Friday Rant - Uh, tech marketers - it’s time to hit pause and re-think your COVID response!

Profile picture for user brianssommer By Brian Sommer July 3, 2020
Marketers need to re-think their COVID-19 thinking and face up to some hard realities.

pause button

For those of you who have seen the television show Mom, there is one character, Bonnie Plunkett, who is infamous for dispensing inappropriate comments.  Bonnie never reads the situation first to determine what is/isn’t appropriate to say in the moment. It’s like someone walking up to a bloodied person that just wrecked their car and asking, “So, what kind of new car are you going to buy with your insurance proceeds?”, instead of “Can I call you an ambulance?”.

There’s a lot of that behavior popping up from technology marketers and I’m finding it more than a bit uncomfortable. The biggest problem may be from marketers who are pushing “recovery” angles at this time when the effects of the coronavirus pandemic are far from over and a recovery timeframe is anything but certain. 

Talk with these marketers and they’ll tell you that they won’t say a word about COVID-19 or the events of the last few months. From their point of view, it’s like these things never happened. Nope, all discussion is around the rosy, upbeat future to come. They don’t want to acknowledge layoffs, benefits reductions, government loan programs, business reopening challenges, workplace safety improvements, etc. When I checked in with some other analysts to see if they were noticing the same thing, the answer was a resounding “Yes”. Everyone felt this was markedly tone deaf. I’ve got to agree. 

Yesterday, I spent time on a call with a senior corporate finance executive to find out what’s going on in their firm re: COVID. This executive’s biggest bombshell is that FP&A people are swamped with preparations for another, and deep, round of layoffs. The company is desperately looking for ways to save many tens of millions of dollars. Revenues at this firm are still badly impacted by the pandemic. The human cost/toll of the pandemic is real and growing in this firm.

The consternation continued with this person’s concerns over phased re-opening of their offices later this month. This executive mentioned major firms in adjacent buildings that have tried to re-open only to have new coronavirus cases pop up in their workforce within days of the reopening. Those offices are back closed. In this executive’s situation, she will come back to the office because failure to do so might put her on the layoff list. However, she can’t find enough PPE for herself and fears the 20-story ride up/down the elevator each day as well as the one ladies’ washroom on the floor that is shared by approximately 100 other women will compromise her health. 

Maslow, in his hierarchy of needs pyramid, opined that people won’t consider higher ordered concerns (e.g., self-actualization) when they are concerned about lower-level needs like food, clothing and shelter (i.e., physiological). The concerns people have today are clearly basic, low-level, critical ones like personal safety. They’re not really all that interested in new algorithms, quarterly patches to software, etc. 

And, let’s not forget that infection rates are spiking once again. Messages around recovery seem particularly out of sorts with the growing infection counts and fatalities. When sufficient numbers of people are worried about their personal safety, messaging around the idyllic recovery state is going nowhere!  

When marketers choose to ignore what’s really going on in the marketplace, they make their firms appear to be out-of-touch or worse, uncaring. Neither of these is a good thing. 

On the positive side, many technology CEOs seem to really understand the gravity of what’s going on. They aren’t selling a grand future vision right now. Most are listening and being empathetic. Several I’ve corresponded with are processing their responses to the pandemic and Black Lives Matter issues and rightly so. But the delta between what CEOs are saying/doing versus their own Marketing teams shouldn’t exist. They should be aligned but the alignment isn’t there in several tech firms.

Tech marketers vs. management consultants

This issue is somewhat unique to technology marketers – unusually so. It’s like they live in a world only scantly affected by lockdowns, hospitalizations, product shortages, etc.  In stark contrast are the management consultancies and thought leaders out there. 

If you scan the titles of the white papers, research efforts and other publications from consultancies and thought leader publications, the coronavirus topics dominate their writings. Their messages and content have an immediacy to them and that makes them highly relevant. Here’s what I recently saw from some of these:


Ignoring the coronavirus doesn’t make it go away. As an uncomfortable as the virus may be, it is, nonetheless, here. It’s that 800-lb. gorilla in the room that must be addressed. The sooner that tech Marketers learn to confront the uniqueness of this situation, the better they and their employers will be.

What marketing pros need to do

It’s time for marketers to do some real, primary research. They need to pick up the phone and talk to real people: mid-managers, top executives, etc. and learn about:

  • What the pandemic has already done to potential customers’ firms and their people
  • How much work those companies must complete before they more fully re-open
  • The situation in their states/countries and how might governments alter business plans in the coming days, weeks and months
  • What real appetite these organizations have for anything other than short-term firefighting activities
  • Etc.

And, after the data’s been collected and parsed, marketers must decide if they need to:

  • Be more empathetic and understanding
  • Listen more to the customers and potential customers out there
  • Have a more malleable approach to the market where they can push recovery messages when a recovery is definitely underway (e.g., when a vaccine actually gets put into production)
  • Etc.

Of course, the above assumes that irreparable brand damage to the firm hasn’t already occurred. My animas towards several airline carriers is palpable today as those firms won’t even block out middle seats. It shows that they prioritize profits over customer safety. I won’t risk death to help an air carrier make its numbers. I wouldn’t want to be a marketing pro in some firms because I can’t see how they can successfully spin the brand damage their leaders have created (and I’d feel dirty for doing so). 

My take

It’s time for marketers to hit the ‘Pause’ button and get real. Act like this is that once-in-a-career moment that it is and not just some ordinary recession event. This pandemic is big, deadly and deserving of new ideas, new approaches, and, more than ever, some genuine empathy.  

And marketers I want you, personally, to try to write just one piece of copy or a white paper that doesn’t once speak to the functions and features of your firm’s technology solutions. Try to write something from the heart that shows a real interest in the success of your customers and safety of their employees. Show them that you understand their situation with its warts and all. Finally, send these to me if you’d like an honest assessment of your writing efforts. I’d be happy to get my grading pen out….