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How to Talk to Customers During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Brands must look for creative, cost-efficient and sensitive ways to communicate during this difficult time.

Jessica Taylor Stevenson, a travel and fashion influencer on Instagram with about 23,000 followers, started preparing for her first trip to Coachella months in advance. She reached out to brands about potential partnerships and planned posts she would send out from the multi-day musical festival in April.

“I was planning to stay in a house in Joshua Tree, so I wanted to shoot some desert looks with cowboy boots and glitter… some ‘Euphoria’-style makeup,” Stevenson said, referring to the beauty aesthetic popularised by the HBO show. She signed a branded content deal worth thousands of dollars with one of the main event sponsors, which paid half her fee upfront.

But she made those plans when the Covid-19 outbreak was mostly limited to China. Today, 125,000 cases have been reported worldwide, as well as more than 5,000 deaths, in what the World Health Organisation has classified as a pandemic. Large public events, from NBA games to college classes, are being cancelled — including Coachella, which organisers said on March 10 they would postpone until October.

Stevenson is hardly the biggest victim of the outbreak, as she’d be the first to admit. But as the death toll rises, and authorities worldwide scramble to contain the disease, the fashion and beauty industries are having to rethink how they connect with customers. Many brands rely on major events to launch new products and get their ad campaigns in front of new audiences. Last year’s Coachella alone generated more than $12 million in earned media value, a measure of engagement, for the top five apparel brands at the festival, according to Tribe Dynamics (that compares with $8 million for the top five at New York Fashion Week). Tokyo Fashion Week, South by Southwest, Baselworld and other cancelled or postponed events promised to give brands similar boosts.

Brands are now having to come up with alternative ways to reach consumers, including many who are in self-quarantine at home or living in cities with mandatory orders to keep stores closed. In those areas, consumers may be less concerned with the latest CBD-infused face cream as they are their groceries. Plunging stock markets point to a growing possibility of recession, which would crimp spending on discretionary products, including clothes.

Kering, which owns Gucci, Saint Laurent and other luxury brands, suspended new store openings and advertising altogether in China, where the virus outbreak was the most severe. Advertising in fashion publications big and small is one of the first places brands looked to cut costs as they brace for a global economic downturn.

In a note to investors, Sequoia Capital, a venture capital firm which has invested in brands like Glossier and Zappos, advised brands to “raise the bar” on what they consider essential marketing costs.

That doesn’t mean brands should halt consumer outreach efforts altogether. Rather, they need to adapt, especially in a fast-moving crisis where the playbook is changing daily.

“We have to be much more nimble,” said Bridey Lipscombe, co-founder of Cult marketing agency, which has worked with Amazon Fashion and Tommy Hilfiger, among others. “Of course, budgets will be smaller, but I think we can really demonstrate strong [returns on investment] if we’re creative.”

Social distancing means everything is happening online

Fashion weeks in Milan and Paris proved to be an early testing ground for marketing during a pandemic. Armani live-streamed its runway show, which was staged without an in-person audience. The brand generated more earned media value than its conventional show in the previous season, according to Tribe Dynamics.

With consumers cancelling their travel and working from home, that means addressing shoppers where they are now spending vastly more time: online. Brands should be dedicating resources to improving the effectiveness of email marketing and other “per click” strategies like search, display, and social, said Rajeev Batra, professor of marketing at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.

With many consumers thinking about the pandemic and little else, brands should consider postponing or reducing the frequency of business-as-usual marketing efforts, which could come off as insensitive, said Shawn Sachs, co-founder of the communications firm Sunshine Sachs. Brands can reference the coronavirus in emails and Instagram posts but should do so in an earnest way, explaining how it affects their business.

Entireworld, a company that sells retro-ish basics like colourful sweatsuits and stripey socks, sent customers a message from founder Scott Sternberg written in a conversational, informal style, opening by describing the situation as "at best utterly confusing and at worst kinda terrifying" before going on to say "there’s the awkward and seemingly trivial question of what a brand does during a time like this ... there’s also the question of what a small business does in a time like this." At the end of the message, the brand included an offer for 25 percent off its sweatsuits.

Sternberg told BoF the decision to send the email was both personal and pragmatic, given that the company is in the middle of a fundraising round that could be jeopardised by a drop in sales.

"There seemed to be no other way to talk to our customers and be true to the values of this brand and my own personal values as a business owner," Sternberg said. "With so much uncertainty ahead, we had to do something to create immediate demand that translated into sales volume, and give us a little more foresight and runway to plan the next few tricky months ahead. It also felt right on a brand and product level — our customers love our sweats, and if there’s ever a moment for sweats it’s right now."

Brands can also tailor their messages. While customers in New York may be confronting the pandemic head-on – and therefore less receptive to traditional marketing messaging — consumers in other regions where the outbreak is less severe may still be looking to shop.

“People are home all day, losing their minds a little bit, and they might have a little bit more time for engagement, but it just might be different types of engagement,” Sachs said. “I would just be very sensitive to being silly right now.”

Meanwhile, newly popular channels like TikTok offer access to younger and digital-first consumers. Conducting livestreams — a low-level lift easier than ever to execute, thanks to the help of platforms like Instagram and YouTube — also allows brands to reach consumers directly and in doing so, gather real-time data, even more valuable to marketers who may have had to throw away their playbook in the wake of the outbreak, Lipscombe said.

Some brands have been experimenting with online games as a way to expand their audience. Louis Vuitton sells virtual outfits (known as skins) for $9 to $25 to League of Legends players. Moschino collaborated with The Sims and Burberry launched “B Bounce,” a computer game which promotes the brand’s monogram puffer collection.

“This is all about considering how brands can provide playfulness or that moment of escapism if there isn't IRL experiences for them to be investing in,” Lipscombe said.

Influencer marketing still matters

Influencers aren’t going anywhere, but brands will need to adjust how they work with them. The typical travel and event-heavy schedule is unfeasible in a time of travel bans and quarantine orders.

DBA, a talent agency that manages about 180 influencers, intended to send more than two dozen of its clients to Coachella this year. As those plans fell through, DBA has had to look for other ways to keep its talent working, said Reesa Lake, DBA partner and executive vice president of brand partnerships.

“The consumer... may actually be more engaged with it because there's definitely a saturation when it comes to... these bigger events,” Lake said. “There's almost fatigue sometimes with that content, so it may be a benefit to the brand to have the content stand out, opposed to being tied to a specific festival or event.”

Lake said she and her team are speaking with brands to determine how to translate tentpole content strategies to localised events. For example, some of DBA’s influencers were going to promote a skincare brand’s new sunscreen at Coachella. The campaign has been tweaked to focus on everyday use instead.

Influencers are also finding ways to keep posting even while under quarantine. “What’s Gaby Cookin,” a chef and food influencer on DBA’s roster, is showing viewers how to execute at-home pantry recipes while housebound.

Transparency is more important than ever

As consumers increasingly expect brands to communicate candidly about things previously considered mundane to the average person (say, supply chains, which have been disrupted by the outbreak), they should also demonstrate their human side.

“If your brand can become a source of frequent, sought-after information, then that should help with customer acquisition and relationship building,” Batra said.

Nordstrom was early to send an email update about how its stores are taking precautions to protect both employees and shoppers while encouraging readers to head online if they wanted to avoid public places. As the outbreak has worsened in the US, others have followed suit.

“We are going to need to ensure that creative [content] educates and inspires confidence on where products are being sourced and why, which ultimately, brands should be doing,” Lipscombe added. “This is going to push a lot of brands who were perhaps dragging their heels to sink.”

We’re tracking the latest on the coronavirus outbreak and its impact on the global fashion business. Visit our live blog for everything you need to know.

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