Crisis marketing: How brands are addressing the coronavirus

Michael Halminen, Kristen Shipley, Abby Loar / May 2020

Many brands are no strangers to crisis management, but the global scale and continued uncertainty around COVID-19 is a first for us all. Brand and agency business models have been disrupted, and they are quickly learning how to get creative with new limitations. These changes have forced even the most nimble advertisers to ask, “How do we meet this unprecedented moment?”

While the answer to that question will be different for every brand, many have responded with meaningful approaches to give their audiences a reason to believe that we’ll get through this crisis together. Here are three impactful ways advertisers have showed up during the pandemic in recent weeks.

1. By addressing customer concerns


Given the rate at which stores are selling out, one of the world's largest toilet paper producers, Cottonelle, delivered a direct message to ease consumers’ concerns and discourage panic buying. Instead, the brand urged people to, “Stock up on generosity,” and simultaneously launched a campaign called #ShareASquareCanada, in partnership with United Way Centraide.

The brand pledged to donate $100K to the United Way Centraide for Canada’s COVID-19 Community Response and Recovery Fund, and partnered to donate 100K rolls of toilet paper and 10K boxes of facial tissues over the next three months. And for everyone who uses the hashtag #ShareASquareCanada, the brand will donate an additional $1 up to $50K.


To directly address consumers’ heightened concerns around protecting their health, McDonald’s Philippines outlined new precautions they’re taking, like required temperature checks for employees before and after shifts. By video, president and CEO Kenneth Yang assured customers, “We will not hesitate to cancel any customer activity or even temporarily shut down any of our restaurants.”

The company acknowledged that now, more than ever, reaching their audience with timely, relevant messages is imperative. “As a community partner, it’s our responsibility to update consumers on the actions we’re taking to ensure their safety and well-being,” said Margot Torres, managing director of McDonald’s Philippines. “Having Kenneth Yang deliver this message was key to show our continued commitment to food quality, service, and cleanliness — all of which are critically important right now.”

2. By pivoting toward a solution


As a brand that has been around for more than a century, Ford has weathered its share of tough times. To acknowledge the gravity of the current moment, the company pivoted their ads to explain how they have met global-scale crises in the past — for example, by building military equipment during World War II — and to convey their commitment to fighting COVID-19 by manufacturing medical equipment in short supply. The new ad, “Built to Lend a Hand” leans into the company’s century-long commitment to their consumers and mission.

Destination British Columbia

As people around the world continue to respect government orders to stay at home, domestic and global travel have been greatly impacted. Brands like Destination British Columbia have had to pivot from their typical “visit us” messaging for something more timely. Their latest video explains that by staying inside and dreaming of future travel, people will be able to get back to the beauty of BC sooner.

3. By bringing people together as they stay safely apart


While staying homebound causes stress and isolation for so many, Ikea Canada saw an opportunity to shift perspective around physical distancing by welcoming their English- and French-speaking audiences back into their own homes. The new series, #MaketheMostofHome, sought to remind people of the stable worlds they had already created — playing with kids, dancing, making music, or simply relaxing with loved ones — as the world around them shifts.

Even through challenging times, brands and agencies can find creative ways to adapt and produce effective campaigns. The situation has forced marketers to approach advertising with more meaning — which many will view as not only a welcomed change, but something to carry forward into the future.

Marketing lessons from the pandemic