You may have noticed that many advertisements are similar in mentioning the COVID-19 pandemic either indirectly or by name. An Ohio Wesleyan University professor explained why in a virtual class given last week.
“I’m excited about this topic, because it’s a really good way for people to see what marketing is all about and think about why marketing matters,” said Business Administration Professor Matt Vollrath on June 15. Vollrath’s hour-long lecture was called “Before and After: Advertising and Marketing in the Age of Coronavirus.”
While it is easy to see marketing as trivial in the midst of a worldwide crisis, Vollrath said it was important, “even in a time like this. And the reason is marketing impacts people’s lives.” He likened it to a set of tools for a business.
Vollrath said that 60.6 million Americans, or nearly half the workforce, are employed by small businesses. Half of those small businesses had a cash buffer of less than 15 days, and the lockdown was much longer, putting them and their employees in crisis.
From a historical perspective, Vollrath started with the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States by Al-Qaeda in 2001 that killed 2,996 people and injured 25,000. He said there were similarities to coronavirus in that it was unexpected, we were unprepared, and it affected consumer confidence for a few months.
In the wake of 9/11, many brands used respectful empathy in its marketing, and the message quickly changed to help keep America going by continuing to be a civic-minded consumer, whether it be comfort food or a cozy new car.
“Marketing didn’t stop,” Vollrath said. “Marketing was encouraging people to get back out there. We’re seeing some of that now with the pandemic.”
For example, since the COVID-19 outbreak, he said sales of American cheese have gone up by 50% in part because of its familiarity.
A few years later, brands reacted to the great recession by increased marketing. Vollrath said brands of the time emphasized value, commonality and functionality.
Vollrath also looked at the four P’s of marketing — product, price, place and promotion — in regards to brands.
During the pandemic, Vollrath noted that brand loyalty has lessened, giving newer brands an opportunity to stand out from established products.
“Consumers are seeking products that help them feel safe, healthy and find comfort,” he said. “Businesses should focus on their strongest products.”
He said that price-gouging, such as consumers have seen with hand sanitizer, isn’t necessarily illegal, but it can damage the reputation of a business. Conversely, “lower prices can undermine how customers perceive the value of a product.”
Instead of a deep discount, he suggested a business may want to offer an incentive and reassure the customer of a product’s quality.
With regards to the pandemic, consumers are changing the place where they shop — now often online. Vollrath said these new habits may become permanent once the pandemic is over. In addition, supply chains are becoming scrambled and may emphasize the use of local markets.
“The in-store buying experience should reassure customers of their health and safety,” he said.
Promotion is what most of us think when it comes to marketing, Vollrath said. He said some advertisers had to scrap campaigns once the pandemic struck. For example, one television spot had people using their fingers to sample a snack dip.
He put together a video montage of commercials, which conveyed the same message: These are uncertain times, but we’re here for you. The reason for this messaging is to keep the brand name out there, Vollrath said.
While media consumption habits are changing, marketing in one form or another should continue.
“If we cut back on our marketing right now, we’re going to be paying for that a year from now,” he said from the business perspective. “It’s important we’re saying the right thing and we’re not tone-deaf, but we’re there. People need to hear our message many times (at least seven) before they start paying attention to it.”
Other companies have chosen to say less in terms of advertising, but are increasing their public relations efforts, such as making donations to charities. He pointed to a Nielsen survey that said 90% of respondents were more favorable to companies that are helping people during the pandemic.
In summary, Vollrath said businesses should adjust products to consumers’ primary motivations, the shift to doing business online is only going to accelerate, any price changes to a product should increase value, and businesses should “alter promotional strategies to speak to consumers’ new motivations.”
In response to viewer questions, Vollrath said businesses should be transparent and detail-oriented in their marketing and welcome comparative shopping from consumers. “There are a lot of winners and losers in the business world from the pandemic.”
Restaurants have been hit especially hard, course moderator Franchesca Nestor said, because customers are not only buying the food, but also paying for the experience.
“Reframing their product in a positive way is going to be essential,” Vollrath said. For example, he spoke of one chain that is now selling its food as meal-kits to recreate that experience. “It’s not something they were doing before, but the circumstances they’re facing is different.”
He also said improved customer service, even with regards to online ordering, was important. Small businesses, in particular, could also experiment more with social media at this time.
“People that work in marketing are more energized by this moment than they were about their jobs before,” Vollrath said of the pandemic. “Our expertise is really valuable.”
The 15th virtual class began week eight of a 10-week, free online course called “We’re in This Together: An Interdisciplinary Exploration of the Coronavirus Pandemic.” Taught by 24 Ohio Wesleyan faculty members, the course is open to students and the public alike.
OWU spokespersons said more 1,200 people are participating in the class, and more than 350 people are taking part in a Facebook COVID-19 Class Discussion Group.
For more information about OWU’s “We’re in This Together” course, visit www.owu.edu/COVIDclass.
Gary Budzak may be reached at 740-413-0906 or on Twitter @GaryBudzak.