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Marketing during coronavirus: Psychologists can help

RPA’s Dr. Hillary Haley looks at how psychology can help marketers effectively communicate with consumers feeling anxious and stress about COVID-19.

5 min read

Marketing Strategy

Marketing during coronavirus: Psychologists can help

kiquebg / Pixabay

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Brands were right there with us during the first eight weeks of the coronavirus pandemic.

Telling us they cared and proving it. They repurposed factories. Made record donations. Secured employee protections. Set up thoughtful policies for vulnerable populations.

People noticed and appreciated it. It was a modern response for modern times.

But quickly, people got sick of coronavirus marketing too. Because it all started to feel like a big bad blur—distant, inauthentic, at times treacly.

Parodies cropped up on YouTube. E-mail “unsubscribes” rolled in. And then brands gagged. Because they didn’t know what to do next.

The good news is that psychologists can help. Because psychologists have been studying stress and anxiety for a very long time. So they know how people react to stress. What kinds of messages work, and what messages will be most compelling.

What have psychologists learned? In times of crisis, people don’t want to feel like victims. They don’t want to feel like powerless pawns or even beneficiaries.

Instead, they want to feel like they “have agency,” and they want to “do something about it.” Because “doing something” makes people feel strong and resilient — less like losers, more like winners. All of this is an intuitive response. It’s part of how humans survive.

So brands can make meaningful connections with people right now by empowering them. By helping people to “do something.” Which, in turn, will help people feel stronger and more resilient. At the same time, helping people “do something” will engage them in a powerful emotional way.

There’s one more nuance, though, and it’s an important one because research in psychology also tells us there are two totally different ways in. Humans have evolved with two distinct stress response systems — virtually all of us use both, at different times and in different situations — and each system lends itself to a different marketing approach.

On the one hand, there is the fight-or-flight response that we all know about. It’s the response that’s deeply panicked to survive and ready for physical action. As many marketers know, this response is rapidly calmed, then rapidly emboldened, by messages of heroism and honor; it’s no coincidence that “hero messaging” deeply resonated after events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

Some brands are playing in this territory with COVID-19. They’re teasing the verbal and visual language of the battlefield, but their efforts are handicapped here because you can’t explicitly invite people to “fight or run” right now. And audiences are completely done with messages about “everyday heroes.”

On the other hand, there is the lesser-known tend-and-befriend response to stress. Kinder in spirit, but equally bent on evolutionary success.

This response says: Protect offspring and close allies; prove your value. Because this too is a way for people to survive. And it’s this “kinder” response that presents the bigger opportunity for brands.

First, the marketing strategy here is more universally palatable at this juncture: It’s all about giving, sharing, providing and caring. Not a dramatic, dragged-out war.

Second, there’s whitespace ahoy. We may not need more warriors, but we can for sure use more handsewn masks, more neighborhood errand-runners, more community letter-writers, and more general well-wishers.

Third, research shows that “helping people help” actually enables them to better cope with stress. It makes them feel better. So brands that put themselves at the center of “helping people help” will make a strong emotional connection as well.

For marketers who are feeling gagged right now, the opportunity to “help people help” should look like heaven. Many people have a real drive to “do something” right now — in particular, to do something helpful — but their helpfulness drive is largely being thwarted by social distancing and shelter-in-place mandates, and people are feeling powerless.

Brands can insert themselves right at this seam: They can connect people with helping causes; set up helping challenges; make a brand purchase and usage occasions feel like helping acts; and thank people for helping. Helping people feel helpful will tap right into the psyche and secure a foothold of emotional equity, as long as it can be done in an authentic and ownable way.

Research in psychology even gives pointers on how to execute a helpfulness campaign for maximum impact:

  • Tell people how valuable their help is
  • Show them how valuable it is with images, stories, and numbers
  • Allay any concerns that may be obstacles to helping  
  • Make things foolproof so that people succeed at helping
  • Make the end goal clear and tangible so people know they’ve succeeded
  • Make people feel socially connected in the process
  • Let people brag a little through social media and other channels

Early examples of helpfulness campaigns are filtering in. UberEats, to take one, slashed delivery service fees for local restaurants as a way of encouraging proactive local patronage. The craft store JOANN’S led a nationwide mask-making drive, doing everything from supplying free fabrics to connecting fellow mask-makers on social media. And the neighborhood networking app NextDoor introduced two new features that make it easier for people to help others in their community with tasks like dog-walking and prescription pickups.

Every brand can work the helpfulness equation a bit differently, another reason it’s a big opportunity for brands. People want to help and brands can help them do it. Sometimes a good approach really is that simple.


Hillary Haley, Ph.D., leads RPA’s behavioral science discipline at full-service, independent ad agency RPA. She has more than 15 years of experience in market research, customer-centric data science and related fields. She has taught in the Psych. Dept. at UCLA, the Behavioral Sciences Dept. at Santa Monica College, and the MSBA program at LMU. Her research has appeared in both academic and industry publications, and Dr. Haley has authored a recent report on marketing in anxious times