What does a digital marketing strategy look like in a pandemic?

Joshua Spanier, Google’s global marketing VP for media, recently wrote a post entitled, “Inside Google Marketing: 5 principles guiding our media teams in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.” It is must reading for anyone trying to answer the question, “What does a digital marketing strategy look like during this novel coronavirus pandemic?”

Spanier says, “To say it’s a unique time in the world is an understatement. As we all collectively grapple with what this global pandemic means for us — as humans first, but also as professionals — there are often more questions than answers. There is no playbook for times like these, but what I’ve found is that crisis can provide clarity.”

And he goes on to share five principles that are helpful to other brands navigating the same uncharted territory. Now, before I drill deeper into what he said – and didn’t say – I want to tip my hat to Spanier for sharing publicly the set of principles that Google is using internally to evaluate their media campaigns in this altered marketplace. But, I also want add that there is no one-size-fits-all solution that all digital marketers can copy in this novel coronavirus pandemic.

In fact, Sarah Vizard of Marketing Week in the U.K. just published an article entitled, “Just 8% of consumers think brands should stop advertising due to the coronavirus outbreak.” She says, “A survey of more than 35,000 consumers globally by Kantar found that just 8% thought brands should stop advertising. However, there is a clear expectation that companies should play their part, with 78% of consumers believing brands should help them in their daily lives, 75% saying brands should inform people of what they’re doing and 74% thinking companies should not exploit the situation.”

So, before you zig – because you think everyone else is zigging – it would be wise to take two additional steps that Google isn’t using internally. In other words, Google’s five principles are helpful, but there are at least seven principles – and maybe more – that brands should consider using to navigate this uncharted territory.

Explore market trends

The first comes from Simon Rogers, the Data Editor of Google News Lab. He wrote an article entitled, “How to stay on top of market trends in a dynamic environment.” He says, “In this dynamic environment, people’s needs are changing constantly. To keep up with shifting behaviors, consider Google Trends, a free tool that provides access to actual search requests across Google Search, YouTube, Shopping, and Images. By entering a keyword or a topic, you can explore what the world is searching for in near real time.”

Global search interest in coronavirus as of March 25, 2020

For example, searches for “how to make hand sanitizer” have grown by 4,950% worldwide in the past month. And searches for “grocery delivery service near me” have gone up 200% globally.

And to help digital marketers stay on top of these shifts, the Google News Lab is curating global coronavirus search trends with the option of diving more deeply into any of 24 local markets, including: Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

For example, searches for “who will receive stimulus checks” has grown by 3,550% in the U.S. in the past week. And searches for “what will be open during lockdown” have gone up 2,000% in India in the past week.

Context, always

Once you’ve explored market trends, then you’re ready to adopt the first principle that Spanier shared, which boils down to asking yourself: “Is this campaign right, given the current context in a local market?”

He said, “Though this is a global pandemic, its impact is local. We’ve found it helpful to carry that thinking into the evaluation of our marketing campaigns. Our global teams are providing guidance centrally, but we’ve found it’s best to trust each market to make decisions locally. In other words: direction from the center, but decisions on the ground.”

And he provided us with this strategic insight: “As interest in news surges around the world, there are many more ad impressions being served in the news category. We’re having to ask ourselves, ‘In what instances are we comfortable putting our brand alongside news content?’ This debate, and local nuance, has helped us make choices, especially around the use of paid social media. Local context is key.”

All I can add to this strategic insights is some tactical advice that I discovered after conducting a test of a news SEO tool called NewzDash. It found that the top news sources for coronavirus stories that appeared in the U.S. edition of Google News over the past seven days were: CNN, CNBC, The New York Times, New York Post, Fox News, The Washington Post, and NPR. So, combine this with the insight that Spanier shared and the question that digital marketers in the U.S. need to ask themselves is: “In what instances are we comfortable putting our brand alongside news content from those sources?

Top news sources in the U.S. edition of Google News over the past seven days.

What’s the alternative? Well, NewzDash also shows you the top news sources that appeared in the Sports section of the U.S. edition of Google News over the past seven days. They were:  ESPN, CBS Sports, USA Today, NBCSorts.com, New York Post, Yahoo Sports, and Sports Illustrated.

Top news sources in the Sports section of the U.S. edition of Google News over the past seven days.

So, the revised question that digital marketers in the U.S. can ask themselves is: “Are we more comfortable putting our brand alongside sports content than news content?”

As an example, do you think Buffalo Wild Wings should run “Sports Live On” alongside sports content – even when sports aren’t on?

Constantly reassess

The second principle that Spanier shared nets out to ask yourself: “Though we greenlit this campaign last month/last week/yesterday, is it still right for the context and moment?”

He said, “As market dynamics change rapidly, we’re constantly reassessing campaigns, creative, and even our guidelines. What we decided two weeks ago isn’t necessarily appropriate today. The one constant assumption we have in this situation is that things will change. Because of that, we’re reassessing every possible touchpoint for our brand across paid and owned channels, from video ads to the automated emails we’re sending via customer relationship management (CRM) systems.”

And Spanier provided an example of a Google ad that wasn’t right for this moment and context. Kudos for the candor. He said, “For instance, we’ve had an Android campaign running that referenced being “out and about.” Was that OK in the U.S. market a few weeks ago? Sure. Today? Not so much.”

Here’s another example: Corona USA launched Corona Hard Seltzer on Feb. 24, 2020. Here’s the real video ad that they uploaded back then: “NEW Corona Hard Seltzer. Four delicious flavors. One splashy entrance.”

I know, it’s hard to reassess the name of your product or the timing of a product launch. But, how do you think the splashy entrance of the new Corona Hard Seltzer went? Well, Megan Graham of CNBC reported on Feb. 27, 2020, that “Corona will continue controversial promotion for hard seltzer amid coronavirus outbreak.” And she said, “YouGov, an international polling and market research company, published research Wednesday on how Corona’s brand sentiment has fared amid the Coronavirus outbreak, and said purchase intent for Corona ‘is at the lowest it’s been in two years, though the summer-y beverage which is closely associated with beach holidays does see substantial seasonal fluctuation.’ The firm also said the outbreak has resulted in negative buzz around Corona beer.”

So, you should constantly reassess – even if it seems to be easier to “stick to the plan.” Otherwise, you are fair game for late night comedians like Conan O’Brien. His Team Coco channel on YouTube uploaded “A Message From Corona Beer – CONAN on TBS” on March 5, 2020.

Creative considerations

The gist of the third principle that Spanier is to ask yourself: “Are all of the creative elements — tone, copy, visuals, keywords, placements — appropriate and relevant to this new reality?”

He explains, “In the spirit of reassessing campaigns, we’re finding that all kinds of creative elements need scrutiny right now. From tone and visual imagery to copy and keywords, the context of our media buys needs to be carefully assessed. We’re asking ourselves these questions with every campaign, no matter the channel or size of spend behind it.”

For example, Google doesn’t think that slapstick humor is appropriate for their brands right now. So they’re holding off on some campaigns that were “funnier” in nature. (Although “funnier” inside the Googleplex may mean something entirely different than “funnier” on one of the late-night talk shows.)

Spanier adds, “We’re reevaluating creative that shows interactions like hand shakes, hugs, and high-fives, since social distancing is an important tactic for slowing the spread of illness. We’ve also reviewed all our Search ad copy to spot phrasing that’s now awkward — ‘virus checks,’ for instance, have taken on a whole new meaning in light of this moment.”

Cadbury has pulled its U.K. Easter campaign, which featured an older man planning an egg hunt for his grandchildren, in the light of the coronavirus pandemic and the new rules about social distancing. The ad from VCCP broke two weeks ago and depicts the man hiding eggs around his apartment, climbing up onto high shelves and crouching down under beds to place them high and low, before his two grandchildren arrive, one a little girl and one a tall teenager.

Although the video is now unavailable, you can see watch “The Making of the Ad: Cadbury Easter ‘High & low,’” which was uploaded on March 11, 2020, to the Campaign YouTube channel, where you can access all the best video content from the advertising, media and marketing industries.

A spokesperson for Cadbury U.K. commented: “We take our responsibility for marketing and advertising very seriously. Our television ad was intended to inspire generosity and happiness in the run up to Easter. However, due to current government guidance on social distancing, we recognize it’s no longer appropriate to encourage close physical contact, particularly with older generations. For that reason, we’ve made the decision to replace our current Easter ad with spots that are mindful of the current climate. We’re working to do this as soon as possible.”

And kudos to Cadbury for its creative considerations.

Changing priorities to navigate uncertainty

The bottom line of the fourth principle that Spanier is to ask yourself: “What are the most relevant brands, products, or campaigns our media can support right now, and do we need to shift budgets?”

He says, “As business professionals, we recognize that we have a responsibility to navigate uncertainty. Through it all, we’re evaluating our media budgets through the lens of what’s most relevant to our consumers.”

And Google’s guiding principle as a brand, particularly in this moment, is to be helpful. And as people turn to technology for information and connection in these times of need, Spanier is mindful that some of Google’s products can be more helpful today than they were even two months ago.

“In that spirit, we’re shifting our paid media priorities to brands that help more people get vital information or bridge the gap between what was once ‘normal’ and their current reality,” he says.

And Spanier revealed that Google’s emphasis is moving to products like Search as people need information, YouTube as people need inspiration and know-how, as well as Hangouts and Google Classroom as educators turn to live streaming and digital lessons.

For example, YouTube’s Spotlight channel uploaded a video entitled, “Stay Home #WithMe.”

And the channel features videos from across YouTube in the following playlists:

Contribution, at every opportunity

The Spanier’s fifth principle is to ask yourself: “What ways can our brand — and even our owned media channels — be helpful to people and businesses in this moment of need?”

He says, “If there’s ever been a moment for us to come together and help one another, this is it. As our CEO Sundar Pichai wrote, ‘In this unprecedented moment, we feel a great responsibility to help.’ We’re asking ourselves how we can help our consumers, our customers, and our partners — especially when it comes to our owned channels.”

Now, every brand has its “owned media,” whether that’s websites, blogs, or even social media sites. Spanier adds, “Across Google, we’re using many of our surfaces to help however we can. Take the YouTube homepage, for instance, that directs users to videos from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or other locally relevant public health agencies.”

Other brands are taking similar steps. For example, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros, President of world football governing body FIFA, Gianni Infantino, and WHO Goodwill ambassador for health promotion, Alisson Becker, launched the “Pass the message to kick out coronavirus” campaign on March 23, 2020. Watch their “Pass the message: Five steps to kicking out coronavirus” video.

Walk the walk

Finally, Spanier didn’t say this, but I can: “Are you walking the walk or just talking the talk?”

Now, an active approach is preferable to a passive approach to crisis communication. But, actions still speak louder than words.

In fact, consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow has shared some advice for brands about talking to their customers during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Understand what consumers really need right now and then [offer] that to them,” she tells Ad Age’s E.J. Schultz on this week’s episode of the Marketer’s Brief podcast. “Anything that you say is irrelevant right now. It’s really all about what you are doing.”

For example, kudos to Unilever for pledging 100 million euros ($108 million, retail value) in products such as soap, sanitizer, bleach, and food for charities, with about half going to the COVID Action Platform of the World Economic Forum. Plus, the company’s CEO, Alan Jope, pledged 500 million euros ($540 million) in cash-flow relief for suppliers and retail customers, which includes credit for small retailers to protect jobs, and “early payment for our most vulnerable small and medium-sized suppliers.”

Unilever's coronavirus response.

And double kudos to Nike for “prototyping personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face shields to help doctors and nurses during the outbreak,” as well as to Bauer, a hockey equipment manufacturer, for offering to “modify its production line,” to make protective visors and masks for healthcare workers during the COVID-19 crisis.

Bauer is modifying its production line to make protective visors and masks for healthcare workers during the COVID-19 crisis.

And triple kudos to Ford, 3M, and GE Healthcare for joining forces to make respirators. “Working with 3M and GE, we have empowered our teams of engineers and designers to be scrappy and creative to quickly help scale up production of this vital equipment,” said Ford CEO Jim Hacket. “We’ve been in regular dialogue with federal, state and local officials to understand the areas of greatest needs.” Hey, as “Built to Lend a Hand | FORD” reminds us, “When America needed tanks and planes, we built those, too.”

And kudos to AB InBev for shifting their “sports investments to help our heroes on the front lines by using stadiums to host American Red Cross blood drives during the COVID-19 crisis.” And thanks for creating a video like “Budweiser | One Team,” which reminds us: If you can “walk the walk,” then you can “talk the talk” with credibility.

So, what does a digital marketing strategy look like in a coronavirus pandemic? Well, if you follow these seven principles, then you can still develop a wide range of different answers to this question. And you may even develop a few more that you can share with other digital marketers who are responding to the COVID-19 outbreak in their local markets.

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