sapphire distillery. 

I could write a separate, detailed post about how brands are helping their communities and how they can form a connection with them at the same time. However, AdAge is already doing exceptional work with that. They are regularly updating a list of companies that shows how they are dealing with the coronavirus. On top of that, Janet Balis states in her article for HBR, “Consumers will likely remember how Ford, GE, and 3M partnered to repurpose manufacturing capacity and put people back to work to make respirators and ventilators to fight coronavirus. And people appreciate that many adult beverage companies, from Diageo to AB InBev, repurposed their alcohol-manufacturing capabilities to make hand sanitizer, alleviating short supplies with their, ‘It’s in our hands to make a difference' message.”

What those companies are doing is inspiring. It’s true that not every brand out there has the resources to help people to that extent. But I must also say that “every little helps,” a saying that was also adapted as Tesco's slogan has never sounded more relevant. Even the smallest deeds from minor brands will eventually add up to a greater good that will help brands and consumers alike to weather the storm.

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