Retailers like King Kong Apparel, Fracture and iHeartRaves are trying to keep their marketing messages positive during the coronavirus pandemic.

With the coronavirus pandemic upending retail, many online retailers are shifting their marketing messages to address the COVID-19 virus with their consumers. Retailers are taking different approaches, with some approaching the coronavirus head on, some promoting their products with a stay-at-home angle, while others are just focusing on up-beat messages.

As of March 23, 76% of the Top 100 retailers in Digital Commerce 360’s Top 1000 have a coronavirus-related message on their website, although only 68% of these retailers mention the virus specifically—either as COVID-19 or the coronavirus. The remaining 32% of retailers allude to the virus, either by mentioning that their stores would be closed or by offering a message of comradery.

For instance, Shutterfly.com’s website reads (as of the time of publication), “We’re in this together. We’ve got ideas, inspiration and more to keep you connected to the ones you love.”

Image of Shutterfly's homepage during the coronavirus pandemic

Shutterfly’s homepage avoids mentioning the coronavirus by name.

Whether or not retailers should use the terms “the coronavirus” or “COVID-19” in their messaging depends purely on the product or service itself, and whether or not it fits, says George Deeb, managing partner and strategist with Red Rocket Ventures, a marketing consulting company.

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“I don’t necessarily think you need to use the words in your campaigns themselves, unless there’s a real business reason to do it,” Deeb says. “It’s all a function of if the messaging is going to be perceived as a positive message, or as a ‘trying to take advantage of’ message. That’s a very thin line.”

Cutting back on marketing can be a double-edged sword

While Deeb says there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to marketing during these times, he does suggest merchants take a hard look at what they are spending in terms of ad dollars, and where their highest profit margins are.

“The guidance I’m telling people is to have a very religious data-driven approach to your marketing activities,” Deeb says. “Make sure you’re investing in your highest ROI potential categories first and make sure the best spend is coming in a way that you can see. Is it hitting your cost per sale metric? Is it hitting your cost per lead metric? However people are managing their businesses, now is the disciplined time.”

That’s what web-only retailer apparel iHeartRaves is doing. Founder and CEO of iHeartRaves Brian Lim says that it has been scaling back its ad budget to reach a higher return on investment (ROI) with email and social media ads.

“Before the virus, we were very aggressive with paid ads because we could rely on our lifetime value numbers,” he says. “For example, we had increased our budgets by 50% for new customer ads and got an ROI of 2:1. Now, we have cut back by 50% and are going for an ROI of 3:1.”

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This means that previously, iHeartRaves was taking more risks with its advertisements, generating two dollars for every dollar spent. Now, the retailer must cut back on its ad spend while aiming for a better ROI of three dollars generated for every dollar spent, in order to make up what is being cut.

Cutting back on marketing, however, isn’t always the answer, Deeb says.

“From one perspective, the immediate answer is yes. Cut back on your marketing and save your dollars for a better time,” Deeb says. “The flip side of that is, without spending in sales and marketing, you don’t have any leads coming up. You don’t want to cut your throat in the process of cutting your marketing spend.”

iHeartRaves Email message avoids mentioning the coronavirus

An email message from iHeartRave’s avoids mentioning the coronavirus, but instead focuses on its new campaign to “rave at home together.”

Apparel retailer iHeartRaves mostly relies on clothing sales for festivals—most of which have been canceled because of the coronavirus. Instead, it has focused its marketing messages on having a good time at home. The retailer posts daily on its social channels and avoids using the words coronavirus or COVID-19, which might cause panic, Lim says.

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“We started a #RaveFromHome series that has been very successful and is a direct response to the virus outbreak,” Lim says. “We are doing our best to project positivity into the community and make the best of the situation.”

Currently, Lim says iHeartRaves is running aggressive sales and free shipping promotions to recoup some of the lost revenue from shoppers not buying festival clothing.

Focusing on positivity for photo decor brand Fracture

Photo decor brand Fracture, which grossed $23 million in sales last year, has been using its marketing channels also to focus on positivity while additionally informing customers of potential delays as the ecommerce brand practices social distancing.

“We feel that the best way to attract customers in light of COVID-19 is to empathize with them and put ourselves in their shoes,” says CEO and co-founder Abhi Lokesh. “After all, we’re all in this together. We need to constantly be asking ourselves, ‘what would we want from the brands we buy from?’”

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Fracture's informative Instagram post about cleaning facilities during the coronavirus outbreak

This positivity comes at a good time as 79% of consumers said they were somewhat or extremely concerned about the coronavirus, according to a Coresight Research survey of 1,152 consumers March 17-18.

Fracture strives for consistency with its overall branding by telling followers to focus “on the moments that matter,” while also informing shoppers that it has increased the number of facility cleanings and slowed down production to meet new standards.

Fracture's positive post about focusing on the good times during the coronavirus

“Given everything that’s going on, our tone has to strike a delicate balance between empathy and optimism,” Lokesh says. “We also need to recognize that perhaps many people need their space at the moment and may not want to hear from us. It’s important for people to know that we’ll be there for anyone who reaches out, but millions of people are currently worried about their livelihood and their families, and we need to be respectful of what people are going through and the fact that we’re not exactly the highest priority for everyone.”

Deciding not to send a coronavirus email

Web-only retailer King Kong Apparel didn’t send out a COVID-19 email update. It is in a similar position as iHeartRaves, as its primary products include gym, travel and meal prep bags for athletes and fitness enthusiasts.

Conversion on KingKongApparel.com has dropped by 40%, says founder Stefan Gehrig. The retailer, which was on track to gross $2.2 million in sales before the coronavirus outbreak, is now down 50-60% year over year for the quarter. As a result, it is pushing back new product launches for several months.

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The focus for King Kong Apparel during this time has been maintenance, instead of new acquisitions or the creation of new promotions. The retailer’s messaging echoes this maintenance: It isn’t mentioning the coronavirus by name, but instead using vague references mostly surrounding the closure of gyms, pools and training facilities where its bags are primarily used, Gehrig says.

“Our feeling was that enough companies were doing that, and being an ecommerce company only, with no storefronts, it was largely business as usual,” Gehrig says. “We felt that customers would be happy to have some normalcy and see our brand as they usually do.”

This coincides recent consumer insights into the coronavirus, as only 35% of the 1,046 online shoppers surveyed by Digital Commerce 360 in mid-March found COVID-19 emails to be comforting. 43% said they were losing their impact, 13% don’t read them and 5% stated that they actually heighten their fear of visiting a physical store.

And while it might seem like every retailer is sending out COVID-19 emails, King Kong Apparel’s approach is actually pretty similar to many others.

According to the coronavirus data from MailCharts collected March 9-17, only 11.7% of the 315 retailers analyzed used either “coronavirus” or “COVID” in the subject line of their emails, and just 28.9% used the terms anywhere in their email messaging.

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By not focusing on and overwhelming people with news about the coronavirus, King Kong Apparel is instead able to maintain consistency in its branding, and start the development of new products.

“Our thinking here is that engaging with our best customers and biggest fans about new products that are in the pipeline will foster a feeling of business-as-usual, without the immediate ‘shop now’ call to action, which is unlikely to work in the current climate,” Gehrig says.

Other COVID-19-related messages from online retailers include:

  • Free People: “Step out (safely of course) with your furry friend…”Free People coronavirus email message
  • James Allen: “Continue your plans with these indoor proposal ideas…” James Allen coronavirus email message
  • Boden: “Keep calm and squeeze the ones you love. If you can. We really hope you can.”Borden coronavirus email message
  • Goop: “A note from the goop team about how we’re handling COVID-19…” goop coronavirus email message
  • Dr. Martens: “The outbreak of COVID-19…”Doc Marten coronavirus email message
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