Insights

Why Your COVID Messaging May Be Missing the Mark


America is under house arrest––without the ankle bracelet and the disorderly conduct charges. Do I need to remind you we’re all bored? Really, incredibly bored. As households struggle to discover new ways to remain connected and defeat monotony, Nielsen says Americans are consuming 60% more content.

WATCH: Every COVID-19 Commercial is Exactly the Same

So, if Americans are so hungry for content, why is it that so much of it isn’t resonating?

Reading the room

When there’s a crisis, smart consumer brands transition their advertising narrative to a more empathetic tone. Consumers are unsure and downright panicked. Nobody wants to seem insensitive. It’s marketing 101.

When coronavirus began to spread across the U.S., the goal of many marketers became less rooted in selling product and more about seizing the opportunity to create a meaningful connection with consumers.

Most of us are creating regular content — emails, blogs, vlogs, podcasts. Apple, Walmart, Facebook, Doner and Hackstone (do you like how I worked us in there?) created poetic brand films. Government and major health organizations created public service announcements hoping they would resonate with people.

Some comparative media analyses are suggesting that much of this content is falling flat and missing the mark with audiences. COVID-related PSAs have begun receiving incredibly low engagement scores across the board––even when they’re delivered by athletes and celebrities.

Why? I have theories.

1. Semantic satiation

Pick a word — any word. Say it over and over. Chicken. Chicken. Chicken. Chicken. Chicken. Chicken. Wait, wasn’t that a word a second ago? Say it enough and it’ll become a meaningless collection of phonetics.

This is a phenomenon known as semantic satiation and it’s kind of what happens to our favorite marketing terms when you hear them over and over.

Watch a commercial break and count how many times you hear the most common coronavirus-related phrases like “we’re all in this together,” “social distancing,” and “flattening the curve.” These have become the “our customer service is second to none” of corona-messaging.

We tested car commercials a while back and found that those with the most buzz phrases (APR, cash back, save, lowest price) had the lowest recall and the lowest attention level.

What we can learn: If you’re scripting crisis narrative, pretend these common phrases are people and stay at least six feet away. The brain is a cognitive miser. If something is confusing or not new, the “survival brain” tunes it out.

2. Machine-generated narrative

Every coronavirus-related communication script starts like this:

“In these [trying/uncertain/unprecedented/challenging] times, we want to [let you know what we’re doing to/do our part by offering] …”

While the intent is good, the messaging sounds like it was written by a crisis communications buzzphrase generator and it hurts you in two ways.

  • Since the beginning of April, people have been locked in their houses and forbidden from touching. Isolation goes against the very fabric of who we are as mammals. From the moment we’re born, we crave human connection. An entire portion of our brain is dedicated to help us thrive in social settings.

    Now more than ever, we are craving human connection. Yet, one of the most difficult things for many brands is stepping out of their processes and being human. How authentic you are perceived is directly related to how human you sound.\

  • See semantic satiation above.

What we can learn: Human = authenticity. Authenticity > a fluffy lead-in. Say it out loud. If it sounds like you’re reading a script, change it. For example: “In these unprecedented times, we want to do our part by offering our candy baskets at half price.” Not only does that sound blah, it also sounds self-serving. Instead, say: “As humans, we crave connection. Since we can’t connect, send candy instead.”

Occasionally it’s okay to play off of certain assumptions. In the middle of a crisis, it’s safe to assume everyone knows we’re in the middle of a crisis (especially when every single other commercial is reminding your shared audience that they’re in a crisis). Like if someone is drowning it may not be necessary to remind them they’re drowning before telling them to grab onto the rope. The time may be better spent on something more meaningful and value-added.

3. “Me too” spots

“Me too” (aka “copycat”) marketing is when everyone has the same messaging. Instead of standing out, it seems they’re all standing in line with the same pitch asking you to buy something from “me too.” To see “me too” messaging in action, watch the string out of local car commercials during the Today show. They all have the lowest prices (which is mathematically impossible) and the best customer service (which is statistically improbable).

What we can learn: Our brains save calories by summarizing and discarding information not worth processing. That’s why you see a forest rather than 492 trees. When your brand messaging matches everyone else, you get radically summarized and discarded.

4. Late to the party

Ever had your appetizer come after your meal? You ordered the chili cheese fries because you were ravenously hungry. You thought they’d be fast. If they come out after your burger, you’ve regained enough of your faculties to know better than to slurp them down. You’re in a different phase of your hunger. You’ve moved on. This is an example of your server’s poor timing.

In times of crisis, people go through phases––denial, acceptance, anger, grief, recovery––and your messaging should, too. Our “Courage Determination Together” brand film was released at the very beginning of the outbreak with a “we will get through this” message. It hit the spot and did really well at that moment as the population was somewhere between denial and acceptance. Now, three weeks later, we’re somewhere between anger and recovery and the “we’re in this together” messaging is almost completely irrelevant and, frankly, annoying.

**What we can learn: **It’s better to be early than late. If you’ve waited too long to release something, skip this stage and move on to the next. Yep, just like your blood pressure meds.

Another thing to consider is that the shelf life of your messaging may be short. Really short. Our brand film’s shelf life was about a week and a half. To increase its usable life, we could shift the message from “we will get through this” to “look what we’re capable of” with minor adjustments.

To recap

When composing your messaging:

  • Avoid buzz phrases

  • Be human

  • Avoid blending in

  • Consider timing and context

Work backwards. Put yourself into your audience’s shoes and consider what it is they need to hear rather than what you want to say––you know, during these “unprecedented and uncertain times.”