Marketers should ask themselves what matters and reflect.

By Balthazar Malevolent


Pepsi released a now-infamous commercial during the 2017 Black Lives Matter rally featuring Kendall Jenner, passing a can of soft drink to a police officer. The commercial came out of oblivion to express peace and solidarity, and the Internet overwhelmingly shunned the effort to comment on the soda business.

Consumers are bombarded with various forms of advertisements every day.

Jack in the Box launched an ad for introducing new teriyaki bowls to its menus in 2018. In the 60-second video, in an attempt to make light of the #MeToo movement, Jack makes fun out of the word "bowls" as a euphemism to male genitalia. The Internet wasn't having it yet again. Many found the post poorly timed and insensitive. AdWeek's David Griner also called the commercial "one of the #MeToo era's most tone-deaf ads."

COVID-19 was no different at all. The pandemic among marketers has spurred yet another round of agita. Emotional advertising meant pulling on millennials' heartstrings has fallen largely flat. However, entrepreneurs have found effective ways of maintaining interest in their market without unnecessarily falling off. This is no small feat in an increasingly noisy area of play.

Every day, customers are bombarded with different types of advertisement. The modern consumer is expected to be spending 121.30 minutes per day watching digital video content this year, according to eMarketer.

The more video content is watched, the fewer patience audiences have with messages which are meaningless. The effect of a bad ad isn't just a click of the "Skip Ads" button anymore. Consumers continue to be distrustful of brands they view as fake.

The latest publicity gaffe from McDonald's is a prime example of this. In response to the tragic deaths caused by COVID-19 of more than 258k worldwide, the company decided to show their solidarity by putting space in between its famous double arches. This was meant to be a grand gesture of empathy as a symbol of social distancing — but McDonald's faced intense backlash.

Bernie Sanders even tweeted at the company telling them to give away sick leave paid to their employees.

Sales plummeted dramatically during the month of April. The business posted a 3.4 percent decrease in revenue from the same store while earnings per share dropped below the estimates of analysts to $1.47. Of course, much of the financial crisis can be traced to global lockdowns — but the tactic did tarnish the attitudes of consumers. McDonald's NPS score (a common brand loyalty benchmark) dropped to -8, indicating customers did not return to the drive-thrus.

Insubstantial expressions don't just wince customers. They get processed as pockets of resentment in customer's brains.

Though McDonald's is taking steps to correct the error, the damage is done. And they are not alone in this.

Many big brands' responses to the pandemic are fumbling. Adidas reversed their "stay open" order within 24 hours, in the midst of intense backlash. KFC shut down an ad showing consumers who launched unwashed hands in slow motion earlier this year (a reference to the popular "Finger Licken' Good" tag line).

At the other end of the continuum companies are taking steps to tackle the situation.

What can Big Brands learn from Startups?

Inherently, companies are better suited to being real. Of course, that's made straightforward by the definition of being smaller and less operationally complex. Major companies shouldn't just pay attention to the main rivals, however. They need to watch how newer firms are responding to the pandemic.

SoleMates, a startup focusing on heel protectors and extension products, has launched a "buy-one, give-one initiative." The company will donate an anti-friction balm to a frontline worker for every unit purchased which helps combat mask irritation.

Headspace, a meditation-focused wellness app, developed a web site full of tools to help with anxiety about COVID. They also started offering their frontline healthcare staff free access to their premium services: "Helping those who care about us, paying about themselves"

Emilie Heathe, a beauty boutique brand, donates 20 percent of GLAM4GOOD's sales. The 501(c)3 gathers and provides blankets, care packages and PPE to frontline staff who are unable to sleep in their homes (for fear of spreading the virus to loved ones).

Air Co., a vodka startup that developed a process for using captured carbon dioxide to make liquor, shifted its production to make hand sanitizer for communities in New York City.

SantM, a functional luxury/comfort chic/handmade footwear brand in Italy and the Nemours Children's Hospital network, has teamed up to raise funds for the hospital and produce thousands of face masks.

All a/m businesses have something in common: they centered their attention instead of trying to build marketing fluff, and pivoted their operations to meet real needs. That is what consumers expect nowadays. 43 percent of millennials agree that brands need to help during the pandemic, according to a new survey. Startups see that and are proving they understand that potential buyers will not tolerate inaction.

Marketers should ask themselves what matters and reflect.

"Hey. We're a Brand," a parody ad launched by copywriter Samantha Geloso last month, perfectly encapsulates the current moment in branded content.

In it, a fictitious company takes audiences on an emotional trip through vacant stores and hospitals with masked forlorn patients. Ultimately, viewers realize that melancholy music and woeful footage were used by the company to guilt audiences into buying a product.

Some of the advertisements that we've been hit within April and May have manipulated today's real fear experienced by customers. Geloso's movie makes it all too obvious.

Words are to be matched with action in today's economy.

Often taking a break and avoiding the urge to respond may be the toughest decision marketers make. Instead of causing fires accidentally, marketers should take this moment to be reflective and ask themselves what matters to their managers, leadership and consumers. If now isn't a good time to ask yourself what you think — the when is that?

Fashion houses get involved. Victoria Beckham has announced that they donate 20 percent of their net sales from victoriabeckham.com and victoriabeckhambeauty.com to Feeding America in the US and Trussell Trust in the UK for a limited period of time.

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