How Consumers Want Brands to Communicate During the Pandemic

A Morning Consult report evaluates how companies can drive growth while remaining sensitive

Morning Consult's COVID-19 Ad Tracker showcases how and why ads like this one for Seventh Generation detergent aren't attracting consumers during this pandemic.

It appears that while the pandemic may be temporary, consumer attitudes and behaviors won’t be.

A recent study from Morning Consult shows that buying behavior, consumption preferences and public opinion about brands have been shifting as rapidly as the evolving coronavirus crisis. Fewer than half of Americans (41%) trust large corporations to guide them through these anxiety-inducing times.

The data intelligence firm released a special, 34-page report earlier this week that quantitatively examines how brands can still drive situation-sensitive and purpose-led growth during this pandemic. Research for “Weathering the Storm: Brand Management in the COVID-19 Era” was conducted among 2,200 adult Americans on March 28-29. The findings further highlight the urgency of brands to employ practices that serve consumer needs and do not sacrifice quality, while also delicately approaching the situation with humanity.

According to Victoria Sakal, managing director of brand intelligence, Morning Consult, the key takeaway from the study for brands should be the cruciality of how actions set the trajectory for when some things return to normal.

“The goal is not to just kind of hang on and weather the storm with your existing customers, but to look to the future,” Sakal said.

The role consumers want brands to play

In order for large companies to fortify consumer affinity and loyalty, Morning Consult’s research suggests that they should put their purposes and values into practice. A majority of those surveyed (over 75%) answered that they think it is either very or somewhat important that brands take care of their employees and treat them well, have products available when they need them, care about society, contribute to society, stand for something beyond just profit and show sensitivity and empathy.

Moreover, Americans’ top five considerations when deciding whether to buy from a company right now are largely rooted in the basic, fundamental needs of consumers: product availability, safety and cleanliness, financial accessibility and compliant solutions.

Boomers were most likely to buy from companies that stand for something beyond making a profit and for companies that are providing flexibility (87%).

“To that end, what this research shows is that older generations are definitely more appreciative of the efforts that companies can make,” Sakal explained.

The COVID-19 brand measures consumers are most aware of

Around half of consumers have heard most about companies like Amazon temporarily prioritizing household staples and in-demand medical supplies, or about Starbucks transitioning from counter-service to on-the-go orders to adhere to social distancing recommendations.

Furthermore, when asked about the likelihood to purchase related to to corporate pandemic initiatives, the top five most well-known company efforts only swayed between 29% to 39% of respondents enough to impact buying decisions. However efforts like Kraft-Heinz donating $12 million to relief efforts, KFC’s meal initiatives and Under Armour’s decision to pay employees while stores are close resulted in large boosts on intent to buy despite little awareness of their efforts. The difference? Many of the high-awareness efforts are shifts in company operations, while the Kraft-Heinz, KFC and others made concerted efforts to give back to their communities.

The messaging that consumers expect from brands

Amid this unprecedented environment this much is clear: what companies communicate to consumers, through both their actions and their advertising, will have lasting effects.

Participants of the Morning Consult special coronavirus report noted that messaging should be centered around informing and improving the situation, helping stakeholders rather than selling to them, all while remaining practical and sensitive.

The consumers surveyed indicated an interest in not only how brands are taking care of and providing for them, but also how they are managing and protecting their employees by complying with safety and health measures. Consumers also want to be provided with useful updates on business operations and the availability of products and services, which can have real implications on their day-to-day lives.

Thus far, only 13% of Americans polled strongly felt that companies shouldn’t be advertising during the pandemic. For the majority of Americans that do want companies to say something rather than nothing, messaging perceived as explicitly self-serving, situation-insensitive or situation-impractical should be avoided. Instead, brand messaging should be comforting and optimistic, demonstrating how team members are being treated and accentuating how company products and services can be used to combat the spread of the coronavirus and improve customer well-being.

Three-quarters of those surveyed desired brand advertising with tones that were either empathetic, safety-focused, honest and transparent, or were compassionate and kind.

Tracking the performance of ads

Morning Consult showed 2,000 adult Americans ad released within the past couple of weeks during the coronavirus outbreak and were asked to rate their reactions by moving a dial from unfavorable to favorable on a scale of 100 (favorable) to -100 (unfavorable) as the ad plays. The outcomes of the ad tracker reflect the tone of messaging that consumers desire, as the ads that were deemed most favorable during this distressing time were those that were empathetic and solutions-driven.

Results show that consumers are far more likely to be attracted to messaging that shows how the company’s products and services could be used to tackle the spread of coronavirus (DoorDash), or those that show how the company’s products and services could improve customers’ happiness and well-being during the pandemic (Hyundai, Ford), versus advertisements that do not address the pandemic at all (Seventh Generation).

Brands that build a solid foundation for long-term equity gains by managing business in a favorable way and engaging with customers compassionately will also position themselves as reliable.

@monicroqueta Mónica is a breaking news reporter at Adweek.