Hugh N. Wilson & Emma K. Macdonald, Professors of Marketing at Warwick Business School, say ‘investing in trust’ is the key to marketing during a crisis


How do you market during a crisis? First, let go of your brand campaigns. Most sales-focused messages will feel at best irrelevant – and at worst, downright insensitive.

The problem isn’t reach, but relevance. People are still noticing paid messages, albeit through different channels. Each week, insight agency MESH Experience asks a sample of UK consumers to report on all their encounters with bank brands during the week using a diary platform. This includes everything from ‘paid media’ (e.g. TV and online ads) to ‘owned’ (e.g. using the firm’s website or app) and ‘earned’ (e.g. news coverage) experiences.

As Chart 1 shows, with less people out and about, touchpoints such as billboards are not noticed, but this is compensated for by newspaper and TV ads. That may well change in the coming weeks, of course.

However, many of the paid ads that are still getting through seem irrelevant to consumers: see chart 2.

The more service-oriented messages put out by some brands are mostly appreciatd so overall, consumer reactions to paid ads are only slipping a little. Consumers seem highly sensitive, though, to even a hint of self-interest in what firms do and say.

All this illustrates the second lesson: to drive communications from your purpose. What consumers are demanding is that firms live up to the higher purpose statements they have all defined but, until now, not been forced to live by.

“Consumers are quick to judge communications that seem motivated by the firm’s problems and not their own.”

An increasing proportion of owned experiences is made up of letters and emails to the firm’s customer base. Several personal messages from CEOs of companies severely hit by the crisis have stood out for their focus on the customer’s welfare.

These messages are generally well received; however, consumers are quick to judge communications that seem motivated by the firm’s problems and not their own.


Invest in trust

Innovate around your purpose. The initiatives consumers most widely applaud go beyond communications and payment terms to innovate around the firm’s purpose more broadly.

Examples are not hard to find. In the UK, the BBC is providing a whole host of content offerings – not simply coronavirus updates, but educational programming for children and virtual church services.

“Investing in consumer trust will pay off in the long run.”

Finally, trust in the Force. What consumers demand from the private sector is clear: to put society’s interests first. Many tell us they are backing their instincts: that investing in consumer trust will pay off in the long run. Acting quickly, decisively and with a true sense of purpose can build long-term trust.

In the last decades, we can remember no moment when the private sector has come under such customer pressure to live up to their declared purpose of helping customers and society. If this mood continues, firms will need to move beyond integrated communications to holistic culture change, where profits are seen as enabling purpose rather than the other way around.