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To Communicate or Not to Communicate? Changing Marcoms Landscape in a Time of Coronavirus

Published by Engagement Labs April 06, 2020

Advertising/PR Drives Enhanced Sentiment, Study Shows


Consumer conversations about brands are changing dramatically as Americans hunker down in their homes amid an unprecedented global health crisis. During this coronavirus epidemic, the first imperative for brand owners is to provide direct support to consumers during this time. But the second imperative is to communicate—to inform, encourage, explain, listen, and entertain—at a time of enormous stress and change. Our newest data demonstrate the value of doing so.

Engagement Labs’ consumer conversation tracking during the first two weeks of the rolling, statewide lockdowns reveals that marketing communications is an important factor in driving positive conversations about brands. It’s a pattern we saw more than a decade ago during the Great Recession. Even though financial brands were frequently blamed for that crisis, those that maintained advertising levels with messaging appropriate to the crisis fared much better than those that went quiet. 

In this more extreme crisis, the very topics that consumer conversations talk about are changing dramatically. Overall, offline conversation data about brands has dipped slightly, but not disappeared by any means. There is 3% less brand-related offline word of mouth now than there was during mid-January (as a reference point for this analysis, well before America became overwhelmed by COVID-19). There is far less talk now about canceled professional sports leagues and teams, and more talk about health, beauty, household and children’s products, and retailers (see chart below). The pattern favors “basics” at the expense of indulgences and pastimes, with the increasing irrelevance of sports, travel, even automobiles, as Americans began living under statewide stay-at-home orders.




Conversations are turning a bit more negative, although they remain far more positive than negative as we have traditionally seen for most categories. Sentiment is rising for brands in children’s products, household products and technology. The biggest declines are in travel, health care, retail, financial services, and the home (see chart below). The shift toward the negative is driven by a wide variety of factors—disappointment in canceled vacations, frustration with emergency customer service interactions, shortages, and potential price gouging.



Positive minus mixed and negative conversations for second half of March vs. prior 8 weeks

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While the best antidote to negative conversations is to offer consumers flexibility and fairness, there’s evidence, as well, that marketing communications is a key driver.

Marketing Communications Drives Better Brand Sentiment

Conversations about brands tend to be more positive when they are related to either news coverage about the brand (often the result of corporate communications efforts) or to paid advertising, compared to when no marketing/comms is involved at all. That’s because brands benefit from third-party credibility when they receive positive news coverage, and brands also benefit when conversations are driven by their advertising.

Across all brands in 15 categories that Engagement Labs track, the change is modest. Before the crisis, conversations about brands were overwhelmingly positive whether related to advertising (70%), news coverage (67%), or no marketing at all (68%). Since the crisis, we’ve seen positive sentiment decline the most, by 7 points, when no marketing is involved, while the positive share of conversations dropped by a somewhat more modest 4 points and 3 points, respectively, when related to ads or news (see chart below).


In certain categories, the pattern is much more pronounced.  Financial brands—who are frequently the messengers of bad news about collapsing retirement savings—are a case in point. When conversations about financial brands happen without any reference to marketing information, the share of conversations that is positive has plummeted from 28% to just 11%.  Meanwhile, positive conversations have held up at 38% when advertising informs the conversation, while falling 4 points to 26% when related to news coverage. When financial brands actively engage to tell their story, the result is quite positive and beneficial.

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While department stores, malls, and specialty stores have been ordered closed across the country, supermarkets, drug stores, and discount stores have become lifelines to homebound consumers. The tumult has produced a remarkable 20-point collapse in positive sentiment for conversations unrelated to media or marketing, and an almost equal 19-point surge when related to news coverage. Much of the news, of course, is highlighting the heroic store clerks on the front lines of the pandemic, providing essential food and cleaning products, as well as new procedures to get people the products and services they need such as curbside pickup, free shipping, and the like.


There is a temptation during crisis periods to eschew investments in communications in favor of cash conservation, or to assume that people are not focused on what brands have to say so it is best to stay silent for the time being. Some companies, to be sure, may have no choice but to embark on cost containment. 

(To find out the impact of media/marketing on brand sentiment on other sectors/industries, please download the full report.)

But the data from these early days of this emerging “new normal” are clear that brands that can, should continue to communicate in as many channels as they can. Public relations and advertising professionals will play a key role in supporting consumers in the short-term, while also building long-term customer relationships that will last well beyond the present emergency.

If your company has a COVID team at work and we can assist with unique data (offline as well as online social intelligence), or if you wish to discuss the impact of the coronavirus on your brand or your category, we invite you to reach out to us.

Meanwhile, please stay safe and healthy!


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