Published: April 16, 2020 By

When it comes to branding in times of crisis, the stakes are high.

Saying nothing could make a company seem out of touch––but saying the wrong thing could cause weeks, months or even years of backlash. 

Since late January, when the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported in the U.S., brands have scrambled to adjust their messaging for American consumers. Wireless companies announced extended or discounted data plans, Lego kicked off a Twitter building challenge, and distilleries throughout the country began making hand sanitizer.

Though the range of approaches may seem random, they are all targeted responses to predictable consumer archetypes, says Kelty Logan, an associate professor in CMCI’s Department of Advertising, Public Relations and Media Design, who spent more than two decades working in advertising, broadcasting and marketing before transitioning to academia. 

Inspired by an analysis from a marketing agency in Milan about how European brands are adapting their marketing according to consumer archetypes, Logan compiled her own framework, based on American consumers and brands. She identified four archetypes: the warrior, the jester, the common man and the innocent victim.

CMCI touched base with Logan––virtually, of course––to discuss these archetypes and the brands that exemplify them. 

What did you take away from the Milan archetype analysis? 

I think what they were trying to do was to figure out the mental state of the consumer base and how marketers could reach out to them using the language that would make them most receptive. I think that's the word––receptive. 

We all react to bad things differently. What they developed was a typology that said, some people are going to react this way, some people are going to react in another. Then they said, various consumer messages are perfect to talk to these people. In other words, not all products and not all services can adopt certain messaging, but if you can, why not? 

Would you mind explaining each of the four consumer archetypes and providing examples of how U.S. brands are adapting?

So, there’s the warrior response. Some people are going to be in denial, and they're going to be looking for someone to blame. In this case, brands cast themselves as heroes––as an antidote to the denial. 

You’ve probably seen U.S. distilleries from Oregon to Pennsylvania are giving away their own alcohol-based solutions. Starbucks is providing free coffee to first responders and healthcare workers dealing with COVID-19. It’s the idea that by being heroic, you're challenging the denial.

Then there’s the jester. This is all about warmth and humor while telling you, “You're doing the right things. Stay at home.” 

People are just desperate for humor. It's like, people need to laugh when they're cooped up and scared. So IKEA, Lego and Dove are contributing to that. They're giving you something you can forward to your friends.

With the common man, this response expresses the common need to get on with one’s life and cope with the present crisis. It's really a struggle for people to live a normal life when they’re in one place 24/7. 

This archetype is about bringing order into chaos, frequently, by doing simple things that recall normalcy. Brands can be facilitators. This is, in fact, what brands do best. 

DryBar, a national hair salon that provides only blowouts, quickly closed their locations in recognition that social distancing would be an impossibility in a hair salon. Now, they send frequent emails to their customers offering discounts on their products and how-to videos to demonstrate how to use them. Streaming video services––from Hulu to Netflix––offer “binge-worthy shows” to make time at home more fun.

Finally, there’s the innocent victim, where you just kind of feel like this is all being done to you and how can you get out? No judgment, right? This is just how people react to stuff. It is a passive response that accepts the decisions of others. 

There is a sense of paralysis because there is no enemy to fight and nothing can be done. They resort to nostalgia. Brands can help by providing a caregiver function for these people, think mobile carriers like Verizon––who are providing extended data plans––or Costco offering shopping hours exclusively for senior citizens.

How should a company go about identifying which archetype fits within their own brand? 

I think what you have to do is figure out what your brand is. For example, let’s say you're a marketing executive at Hershey’s chocolate. Who can you speak to? Well, you can speak to people who need to be cheered up. You can speak to people who feel like victims because nobody feels unhappy when they are eating a chocolate bar. You can speak to people who are desperate to feel normal. In other words, most people will be accessing your message because of the kind of product you are. The smartest thing is to stay true to your brand personality and speak within that.

With the victim archetype, in particular, I found the Verizon example interesting. What did they do and how did their model fit customers who might feel victimized?

The other day I got a text from Verizon saying that they were giving me 50 gigabytes of data for no charge. I've been hearing that a lot of the cell phone services have been doing things like that, which is unbelievable because it's easy to feel so trapped at home and so victimized by this quarantine situation. But the fact that you can reach out to a family member or friend at no incremental expense is a really big deal. 

I wonder, though, once things start normalizing––if you're giving people services they haven't paid for in the past––is there a risk in people questioning why a company doesn't make those kinds of services, those acts of generosity, permanent? 

You have to be careful when you're communicating to your consumers. The notice I got from Verizon made it very clear that it was for a limited time. In other words, it was their way of saying, “We're here to help.” The assumption is that they are doing it out of their own cost, but they're investing in a long-term customer relationship. I think that's the one thing that's kind of interesting about all of this. Consumers are aware that people's jobs are on the line. Consumers are aware that people's jobs go away if companies don't advertise and market and sell. There's an awareness that certain things have to be done to keep people busy, which I didn't initially give consumers credit for. 

Initially, I was thinking more like you were––that if a company gave an inch, consumers would take a foot. That's the way we are. But there’s research by a company called Kantar Group that indicates that in this current time of crisis, people aren't being very selfish. During the Coronavirus, they found 80% believe employee health should be a key priority. Two-thirds believe employees should have flexibility, that they need to protect their business to protect their employees. Only 30% want to see brands offering discounts and promotions. What Kantar said is that customers understand how difficult the conditions have become. That's more altruistic than you'd think, right?

Are there any parallels between how companies are responding to this coronavirus crisis with how they've responded to other major global events in the past?

I think that this could be more compared to a country in wartime than reacting to an incident, like the horrible events of 9/11, or the financial meltdown of 2008. What this made me think of was all the stories growing up of people during WWII. In the U.K., they had to deal with the airlifts on a daily basis. There were huge shortages. There was rationing. And did it affect everyone coming out of the war? Not really. The minute they could buy butter, they bought butter. The minute they could go to Europe on vacation, they went to Europe. They went to Germany! If you think about it, this is a temporary period of desperate hardship. But I think the human spirit is such that you don't say, “Well, it's always going to be miserable all the time here.” You sort of dig-in, you wait for it to pass and life is going to go back to normal faster than you realize it.

What can marketing students learn from what they are seeing right now?

I think when you're dealing with people who are scared, and nervous, it's much smarter to talk to their more practical side than their scared side. What I’ve emphasized in class is that you want to maintain business as usual––as much as possible––to maintain a strong economy. Then, you want to say, “During this period of time, you can look like an exploiter or a helper.” 

Exploiters would be, for example, people who come out with the world's most expensive hand sanitizer, or the ones selling miracle cures or testing kits. That's hideous. With responsible marketing, you can spend some of your money to help people, like the Verizon example––they're doing that at their own expense. 

I think that the companies that step up and figure out what they can do to help will––in the long run––be stronger for it. Short term thinking is the real killer here.