To Promote, or Not To Promote

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, many companies put their plans on hold for product launches, marketing and media campaigns, publicity, and the like. But some have decided that an uninterrupted presence in consumers’ minds will help position them for success, or at least survival, once the peak of the crisis has passed. They have therefore continued to run publicity and/or advertising campaigns across traditional and social media over the past six weeks or so.

For the most part, given the severity of the crisis, with people still dying and a growing number suffering economically, marketers have kept their messaging squarely coronavirus-related, although there are commercial elements to some of the initiatives being promoted. Strategies fall into three major buckets:

  • Highlighting efforts to support health care workers, consumers, or both. Many companies, from Fanatics to Prada, have highlighted their charitable activities, such as making or securing face masks or ventilators and distributing them to hospitals, raising funds and making financial donations, or providing free educational content for at-home learners. A number of entertainment studios and publishers have released content to teach kids to wash their hands or to help them understand the virus; Genius Brands touted the COVID-19-prevention PSAs it created starring the characters from Llama Llama and Secret Millionaire’s Club. Some initiatives help business partners that are hurting; CLC’s “United as One” campaign bolsters its university clients during a difficult time by fostering virtual community connections when classes and football games are not possible. Some retailers have touted the sale of products that aide consumers in supporting medical personnel or each other; Walmart paired with the neighborhood social networking app NextDoor to create a platform for consumers to buy products for people in their community who are at risk.
  • Publicizing launches of products or virtual experiences that are COVID-related or came into being due to the lockdown. Several licensees are selling face masks, usually with an associated charitable donation. Marketers who normally put on or participate in physical live events are promoting the virtual iterations they have created for their fans during the pandemic; examples include BTS’s virtual concert convention and Tokidoki’s virtual fan fest. Some companies are going the quirky route, as WWE did with its line of t-shirts tied to WrestleMania 36, held without live spectators, with the phrase “I Wasn’t There.” The Smiley Company is taking to social media and email to spread good news about people who are helping in the crisis and to stress that everything will eventually be O.K. The respective marketers have generated awareness for all of these initiatives through publicity, social media, and/or advertising. In addition, several companies have been promoting existing product lines that fit the COVID lifestyle. These include categories such as puzzles (Masterpieces), arts and crafts (Michael’s), and coloring books (IDW), among others.
  • Creating thank-you messages to a company’s own employees, or generally to first responders, healthcare professionals, or other essential workers (e.g., supermarket cashiers, warehouse pickers and packers, delivery drivers, etc.). This route tends to be taken by bigger corporations, with the messaging occurring through ads on TV or in other traditional-media advertising, supplemented by social media. One example: Pizza Hut’s “proud to serve” campaign applauding its 115,000 workers for their dedication and community outreach during the crisis. While several companies involved in licensing have used this technique, it has not been common in association with licensed product lines specifically.

There are always exceptions to the rule, of course, but most publicity, promotional, and marketing efforts tied to the licensing community and undertaken during the pandemic have fallen into one these major classifications.

As the crisis is entering its third month in the U.S., a growing but still small number of marketers have started to spotlight new products that have nothing to do with COVID-19. These are pre-planned campaigns that are going on as scheduled, or are being launched after a short delay. Several marketers publicized or advertised their Earth Day products, for example, while others promoted merchandise or fan contests tied to the NFL Draft. And, while still relatively rare, licensors and licensees—from Rebecca Atwood and Pottery Barn to Uniqlo and Nintendo—are increasingly announcing new licensing deals of the sort that would have been common up until the virus hit.

In case you missed it, Raugust Communications has launched a Coronavirus Resource Page that gathers together all of our writings related to the crisis. It provides easy access to articles that were published first in RaugustReports, in Raugust Communications’ monthly e-newsletter, or in other publications such as Publishers Weekly, as well as featuring pieces written specifically for the resource page. Bookmark the page and check back often; it is regularly updated.

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