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Purpose and Optimism: The Mission for Brand Marketers in a Time of Crisis

  • April 2020

Should you still market in a crisis?

While human instinct may tempt you to pull back on messaging and hunker down, advice from brand leaders goes in the opposite direction. It is not insensitive to market during a crisis – in fact, it’s necessary for brands, employees and customers. Marketing is one of the ways modern society communicates and when brands go silent it only reinforces the fear and estrangement we all feel in a time of illness and social distance.

Instead, step up, adjust your messaging to meet the frightening times and, as one brand leader said recently, “Communicate like crazy. Keep people connected.”

Egon Zehnder gathered a dozen CMOs to engage in a teleconference discussion regarding the challenges of marketing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The mood was unanimous: Don't go dark. Instead, double down on communicating purpose and optimism. “History shows that people will stand with brands that stood by them in a crisis,” said one participant.

Indeed, history offers many examples of marketers who made an impact during times of crisis. Makers of everything from salt to soap encouraged patriotism and sacrifice during World War II via their advertising. Customers embraced Coca-Cola’s message of harmony in the “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” TV ad that aired during the turbulent Vietnam War era. After the 9/11 attack on New York City and the Pentagon, marketers such as Budweiser drew praise for their emotional tributes featuring the famous Budweiser Clydesdales. “Creating little moments of optimism – that’s something marketers are really good at doing,” said one CMO.

And already during the COVID-19 pandemic, health experts report that marketing messages that encourage viewers to engage in pandemic-safe behaviors such as staying home and washing hands are effective.

As the COVID crisis continues and most companies are focused on business continuity, it’s critical for marketing to be part of that crisis team, said one CMO.

CMOs offered some concrete advice for brands:

Pivot to your baseline message.

One CMO of a payment company stressed the need to recast – not cancel – marketing. This time of year, his brand was planning messaging around vacations, travel and eating out in restaurants. Now, marketing will refocus on the core brand message of payment security to help consumer feel confident about essential purchases. “It’s back to basics,” he said.


CMOs have an opportunity to use their skills and roster of airtime to convey essential messages around health and safety to a watching public. Said one leader: “The temptation is to limit your output and manage expenses until you know what’s going on. But it’s good to be present as a brand.”

Get Creative.

One CMO, whose travel-oriented company is severely impacted by the virus, has reframed the company’s communication to spread a message of hope. “We launched a cross brand social campaign where we post one beautiful image every day of a spectacular outdoor space – a moment of escape to relieve stress and remind people that we will be outside again soon.”

Marketing also has an important role to play within the company. Employees, many of whom will be asked to do their jobs under stressful conditions, will look to the company for information and leadership. Said one CMO, “The biggest shift for us is facing how we communicate to our team that we really have their backs at this time.” Another CMO voiced the same mandate. “Marketers have an opportunity to build optimism within our internal team,” he said.

To ensure crisis-time marketing delivers a positive, supportive message, engage the conversation around a sense of purpose, CMOs advised. One company with a primarily online business broke from its tradition of paid-only content to offer a free version of its wares to customers in hard-hit Italy. The altruistic move helped spark a surge of energy and passion within the company, said the CMO. “We’ve found through our purpose that we are providing a small measure of optimism. We’ve been doubling down on that aspect – doubling down on our values and what we can do in this new normal.”

To rally the best messaging in crisis, CMOs offer their tips:

  • Set new processes to embrace the new normal. “Every day, we’re doing a ‘five ideas in five minutes’ drill,” offered one CMO.

  • Use downtime with purpose. “We’ve revived our rainy day projects,” said one CMO in a travel-oriented company.

  • Stay focused on your own plans and avoid letting news drive your behavior. “It hard to get off the hamster wheel when you’re reactive,” said one CMO.

Remember that even in crisis, brands are part of the human conversation. Customers and employees will listen for the messages and draw from the emotion and information they convey. CMOs must step up to the challenge to ensure brands do their best to serve their customers, their communities and their companies. Silence won’t help. But informative, purpose-driven messaging just might.

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