In the recent weeks we’ve been inundated with announcements by what seems like every company in America, large and small, announcing their approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. With much of the country at home, following the news, shopping online, viewing content and using social media more than before, American consumers are paying close attention to how brands are making them feel. Social media is swarming with consumer commentary on corporations’ responses. Brands have never been more in the spotlight and under such scrutiny. Now is a key moment for brands to define their identity and core values to consumers through their response.
As part of our COVID-19 qualitative market research study with 2020 Research, we asked our community of 30 Americans from Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and New York City to weigh in with their thoughts on how brands have responded to this pandemic.
Here are 10 key insights from our community for companies to consider as they strategize their ongoing response and communication in this new reality.
HOW SHOULD BRANDS COMMUNICATE TO CONSUMERS?
1. Avoid Email Overload
Early emails communication was appreciated but by mid-March consumers quickly became annoyed as corporate communication routinely flooded their inboxes day after day. Consumers have stopped reading them all because many seem to include a “blanket response”, explaining that companies are following CDC guidelines. Companies who sent their first email late into the crisis risk getting noticed for the wrong reasons. They come across as a disingenuous, “purely PR” response.
“I’ve been up to my navel in ‘response’ emails, seems like it’s anyone I’ve ever ordered from or used. I was fine with them at first but they’re getting a bit irritating as they continue to try to keep you updated.” – Boomer, Houston
Consumers do appreciate emails that personally affect them, like updates from local grocery stores and restaurants notifying customers of their closing, shopping hours, new safety measures and sales notifications for needed items.
2. Actions speak louder than ads
Brands that have made a memorable, positive impression on consumers have responded by taking real action and implementing change, not through passive communication. Consumers recall hearing about companies’ positive actions in the news, social media, radio, or podcasts. They find secondary reports more credible than hearing about a company’s response through ads or direct marketing communications. However, consumers’ first-hand experience with brands, in store or online, can completely derail or reinforce their perceptions of a company’s response.
HOW SHOULD BRANDS RESPOND TO COVID-19?
Consumers expect companies to be aware of how this pandemic is impacting our lives and empathetic to how this crisis is making us feel. They appreciate brands that have responded in ways that align with their prioritized values, putting people first and contributing in helpful ways.
3. DO: Prioritize people over profit
Above all else, consumers appreciate company leaders that have shown they care about their employees, like paying them though the shutdown, distributing executive salaries, giving raises to front-line workers, providing protective gear to staff.
“Patagonia and other retailers are continuing to pay employees while stores are closed…I think Patagonia’s response to COVID-19 will continue to motivate me to shop there more and support their brand.” – Millennial, Chicago
4. DON’T: Put business first
In contrast, consumers have negative perceptions of companies that put off closing or implementing equipment and efforts to protect the health of their employees and customers.
“[One shipping company] have kept regular all day business hours, they are not providing their front line staff that deals with the public proper cleaning or safety gear…They haven’t implemented any social distancing rules and at any moment it gets crowded.” – Gen X, Chicago
Consumers are especially critical of major corporations that, despite rising stock prices, are not increasing compensation for their over-extended employees, or paying employees for extended time off due to COVID-19. Some even go out of their way to investigate workers’ perspectives and will write off companies for not treating employees right.
“I’m frustrated that many lower wage workers are getting screwed over when they need the most protection. It’s difficult to see [some delivery] companies … rising in the stock markets.” – Gen Z, NYC
5. DO: Contribute to the solution
Companies and wealthy individuals that have donated generous resources to support the greater goal of saving lives have made a very positive impression on consumers, stimulating feelings of optimism, hope and American pride.
Consumers are most impressed by company leaders that are repurposing their operations to produce or acquire much-needed medical supplies, like Microsoft, Tesla, Apple, GM, Dyson, Medtronic, MyPillow.com and Gap.
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“Corsair turned their gin bottling process into making hand sanitizer … I love the ingenuity, creativity, and response in a time of need. I had never tried their liquor products before, I went straight out and bought a bottle of their gin and one of their whiskey products.” – Millennial, LA
They also admire brands in hard-hit industries, like Hotels.com, that are proactively supporting the greater cause despite their losses.
6. DON’T: Be passive
Consumers are critical of major corporations and moguls that have not donated money or resources towards sourcing medical supplies, judging them as greedy, unethical, and reassessing their relationship with these brands.
Similarly, many are angered by brands that are not taking any action or trivializing the pandemic.
“One specific company that I buy from weekly did not say anything about it. I had to ask via Instagram comments. The owner finally did answer after many comments…called it a “virus scare” which was annoying and turned me off from her company. I felt like she was downplaying what is actually a pandemic.” – Gen Z, LA
7. DO: Adapt to customer needs
Consumers applaud companies that quickly recognized people’s changing needs and adapted to meet these needs in creative and thoughtful ways. These businesses have revamped their operations processes to protect customers and employees and created innovative new services and solutions to help customers. While other companies are adopting these trends, the early adopters and innovators made a memorable impression.
“With contactless shopping services. I’ve always enjoyed shopping at CVS over Walgreens but this move that they’ve made has made me take another look at them.” – Gen X, Chicago
8. DO: Support non-customers
Brands that are also extending their services and offers to non-customers are bringing in more potential customers and improving their overall brand image. Consumers view these companies as caring, generous, thoughtful and report intentions to support them in the future.
“CorePower Yoga made a number of their on-demand videos free for anyone so people who do boutique classes can still keep active. I usually can’t even afford yoga normally in NYC, but I’ve been using it! It makes me want to invest in them in the future when I can!” – Gen Z, NYC
9. DON’T: Disregard customer needs
Consumers are put off by companies that have been insensitive to their needs. Grocery stores and retailers that were slow to follow the changes and safety measures taken by their competitors are seen as uncaring and profit-driven. Large retailers that have increased prices in the wake of COVID-19 anger consumers who now view them as greedy and profit-driven. Communication that is irrelevant or insensitive to consumers’ feelings and needs in this new reality negatively affects consumers’ perceptions of the brand.
“I have received a few emails about “you need to schedule an appointment for us to upgrade/install new HVAC” to protect your air quality. I found this unprofessional and unethical…trying to play on people’s fears to earn some extra bucks is wrong.” – Gen X, Chicago
10. Remember, we’re all human.
While consumers recognize that companies are run by people who, like all of us, have never experienced this amount of change and uncertainty; in a matter of weeks, we set expectations for how brands should and should not respond during this unprecedented crisis. Now, more than ever, consumers crave connection and they are connecting most with companies that have shown they care more about people than profit, through their actions, not just their words.
In this highly emotional time, consumers are likely to remember brands that really stood out through their response, both positively and negatively. How brands are responding to COVID-19 is influencing consumers’ perceptions, awareness, consideration, usage, loyalty, and their future intentions with brands.
But it’s not too late to take action to improve brand perceptions. It is critical that companies stay aware of what consumers are currently feeling, thinking, needing and expecting from them right now. Play offense and engage in conversations with consumers. When companies care enough to respond directly to critical consumer feedback in places like social media, perceptions can shift. Connect at the human level in ways that demonstrate empathy, care and support, not just for your customers, but for everyone in the country, for humans around the world.
For additional insights by industry, or additional information on our community or capabilities, reach out to [email protected].
Disclaimer: Quotations from community participants have not been fact-checked and are not necessarily representative of the views of Kadence International.