Comment Editor Marino Unger-Verna on the subject of marketing during the COVID-19 pandemic and the paradox of business philanthropy.
Today’s world runs on the backs of businesses. We buy our morning coffee at Costa, Starbucks, Pret, our local neighbourhood cafe. When we’re hungry, restaurants and supermarkets vie for our business. Technology, entertainment, furniture – whether you shop online or offline, live in a city or in a town, businesses are everywhere.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began and countries the world over started going into lockdown, businesses were forced to adjust, and adjust quickly. Uncertainty was even more present than it is today. When would brick and mortar stores be able to open their doors again? How would companies, large and small, manage to stay afloat without reliable sources of income? As the COVID-19 pandemic has progressed, marketing has been on the front lines of this existential battle.
Everyone knows what marketing is for, and why it exists. Marketing exists to sell people products, to convince consumers that one company’s product is better than another’s. While this core principle has never changed, however, advertisements and marketing campaigns change forms almost constantly.
The most fundamental flaw of marketing – particularly in the age of the Internet, when we have access to information on just about everything in the palms of our hands – is that we can get accustomed to it. Take the use of sexual imagery to entice customers into buying what’s being sold. The old adage “sex sells” may be accurate, but sex doesn’t sell when it’s all anybody has to offer.
The more advertisements utilise a given strategy, the less it is able to sway an audience. To combat this, marketing teams have tried to think outside the box. Surrealism, social media interaction, brand personification, and targeted activism have all been implemented by marketers. Each method functions for a while, but the average consumer learns to grow wary of these new strategies eventually. So what happens in a major crisis, when shops are closed and the economy falters?
When the COVID-19 lockdown began in earnest, marketing teams stepped up. Every UK resident subscribed to at least a few rewards services or newsletters remembers getting emails from companies trying to assert themselves in the public consciousness. We were reminded that we were a part of their “families,” and that once everything goes back to normal, it will be business as usual. In the absence of commerce, presence became the hottest commodity.
I have been using social media for around half my life now. I am no stranger to advertisements and have learned to be wary of them. So when Apple pledged to source over 20 million face masks to help medical workers during the COVID-19 crisis, my first thought was of marketing. When Dominos offered to provide NHS workers with free pizza for their work combatting the virus, all I could think about was how the announcement would be good for their public image. And when Coca-Cola posted their heartwarming new video advertisement, To The Human Race, I was motivated to write this article.
I am not saying that these actions, or the hundreds of other generous acts made by businesses large and small, were taken solely to attract customers. Many such donations are helping to save lives, and that is no small feat… but it is impossible to ignore the little pieces of marketing peppered throughout these kind deeds.
The tiny Coca Cola logo at the end of the emotional ode to human kindness. The slew of big names reminding you that they’re doing their part too, making sure you don’t forget them amongst all the others.
This is not something unique to this pandemic. Philanthropic gestures made by companies have been an element of the marketing landscape since before COVID-19. Maybe now, though, when businesses have no other form of currency but the way in which we perceive them, we will begin to recognize the hidden purposes of such gestures as well.