13 Ecommerce Brands That Have Handled Crises (And What They Can Teach Us About COVID-19)
11 min read time
Published on Apr 20, 2020
Written by Daniel J. Murphy
Right now, ecommerce retailers are weighing the possible economic outcomes of COVID-19. Some retailers are expecting demand to drop as shoppers lose disposable income. Others, especially those who sell essential items like food and toiletries, are planning for disrupted supply chains.
Beyond production and sales concerns, there’s a looming marketing question: How do you talk to customers during this time? It seems strange to deliver the usual sales-driven messaging when much of the world is in isolation mode, worrying about the health and safety of their loved ones.
The best move is to take the focus away from your brand and products. Instead, prioritize giving back to shoppers, whether that’s providing supplies, offering substantial discounts, or simply sharing a positive message. If your marketing is genuinely selfless, you’ll have a community to fall back on when the virus has run its course.
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Don’t just add to the noise
With public crises—whether it’s coronavirus or a natural disaster—brands might be afraid to speak on the subject. Knowing how sensitive the situation is, they’re wary of offending customers.
Companies in this mind-set often take what seems like the safe route: they use the same messaging that other brands are using in response to the crisis, thinking that the language must be okay if other businesses are using it.
But emulating other companies’ messaging doesn’t sit well with shoppers. At best, it feels inauthentic. At worst, it gives the impression that you’re trying to cash in on the crisis, using it as a platform to boost brand awareness.
Take Nordstrom. On the 13th anniversary of 9/11, the company tweeted a pretty generic remembrance tweet: a photo of One World Trade Center with the caption, “Today, we remember.”The tweet was nearly identical to many other brands’ posts that day.
Many shoppers were put off by Nordstrom’s set-it-and-forget-it message. People left comments about how the corporation wasn’t a person—an indication of how impersonal the tweet felt. Others called Nordstrom out on the clear lack of effort that went into the tweet.
Is the takeaway here to never comment on public crises? Absolutely not—especially when so many shoppers expect businesses to be transparent about their values. “No one wants to be accused of being absent at the wheel,” said Chanel Cathey, CEO at communications agency CJC Insights.
But if you’re going to comment on the situation, make your brand’s response a thoughtful contribution. Express a specific take on the circumstances with unique, reflective marketing.
The fashion brand Lilly Pulitzer took this approach in its remembrance of 9/11. Instead of posting a picture of the twin towers or One World Trade Center, the brand created its own abstract image to honor the event.
Unlike the Nordstrom tweet, the Lilly Pulitzer post was unique to the brand. The colorful, youthful design matched the company’s typical style, and the brand was already releasing 5x5 drawings as a part of a larger campaign. At the same time, the artwork didn’t scream Lilly Pulitzer branding, so it didn’t give the impression that the company was cashing in on 9/11.
Lilly Pulitzer followers seemed to appreciate the design, with over 450 people retweeting the post—almost as high as the number of likes for the tweet.
Takeaway: Share one-of-a-kind content in response to A crisis
Knowing what to say—or share—with your customers is tough during a public crisis. With that said, you don’t want to give the impression that your brand is not willing to take a stand by refusing to post anything at all.
Express your brand’s perspective on the current climate with content that no other brand is sharing. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or highly artistic. The concept behind the content is more important than the execution.
For a simple idea, you might just share user-generated content. Unlike typical UGC, your post doesn’t have to show shoppers using your products. Instead, look for UGC featuring shoppers embodying the message you want to share in response to the crisis.
Activewear retailer Outdoor Voices recently shared a video of an Instagrammer dancing to cheer up her followers. The video is simple and short, but it’s perfectly aligned with OV’s mission of “doing things” to stay happy and healthy—even while we’re all indoors.
You can also take a humorous stand on the situation with your content. If times are tough, why not spread joy with your followers with funny content? The online wine seller Winc recently joked on Instagram that social distancing meant a solo date night with a glass of wine.
If you decide to share funny content, just remember to be tactful. Consider the timing and framing of your joke to make sure it’s appropriate. The last thing you want is for people to think your brand is downplaying or mocking the seriousness of the crisis.
Lend a helping hand, not a sale opportunity
It should go without saying, but let’s be totally clear: you should never build a sale around a public crisis.
By using the situation as a platform for your promotion, your brand is telling shoppers that you don’t take the crisis seriously. And worse, you’re making it clear that you hope to profit off of the situation. This selfishness doesn’t bode well with today’s shoppers, particularly millennials who want to buy from altruistic brands.
The advice may sound obvious, but there are large brands that have run crisis-themed sales. In 2012, clothing retailers Gap and American Apparel both offered Hurricane Sandy-themed sales.
The backlash from shoppers was intense for both brands. Media outlets did write-ups on the faux pas, and people left angry comments and posts on social media. Realizing how much their brand messed up, Gap had to publicly revise their messaging with a follow-up tweet.
The fact is, shoppers in the midst of a public crisis aren’t in a mindset of caring about shopping deals. They’re probably more concerned with the safety and health of themselves and others.
Meet them where they are by promoting what they actually want to hear—good news about the crisis. Share information about how your brand is making a positive difference in this difficult time.
After Hurricane Sandy, clothing retailer Uniqlo updated its shoppers about how the brand was helping those affected by the storm. Named “United in Warmth,” the email campaign covered how the brand was not only donating jackets but also mobilizing its employees to distribute the clothing.
“I’d point to Uniqlo’s ‘United in Warmth’ campaign as a good example of a post-Hurricane Sandy response,” said Jason Goldberg, the former VP of Strategy at the ad agency Razorfish.
The campaign checked all of the right boxes. It put the focus on those in need, not on the brand. And it never felt like Uniqlo was describing their charity for brownie points. With a call to action for shoppers at the end of the message, the email’s goal was rooted in making a positive difference for the sake of making a positive difference.
Takeaway: Promote your charitable efforts
A public crisis isn’t the time to push for purchases, even if the situation creates ideal conditions for online shopping (we’re looking at you, shelter-in-place orders). It’s the time to console your customers. Ease their worries as best as you can by sharing what your company is doing to make a positive difference.
Not sure how to get your brand involved? Partner with a charity. In response to COVID-19, the clothing retailer Madewell recently promised to match donations up to $25K for the charity No Kid Hungry. The partnership will help to feed children who are missing meals due to schools being shut down.
Your brand could also create supplies that are needed because of the public crisis. Anthropologie shared on Instagram how their employees were making masks at home for local healthcare workers. Or, if your brand already produces an essential item, you could donate your extra products.
It may feel strange to spend resources helping others if your business is already suffering because of the crisis. While your generosity shouldn’t force your business to shut down, it will probably lead to lower-than-average net revenue. Trust that this sacrifice will pay off in the long run, boosting brand affinity now so customers are ready to return to your online store when the crisis resolves.
Help shoppers make a positive difference
Whether it’s a global pandemic or a natural disaster, public crises leave people feeling sad, anxious, and confused. To move past the negative emotions, many shoppers have an itch to help out in whatever way they can.
Give your customers a way to make a difference. You’ll not only be helping those in need—you’ll also be doing your brand a favor.
Why? Because helping others produces a number of positive mental health effects: reducing stress and social fears and increasing happiness. Shoppers are likely to associate all of these good emotions with your brand if you’re the one that made it possible for them to help others.
The beverage brand Boxed Water mobilizes its shoppers to help minimize the impact of wildfires and deforestation with its Better Planet campaign. For every person that posts an Instagram picture of Boxed Water with the hashtag #BetterPlanet, the brand plants two trees in affected forest areas.
The campaign is a success on multiple fronts. On the one hand, it creates a positive brand image of Boxed Water. Shoppers regularly share on Instagram how the brand will donate two trees, thanks to the hashtag.
But beyond boosting their brand reputation, Boxed Water is genuinely helping their shoppers make a positive difference with the campaign. So far, #BetterPlanet has led to over 800K planted trees. And to remind shoppers that they’re helping the planet, Boxed Water comments on every #BetterPlanet to let the user know two trees will be planted for them.
Shoppers know that Boxed Water made it possible for them to help with forest restoration. With that in mind, they’re likely to keep buying water from the brand so they can keep making a positive impact.
Takeaway: Launch a charitable initiative that shoppers can participate in
Boxed Water’s campaign is powerful, but it also requires a lot of coordination. Your brand may not have the resources to launch such a complex campaign, especially if you need to quickly respond to a sudden crisis, like COVID-19. Luckily, there are plenty of simple ways to get shoppers involved.
A straightforward but meaningful initiative is committing to donate money for every purchase made. Find a charity whose work is especially valuable, given the crisis, and pledge a portion of your revenue to their organization.
Depending on what you sell (and how essential it is), it may also be easy for you to donate your products for every purchase made. The shoe company Allbirds recently ran a COVID-19 campaign, in which they used the revenue from purchases to go toward donating shoes to healthcare workers.
Whatever your initiative, make sure you’re letting shoppers know how far their purchases are going. You’ll make them feel good by reminding them they’re making a positive difference. And, in turn, they’ll likely appreciate your brand more by making it possible for them to help others.
Do everything in your power to serve the customer
For small businesses especially, it’s hard to remember that there is light at the end of this tunnel. Life will find a new normal, and when it does, you’ll want a strong base of customers who have your back. The best way to cultivate that brand loyalty? Be their champion during these hard times.
Uplift your shoppers with marketing that thoughtfully addresses the issue at hand. Instead of focusing on your products, share messaging about how your brand is helping others and how customers can do the same with your help. If you give back as much as you can now, it’s only natural that shoppers will stick by your side in the long run.
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Written by Daniel J. Murphy
Dan is a B2B marketing leader with over 7 years of experience helping SaaS startups grow. Before joining Privy, Dan was the Director of Product Marketing at Drift. He’s also worked in demand generation, brand marketing and marketing ops. Dan loves to geek out over marketing strategies and technology. He co-authored “This Won’t Scale” with Privy’s CMO, Dave Gerhardt at their previous company.
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