What are the ethical guidelines for marketing during a global pandemic?

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What are the ethical guidelines for marketing during a global pandemic?

Al Ramich

What are the ethical guidelines for marketing during a global pandemic?

Right now, the world is officially in the midst of a pandemic, a large majority of people have been, or will be, affected by the implications of the coronavirus spreading, in some way. With the Coronavirus at the forefront of everyone’s minds, it might seem careless to spend time discussing brands, consumer behaviour and pricing strategies whilst staring down the barrel of a global pandemic. However the reality is, that pandemic or not, businesses and marketing will not stop, nor should we be expected to. Therefore it is important that as an industry we establish some rules around the ‘do’s and dont’s’ of marketing through a pandemic; a sentence i’m sure many of us never expected to read in our lifetimes. 


Al Ramich, the founder of digital technology and marketing company ‘Small Giants’ and Artificial Intelligence start-up ‘Loomi.ai’, has worked in marketing for many years and seen plenty of instances where marketers get it very wrong, and those where they get it right. The factor which determines which category your business falls into is how well you understand your audience. It is vital that brands navigate the crisis in a way that shows they care about their consumer.

Anyone who works in marketing will tell you that brand health becomes vulnerable when companies stop promoting and advertising. This is something that both the brand and the customer are highly aware of. It would be slightly naive to assume that brands should stop all marketing given the current climate and realistically, customers don’t actually expect them to. In fact with the increased time spent on social media and online, during the period of self-isolation and working at home, it is expected that online purchasing behaviour will increase. This might also be the case to some extent with B2B customer behaviour, with more businesses needing guidance on how to navigate their marketing strategies during this time where many businesses are not operating in their standard ways and in most cases have moved online. What is important to understand here is that the argument for more rigorous ethical standards to be placed on marketing at such a sensitive time is not saying that marketing right now is in itself wrong, but that there should be questions raised on what can be considered as ethical given the current circumstances.

Some companies have also used this time to help out as much as they can, offering everything from services, donations, to redirecting their resources to produce medical supplies; such as LVMH using their cosmetic factories to produce hand sanitizer, but there are also ways businesses in the B2B sector can help out without needing huge factories and supplies. When your customer is another business, it is important to understand how your client’s industries are changing and what you can do to cater your services to help them deal with the currently volatile market; your marketing strategy must reflect this. A good case to look at is Salesforce.com, an American cloud-based software company providing CRM services, which has taken action to help the businesses they are working with. In a statement to those businesses, Salesforce.com, acknowledged the effect COVID-19 was having on them with a response to their requests to reduce the level of technological change companies will be dealing with during this crisis. For businesses, this is a stressful period of uncertainty and adjustment, any way your services can alleviate this, should be offered as a show of good faith. Another good example to consider are the measures being implemented by AliBaba B2B INC., an online wholesale supplier. They unveiled three major support programs they were putting in place to help small and medium-sized enterprises, and rural farmers, through the COVID-19 crisis. Alibaba B2B has announced that they are partnering with software providers to launch digital productivity tools, offering close to 100 million RMB subsidies for e-commerce SMEs to ease the worry of hiring, and they will provide telecommuting solutions for businesses, in partnership with DingTalk.


Another company who has ‘got it right’ during this time is Style Analytics, a Financial services company, that made the decision to provide their factor performance reports and a flash factor analysis of any equity portfolio, free of charge, in order to allow those involved in equity investing to understand and navigate the impact COVID-19 has had on the markets. Another example to look to is cybersecurity company NetAbstraction, who is offering their services to help people work from home securely. As a company who specialises in cybersecurity, this is something that is not only beneficial to their brand image but is also dealing with a legitimate concern that may have arisen for many people during this period of time when working from home has become a necessity. Where NetAbstraction could have chosen to capitalise on the inevitable increased demand for secure work from home networks, they instead offered these services as an aid which promotes their capabilities and positively impacts their brand image. 


What it is that these companies have done right, is that whilst they are offering help through this pandemic, they are still marketing their services but doing so tastefully. Offering a free version of the services your company specialises in, strikes the right balance between taking advantage of a marketing opportunity and showing that your company has a sense of humanity. Not every business is expected to throw out large sums of money in aid because realistically not every business can, but what businesses can do is use this time to promote their services through acts of kindness i.e. discounts or free services. As a business, this gives you a chance to show people how your services can benefit them, almost like a ‘free trial’ period. People will be more likely to return to your business as a paying customer post-pandemic if they have a good experience with your business, and if they perceive you to be an ethical business. Humanity is important to people and because we are seeing a rise in the ethical consumer* as businesses we must take the time to connect with our customers on a human level whenever possible. People want to feel like they are not contributing to unethical business practices and will greatly value a company who can put people over money because it reminds them there is a beating heart behind a corporation.


Hand Disinfection, Disinfection, Mouth Guard

Some businesses have missed the mark here, with marketing campaigns or advertisements that are simply insensitive. Norwegian Cruise Lines paid for a poorly timed advert which appeared on CNN during a break when the news channel was covering the story of people isolated on the Grand Princess cruise ship due to the coronavirus outbreak. Whilst this might have not been an obvious ethical faux-pas, it was a case of insensitivity; perhaps the company should have considered pulling ads promoting cruise ships altogether at this time to avoid being perceived as ‘out of touch’. There are however also the inevitable groups of people who are committing obvious ethical violations. For example, people buying out hand sanitiser suppliers to sell them at a premium, or small businesses increasing the price of goods knowing that the bigger chain stores and supermarkets don’t have enough supplies. The Competition and Markets Authority has already implemented measures to monitor this and the practice of people marketing their products/services as a cure to the virus, such as demanding suppliers to pull the products off their shelves, but what about the less obvious instances?


What is harder to monitor and a bit of a ‘grey area’ in ethics are ‘scaremongering’ ads, top-selling wholesale spray sanitiser brand ‘Lysol’ recently faced a huge amount of backlash for the increased advertising of their products during a time when they were sold-out across almost all of the stores who carry them. Such a marketing move reflects poorly on a business because it projects the image that you are willing to profit off people’s fears, this is not an image any business wants. Whilst the ASA has banned some advertisements on the basis of this argument, we understand that as a business it can be difficult to differentiate should be considered scaremongering vs what is simply taking advantage of a marketing opportunity. There are businesses, such as Lysol, who sold products or services before the pandemic, which are facing an increased demand now due to the pandemic and its effects, but does this mean they should take advantage of this marketing opportunity? Should new businesses launching services such as ‘home workout guides’ to help people through the quarantine period be allowed to market their services as such or is this insensitive? 


Perhaps a few points to consider when trying to market during such an awful time would be:

  1. Don’t centre your marketing strategy around the crisis.
    This means, maybe reconsider if you want to base your adverts/campaigns around the fact that people are stuck at home, or scared of catching the virus, and convey that message a bit more implicitly. You do not have to directly tell people that you are pushing this particular product or service because you know it will sell in our current circumstances, this will avoid the perception of being tasteless and insensitive.

  2. Know your audience.
    To understand what your potential and current customer base might overall find insensitive or not, you need to know who you are marketing to. This means knowing those analytics, understanding the general ideologies of those people and maybe even taking a leaf out of the influencers book and simply asking your customers what they think. Many influencers who use their name to sell services or products are actually reaching out to their followers during this time and asking if they are happy to see this content.

  3. Don’t sell at a premium.
    If there is something most people will agree is unethical to do during a pandemic, it is to increase prices simply because you know people need what you are offering. It leaves a bad taste with the customer and will no doubt push them straight into the hands of whoever is selling it cheaper.

Ultimately, ensuring you have an ethical approach to marketing during the Covid-19 crisis is, if not for the good of your own conscience, essential to maintaining a good brand image and is something that can be better handled with the help of experts. Small Giants specialises in digital technology and marketing and works with start-ups and scale-up companies to create and implement that best marketing strategy for them. If you want to know more, please check out the link here: www.smallgiants.agency.

Al Ramich
CEO at SmallGiants.Agency and Loomi.AI