Amid the profound changes the last week has brought, there are signs of adjustment from brands, media, and among consumers – Cathy Taylor surveys the situation.

Marketing in the COVID-19 crisis

This article is part of a special WARC Snapshot focused on enabling brand marketers to re-strategise amid the unprecedented disruption caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak.

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For most of us in the U.S., this feels like the week we fully settled into what life amid COVID-19 will look like for the foreseeable future. Many of the questions that were not fully answered a week ago now are. Schools across many states are cancelled. Working from home – for those of us in professions that make it possible – is mandated. And a sense of resignation about months of isolation with family members (you hope you get along with) is being assimilated into the national psyche.

But look closely beneath the quietude and you see signs of a culture adjusting and innovating to meet what was an unfathomable scenario even a few weeks ago – and brands, media and consumers are all part of the process. Here are quick observations on how this took shape stateside this week.

For brands, a time to support, comfort and distract

Chipotle: As restaurants are forced to shift from dine-in to takeout and delivery only, some are spicing things up beyond shifting budget to those options. Chipotle spent the week holding virtual hangouts for 3000 people every day on Zoom, each featuring a celebrity superfan of the brand. Called Chipotle Together, the series also included Q&As with the celebrities and exclusive content and free entrée codes.

Baldor Foods: With hoarding becoming its own pandemic -- no doubt spurred by pictures in social media of empty grocery store shelves – New York’s Baldor Foods, a major supplier of food to northeast U.S. restaurants – embarked on a major brand pivot. Faced with a 50% drop in sales as restaurants shuttered, it has repurposed its fleet of 400 delivery trucks to offer home delivery for the first time. As vp/sales Ben Walker explained to Forbes: “We're perfectly poised to jump in and support where we're needed. Food service has really come to a halt. We have the food and we have the logistics. We're able to get the food out there.”

Staples: The office supplies retailer, which sells everything from ink for printers to cleaning supplies and snacks for office workers, is among the retailers who have dropped minimum order size requirements, as people transition to working from home. An email to customers from the CEO also addresses items that are in short supply, including hand sanitizer, N95 masks, gloves, and disinfectants –pledging “we are urgently partnering with our suppliers to replenish our inventory and to provide you with alternatives.” 

Headspace: The paid subscription meditation app has opened up a free space on its service, “Weathering the storm” which should also prove a smart sampling device. It explained in an email, “[Weathering the storm] includes meditation, sleep, and movement exercises designed to help guide you through this. It’s our small way of helping you find some space and kindness for yourself, and those around you.”

Trend watch: Seniors-only shopping hours. It may have started small, but a number of major grocery chains in the U.S. and abroad have started offering hours for senior citizens and vulnerable customers only. Walmart, Target, Stop & Shop and Whole Foods are among those working to keep those most susceptible to coronavirus complications apart from other shoppers.

Further COVID-19 brand content on WARC: How marketers can de-risk the COVID-19 disruption

For media, with no sports, and stay-at-home audiences (and entertainers), programming changes

Late night: It took a few days for the nation’s late-night TV shows to get their bearings after their shows were shuttered, but it’s clear that the era of the FaceTime monologue is upon us.

On Wednesday, Jimmy Fallon broadcast from what appears to be his country house with “help” from his camerawoman wife and kids, and the name of the night’s special guest (a sequestered Lin-Manuel Miranda) scrolled on a piece of medical tape he held up to the camera. Stephen Colbert took to his front porch to deliver a few jokes, and Jimmy Kimmel to his couch. None of them appeared to shave.

What’s less apparent is how advertisers will respond to these DIY shows. All three saw ratings rise when they took the interim step of doing their shows without audiences last week, but as with everything else, doing a show from the home office is uncharted territory. Anecdotally, much of the advertising on each of these shows was about coronavirus, of the we’re-all-in-this-together variety.

Reaching the younger audience: Besides discussion of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady moving to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, sports media is now a vast wasteland of replayed games and speculation about whether the Olympics will be cancelled. So, when Barstool Sports – a youth-skewing media platform – got an unorthodox query about having Dr. Anthony Fauci – the U.S. physician-in-chief – to appear on its most popular podcast, “Pardon My Take,” Barstool agreed. “I was thinking this could be scary and this is absolutely something that should be taken very seriously,” podcast host Eric Sollenberger told The New York Post in accepting the interview.

Streaming speeds up: Following the lead of Disney+, which released Frozen 2 on the platform early in a reaction to coronavirus, NBCUniversal followed suit – planning to have movies including The Invisible Man, The Hunt, Emma and the upcoming Trolls World Tour – available for home rental within a matter of days.

Trend watch: Watching movies about pandemics. “Contagion,” the 2011 movie about the U.S. fighting a virus, is in the top ten rentals on iTunes. “Outbreak” which dates back to 1995, was ninth on Netflix earlier this week.

Further media content on WARC: COVID-19 three scenarios for the impact on media planning

For consumers, coronavirus is a lesson in social-distanced community, and panic buying

Nielsen study: Nielsen identified six “consumer behavior thresholds” as coronavirus moved to center stage. The report, released on March 10, mapped out the expected timeline of purchase behavior as the crisis unfolds:

  1. Proactive health-minded buying
  2. Reactive health management
  3. Pantry preparation
  4. Quarantined living preparation
  5. Restricted living
  6. Living a new normal

The U.S. moved into stage #3 – pantry preparation—during the last week of February, with sales skyrocketing year-to-year of shelf-stable food including powdered milk products (84.4%), dried beans (36.9%) and canned meat (31.8%), in conjunction with what Nielsen identified as the COVID-19 Event Marker of “Multiple cases of local transmission and multiple deaths linked to COVID-19.”

Small business gift cards: Underlying concern about the broader economy is the need many Americans feel to support local stores, and that is giving rise to a movement to buy gift cards from them, giving mom-and-pop stores the gift of cash flow when they need it most. Some initiatives are grass-roots affairs, but others like Help Main Street – backed by the food delivery service Lunchbox and venture capital fund Eniac Ventures – are scaling the idea.

Trend watch: Rainbows. Picking up on a trend that started in Italy, residents of some communities have started pasting handmade rainbows to their windows. The goal? To spread hope and also be used as the centerpiece of “rainbow scavenger hunts” when young children are out getting fresh air with their parents.

Further COVID-19 consumer content on WARC: Nearly 90% of consumers have changed their behaviour because of COVID-19