COVID-19 Marketing: Between Smart and Insensitive

Yehuda Leibler

Partner, Cognita Partners‍

Like other industries, the world of marketing has had to go through a paradigm shift in the era of COVID-19. Just as Zoom has become a household name when it hadn’t been prior, consumer patterns have shifted to adjust to the pandemic. Whether the industry likes it or not, changes in a company’s marketing dynamic are not only happening — they’re also affecting brand image and customer engagement.

For example, a recent report published by Business Insider revealed that social media use (and therefore marketing strategy) has changed significantly during the Coronavirus outbreak. According to the article, a Harris Poll conducted between late March and early May showed that 46% (March) and 51% (May) of US adults were using social media more. Out of the total respondents in the May survey, 60% were between the ages of 18 to 34, and 64% were between the ages of 35 to 49. Since these are target markets for many companies, it makes sense that marketing trends would begin to lean more towards social media.

However, there’s a fine line to walk when marketing during a pandemic. Marketers are forced to consider the virus’ effect on consumer purchasing and behavior, while also facing the dilemma of what constitutes “insensitive” when the public is dealing with mass fear and uncertainty. Companies are also forced to be aware of how the pandemic is affecting their employees and customers because the lack of doing so shows a disconnect and a disregard for safety.

With these factors in mind, according to this survey conducted by Advertiser Perceptions, 49% of advertisers have either pulled a campaign or delayed its launch due to COVID-19. A third of those surveyed admitted that they have had to cancel a campaign completely before it was even launched.

Marketers are not only aware of the new normal in marketing — they’re also forced to re-strategize and re-design marketing campaigns that were imagined and created before Coronavirus became a pandemic. And the ones who make use of the pandemic to stand out or get attention run the risk of harming the brand’s reputation.

For example, in March of 2020, Coors planned to launch its ad campaign centered on the words, “the Official Beer of Working Remotely”. While the campaign was meant to be released around March Madness, the NCAA college basketball tournament, a canceled event combined with fears of being insensitive during the current COVID pandemic induced the brewery to pull the campaign at the last minute.

Another example is, who pulled a campaign showing their “Captain Obvious” riding in an airplane and dipping his fingers into someone else’s bag of snacks. In a time encouraging fewer flights or overcrowded situations, social distancing, and frequent hand-washing, the content of the ad missed the mark.’s marketing team made a wise choice for the short term for a longer-term positive brand image, encouraging their target customers to rather stay home and stay safe.

“We didn’t feel the tone of our usual advertising was right for the current environment” - a spokesperson for said in a statement to TIME

The important thing to consider is with any reference to the Coronavirus, a company will run the risk of offending someone — or at the very least, coming off as using the pandemic as a PR stunt. When the concept of social distancing became the new vernacular, companies like Volkswagen redesigned their brand to separate the letters “V” and “W”. Whether this is showing awareness and sensitivity or gimmicky use of a global pandemic remains in the eye of the beholder.

Takeaways for best marketing practices during Coronavirus:

  • Consider all current marketing campaigns through the lens of a new normal. If the content could be construed as insensitive in light of the current pandemic, consider pulling it until the greatest threat of COVID-19 has passed.
  • Consider re-focusing your marketing efforts on social media, given the growth in potential customers engaging on these platforms.
  • Entertain a long-term strategy of building brand awareness and continuing a positive, hopeful message in a time when many people face uncertainty.
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