Disclaimer: When I started this was meant to, in fact, be a post about predatory marketing during a pandemic. As I started thinking further, and rambling, it unfolded into a lot more than initially intended. All that being said, I was unsure of what to change the title of this post to… hence the original title only being applicable to a portion of what I am talking about.
What’s the appropriate way to do business during a pandemic?
This is a subject that I’ve been thinking a lot about the past few weeks. Whilst we’ve been aware of Corona Virus since New Year’s Day (here in Canada), things didn’t really start getting bad until the end of February. The end of February also marked a distinct turning point in this country, a turning point in which both people and corporations, companies, businesses and entrepreneurs began to show their true colours.
I’ve seen a lot of blatant disregard for the human condition the past few months. Racist dog-whistles putting Asian communities across the world at risk, fights about which resources should be put where, people hoarding groceries and cleaning supplies forcing a lot of vulnerable citizens to go without. It’s been a trying time for our world. And, amidst it all, though I’m sure there’s more happening on the inside they’re not telling us of, a lot of business is acting as though it’s business as usual.
But is it?
To quote one of my favourite books:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair-Charles Dickens
I guess I should preface this with saying that I did a double major of Marketing and Economics while at University. I remember falling into the subject my first year as a mandatory requirement, and for the next three and a half years switching all of my electives to relate to Economics.
To its definition, economics is the social science that studies the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. More than it’s definition though, economics is the study of people. How we act and react to the world around us. What we deem important, what are needs, what are wants and what are frivolous things that we coax ourselves into purchasing.
Though it might not seem it from the outside, Economics and Psychology are two closely related subjects.
For the past year I’ve also been consulting for an economic development firm. The hours have been sporadic, at times non-existent, but it’s reignited my passion for people and the way they do things, and how someone (or some thing, in the case of what I’m talking about) can project behaviours based on the state of the world.
Basically, if you want effective marketing, you need to understand people – both from an economic and a psychological standpoint.
Wow, okay. Longest intro ever.
Does anyone else have an email inbox that has been inundated with ‘special offers’ from what seems like every company on earth the past month? Is anyone else getting special text message offers from other companies, of things they can do to take advantage of this sale that “they never do!”? No? Just me? Well, I speak from personal opinion anyway, so I’ll keep going.
When companies react to a crisis, they can take one of three routes:
Route 1) Understand that people are hurting, struggling or going through tough times and try to help. This can be done in a number of ways, using Corona Virus as the subject matter, examples include:
- Breweries creating hand sanitizer to ship to medical facilities, senior care facilities, homeless shelters and so on and so forth
- Clothing manufacturers halting production of clothing in their warehouses to have workers create protective masks to be sent to health care workers on the front lines
- A basic example is just companies taking the burden. What I mean by this is, changing in-person jobs to online jobs. Purchasing the software and safety equipment necessary for the employees to be properly, and adequately looked-after because they value their employees
Companies that take option one are also the companies that understand, during a pandemic, that up to two thirds of the population are going to become very careful about how and where they spend their money. These companies aren’t about to slam products down your throat. They will, continue to market their products as done before, but they are acknowledging the fact that we’re living through unprecedented times and that there is no road map for life right now.
Route 1 is an option that I would personally consider to be a very productive means to support society… customers or not, during times of need. I have seen considerable examples of this during the past month. Vessi, a Canadian sneaker brand, gave away free shoes to any health care worker that could provide them proof of their employment/job. Tristan Style, a mid-high end Canadian fashion brand, is now paying all seamstresses in their warehouse to create protective masks and visors for health care workers.
Taking a closer look at communities across the country, there are companies who have taken this crisis head-on and are responding in productive, albeit not-profitable, ways to help. These companies are not only dedicating their efforts towards helping people in the front lines of this pandemic, they’re also helping each and every one of their employees by keeping them working. These are the companies that deserve support through ‘your’ business both now, and once the fog has cleared..
Route 2) Close or limit operations. Either for good, or for an indefinite amount of time, laying off or firing workers that relied on that employment as a means to feed their families and financially support them through said crisis.
Route 2 is a hard road to take and a hard pill to swallow. As much as we’d like to believe that everyone can stay open whilst not churning profit, it’s just not feasible. I understand that. But I also understand there are two types of businesses that have closed during this period. Those who were forced to close because they cannot financially support their employees to work through this time, and those who chose to close because the do not want to financially support their employees to work through this time.
It’s worth noting that in a grey area here also is Amazon. Amazon, a company that is.. half open(?) at this time, but is also not paying for health insurance or sick leave for any employees. I honestly don’t know enough about his personal financials to verify the validity of the statement, but I read online that Jeff Bezos (a man with more money then he could ever spend in his lifetime) could pay for basic health insurance for every single employee that works for Amazon and he would still have a personal fortune of more than 80 billion dollars. I’m not saying that Amazon is the devil here, I’m just providing all sorts of input. Nevertheless, I digress.
Through this pandemic there are businesses that have chosen to close. They were not forced to close. They opted to lay off, or fire, their employees and just close their doors because it’s easier. They’re cutting their losses, literally and figuratively, and will revisit at a later date. These are the businesses that I truly believe do not deserve time or money when all is said and done.
Route 3) PANDEMIC MARKETING. This is where the vultures come out. Pandemic marketing is a term of reference for any corporation, company, small business or entrepreneur who has tried to take advantage of this situation to better their business/financial standing. I refer to them as vultures because these companies, while aware that in times of trouble, crisis or panic are aware that people get more careful about what they spend money on, will market the fucking hell out of you just to see how much money they can get. Examples include:
- The big players – Walmart, Costco, Home Depot, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc…
- The mid-size players – Sephora, clothing brands like American Eagle or JCrew, national chains like Petro Canada (that don’t seem to understand price gouging is illegal)
- The predatory players – Any and all MLM companies.
- The smaller players (these are the players who are trying to hide their pandemic marketing behind a message of ‘just looking out for you’) – these include smaller businesses, maybe the local carpet supplier who’s trying to convince you that right now, right this very instant, is the perfect time for you to redo all of the flooring in your home
Whether it through email, text message, direct facebook messages, sponsored instagram posts, youtube videos, however you’re seeing it, I guarantee you’re seeing it.
“BUY NOW FOR 40% OFF. WE NEVER DO SALES THIS EPIC!” – Carpet One
“If you purchase during these difficult times, not only will you have the ‘hospital staff care kit’ (I’m not lying, they actually named it that) but we’ll throw in the energy fizz bath bomb and hand sanitizer as well!” – Arbonne
“Walmart has just what you need to get you and your family through this together! Also, take 40% off clearance items!” – Walmart
“Get a luxury mini when you spend $35, free shipping if you spend $50 and a coupon for 25% off your next purchase if you spend $80.” Sephora
So, upon first glance, these don’t seem all that bad, do they? Well, minus the Arbonne kit. Any company that is selling overpriced hygiene items they’re referring to as the ‘Hospital Staff care kit’ during a pandemic is a new level of low. But, as far as advertisements, these seem somewhat innocent.
Except they’re coming every day. Sometimes multiple times a day. Sephora knows that people don’t need makeup to get them through a pandemic, because they’re not going out. That’s why they’re trying to bait people with these ‘special offers’ that aren’t so special. Act now and get a luxury mini? Oh boy. People can’t find toilet paper, but a sample of luxury skincare enough for 2-3 uses sounds like a steal of a deal right now.
These companies are trying to take advantage of the fact that people are, or should be, at home right now, and if they are at home, they’re bored. They’re trying to take advantage of consumers wallets before people realize the severity of the situation and buckle down on how their money is being spent.
In the case of the Arbonne, and various other MLM advertisements I’ve seen and been bombarded with the past month, the MLM memos have been to prey on people’s anxieties and insecurities as a means to sell product. In what world would anyone want the ‘hospital staff care kit’ when all of the items in said kit could be found a the grocery store for half the price? In a pandemic when those items have been stripped from the shelves! Time to take advantage.
In the case of Petro Canada, I’ve seen some pretty alarming social media messages the past few weeks about the company, from coast to coast, selling things like personal/purse sized containers of hand sanitizer for $24.99. A month ago those containers would have been two or three dollars. But, this is pandemic marketing we’re dealing with. They know that people are panicking and they’re going to take advantage.
Social media sites like Facebook. Twitter and Instagram are making bank right now. No question about it. Because every company that has been affected by this pandemic is using social media to reach out to their customers, or could be customers through paid-for advertisements. I’ve seen how predatory it’s been first-hand because I run social media accounts for the economic development firm I’m consulting with, and also for Knight’s work, and Facebook has been shoving advertisement sales down my throat the past few weeks. SALE! SALE! ACT NOW AND WE’LL GIVE YOU 10 DOLLARS OFF! Oh, you didn’t act? Well, we’re still feeling nice, act today and we’ll give you the 10 dollars off!
I guess, the point of this long and winding message that I’ve been trying to portray here is that it’s important to take a look at how companies and people are acting, and reacting, to this pandemic. Who is trying to take advantage and who is trying to help weather the storm?
It’s a widely known fact that the majority of society will tighten the grip on their wallets in times of a crisis. This is where economics, marketing and psychology meet. Certain goods will not able to be produced at the same rates they’ve been being produced at for years, whilst other goods need to ramp up production. How do companies balance profits and losses whilst knowing that the products they’re trying to sell are exactly what people don’t need in the middle of a panedmic?
In the words of the late Kenny Rodgers ‘you’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away and know when to run’. That’s actually a pretty accurate depiction of business, and life in 2020.
Those who worried about how their bills are going to get paid are now being bombarded with ‘ACT NOW AND OUR $200 BIKINI IS ONLY $145!’ Do people have enough will power to ignore these sales? That’s what these companies are trying to exploit, hoping they will cave and spend even more money in a time where the future is anything but certain.
I feel as though I started this with a clear purpose in mind and I lost track of the point I was trying to make along the way. I’m hoping this makes sense. But I guess, if it doesn’t, that’s completely on brand for me.