Guidelines for marketing during crisis like the coronavirus

By Tom Dougherty

Marketing During Crisis and The Human Model | Motivators | Desire | Familiarity | Leadership | Affirmation | Scope | Comfort | Change | Community | Summary

Marketing during crisis. Introduction into the art of marketing amid tough times.

The purpose of all messaging and communications is to influence the audience and to persuade it to act. That especially becomes difficult when marketing during a crisis. The coronavirus, the stock market crashing, and all of us holed up in our homes presents unusual hurdles for marketers.

Getting your message to the proper audience during these times is no longer an issue of choosing among the possibilities. Instead, it becomes solely an issue of affordability. Therefore, marketers must ignore the experts who say that marketers should look at the success of past advertising campaigns. But hindsight is not valuable in times like this.

Predicting Marketing Success

A model for marketing during crisis

In times of crisis, companies do what they need to do, instead of what they want to do. How do you measure effectiveness when marketing during  crisis?

These questions can be predicted if not measured. We needed a comprehensive model for guiding branding when marketing during crisis.

For any message to be effective at times like these, it must be the most meaningful in the market. And it must resonate considering the current situation. Such as an economic and social climate that has changed the mindsets of consumers.


There is often an unwillingness to address those needs when marketing during crisis, and, therefore, many just go with the same tired approach. Or shut down completely.

Using messaging that’s nearly identical to what was delivered years ago often follows the tired reach-frequency format so many misguided marketers use. They produce a predictable, losing formula.

After all, in changing times, there will still be winners and there will still be losers. The difference between the two is one understands the nature of human beings and the other doesn’t.

If you seek to understand something, it always makes sense to model it.

The science of physics has been modeling natural laws for centuries. Our metrics model for marketing during crisis is presented here, taking into account the emotional intensities of the primary human motivators.

Within any changing situation, economic or societal factors being changed by something like the coronavirus, the goal is to formulate messages that will resonate most strongly with audiences in context. With this model, you will learn to recognize the elements. And, if form follows function, you will be able to understand how to influence and change the model. (Read how precepts control behavior.)

Marketing during crisis and The Human Model. 

Predicting Marketing Success

How well will our marketing messages resonate

Human behavior can be modeled, as you will see, and this model in particular outlines the behavioral elements of persuasion during tough times. Let’s start by asking ourselves, what do we notice?

How do we decide what is important and what we remember? When we examine the answers to those questions, we begin re-thinking the waste. 

Looking at the elements of human behavior is quite different from modeling a communication process like reach and frequency. For this model to be usable, it must take into account human behavior and how it changes during a time of crisis. 

What human beings notice most

Human beings are egocentric. We cannot get out of our own way and see almost everything through the filter of self. As a result of this filter, what the receiver considers most when confronted with messages is not so much “what’s in it for me” (which is the traditional model of benefits and features). But rather, “Am I in it”?

Human beings notice ideas and products that, in some way, reflect themselves. They remember products and ideas that help them accomplish their major goal. The goal of simply becoming themselves.

That is why, if a doctor tells you to lose weight because of the onset of diabetes, we notice and pay attention to messages about weight loss. We notice a message we might have ignored the day before. By the same token, when dealing with the national impact of coronavirus, we pay attention to messages that address that issue. And the reasons are more emotional than rational.

Another example: Think of how many For Sale signs you saw when you were buying a house. Then think about how, amazingly, they seemed to disappear once you bought the house. This cognitive activity is utilized when predicting marketing success.

The prime motivators for marketing during crisis

predicting marketing successThe eight primary human motivators form the basics of self-identification and account for a human’s own sense of self. Especially when the fundamental needs for sustenance, shelter and health are threatened. By addressing each of these in your messages, you ensure that everyone who is exposed to your message (reach) will notice the message.

1. Affirmation 2. Leadership 3. Familiarity 4. Comfort 5. Change 6. Community 7. Desire 8. Scope

These eight prime motivators are the filters for marketing during crisis. The more they reflect the recipient in the context of the current situation, the more likely they are to be acted upon.

Listed in order of power

The motivators are listed in order of intensity, how they differ depending on the current situation.

These motivators often make the largest difference between a winning message in the context of the times and a losing one. Each motivator has been given an intensity measurement. A ranking on a 10-point scale based on the particular situation. In addition to differing definitions, this model also looks at the rate of change for the intensity. The intensity of human motivators from one situation to another is referred to as Acceleration, and those rates are measured on a 10-point scale. The times of crisis are Tough Times, while normal atmospheres we’ll call Good Times.

Tough Times
Good Times
1. Comfort   1. Desire
2. Affirmation   2. Familiarity
3. Familiarity   3. Leadership
4. Community   4. Affirmation
5. Change   5. Scope
6. Desire   6. Comfort
7. Scope   7. Change
8. Leadership   8. Community

Desire(Good Times intensity 6.5 — Tough Times intensity 6.0 — Acceleration 8.0)

In normal times, the most important human motivator in predicting marketing success is Desire.

predicting marketing successIt derives its power from its relationship with the other motivators. Simply taking into account the desires of the target audience that you seek to influence is not nearly enough to promise success.

It is simply a starting point. A traditional usage and attitudinal study (U&A Study) can discover what people need or want. The results are then used to create messaging that fulfills those desires.

predicting marketing successIn good times, the fulfillment of desires is defined as “What I Want.”

But, in tough times, it is defined as “What I Need.”

Comparing the relative importance of each definition in good or tough times demonstrates why they benefit you offered in relatively good times will NOT resonate as important when marketing during crisis.

Speaking generally

As a general rule, all intensities are increased in tough times and each of the prime motivators is realized as more important.

Small BearBut understanding the nuances is critical because they make the difference between surviving in tough times.

In this case, that means your message must be about need, not want.    

Think of it this way: In tough times, you need products to simply do their job. In good times, you want something more.

In tough times, we simply need toilet paper. So you hope to find some at the grocery store.

In good times, you want Charmin Extra Soft. And thus, you see Charmin promoting its extra soft brand makes no sense when marketing during crisis. Charmin saying it will provide toilet paper as quickly and widely as possible does. (Better yet, grocery stores should market when they have toilet paper.)

Familiarity (Good Times intensity 5.0 — Tough Times intensity 7.0 — Acceleration of 6.40)

All communicators understand how important familiarity is to any idea, product, or service. Because if someone is unfamiliar with that product or service they are less likely to adopt it as a new behavior.

Familiarity is also linked to top-of-mind awareness when marketing during crisis. But even that is misunderstood. It is not so much about the familiarity of the brand or product, but what is it about that brand or product that makes it feels familiar and at ease.

predicting marketing success

In good times, the fulfillment of familiarity is defined as “What is Easy.” But, in tough times, it is defined as “What is Safest.”

That is, in good times, consumers are looking to what makes things easy for them. Even if its outcome may have risks. In tough times, the risk is less accepted.

Safe feels familiar to audiences now because it offers a refuge that may herald back to better times. Marketing during crisis means accenting the familiar rather than the new.predicting marketing success

For example, when you are thirsty in good times, you might choose what is “easy.”

That is, we might grab what is most available. In tough times, we seek “safest,” meaning we might inconvenience ourselves.  And go somewhere else for something that is healthier or cheaper.

Even during the coronavirus outbreak, people seek the safest outlets. (That’s why they are staying at home.) When marketing during crisis, remember that the desire for safe among target audiences is more acute because their emotional balance has teetered. To them, what’s familiar is what resonates as the safest.

Leadership (Good Times intensity 4.0 — Tough Times intensity 5.0 — Acceleration of 7.0)

When we think about leadership as a human motivator, we are not talking about taking the lead on something as we might in geopolitical terms.

Instead, we are talking about leadership in terms of responsibility.  Meaning, “Who takes the responsibility for this action?”

It is an internal question asked by everyone before they take any action.

predicting marketing success

In good times, the fulfillment of leadership is defined as My Responsibility.

It’s about the consumer. And in tough times, it is defined as Your Responsibility (the brand).

In good times, audiences are more than happy to assume the responsibility because the risks are fewer. Once the element of risk has become more threatening, however, audiences want the responsibility to reside in the experts or communicator of the message.predicting marketing success

As strange at it may sound, we value experts more in tough times.

Therefore, when marketing during crisis, position yourself as the expert. 



Affirmation (Good Times intensity 3.0 — Tough Times intensity 7.0 — Acceleration of 6.99)

One of the ways human beings seek meaning is by looking for affirmation in their choices. Consumers wish to make sure that all of their actions are somehow affirmed as “being correct.”

It is a primary human motivator regardless of culture, product, and category. And every one that your brand or marketing message contacts are seeking this sense of affirmation and certainty.

predicting marketing success

Without this value, target audiences gravitate towards inaction. A refusal to make a choice or fall back into a habit of what “I have always done.”

This is a surefire way to assure continued market dominance by the category leader. It means that if we do not provide our audiences with a sense of affirmation the market leader always wins when marketing during crisis. Little or no change takes place in the marketplace and the market leader will continue to benefit from this inaction.

predicting marketing success

In good times, the fulfillment of affirmation is defined as making the Best Choice. In tough times, it is defined as making the Right Choice.

For example, in good times, we will look for the best choice in automobiles. Maybe something top of the line or sporty fits us best.

In tough times, we look for those things that are right, such as a hybrid or something more economical. During a crisis, our need for affirmation is more intense. We need to be affirmed that we made the right choice, not necessarily the best in class.

The world, in a way, has determined that it’s right. Talking about the choices consumers make in terms of affirming they have made the right choice makes your messages more meaningful. Especially when marketing during crisis.

Scope (Good Times intensity 3.0 — Tough Times intensity 5.0 — Acceleration 7.75)

predicting marketing successScope is one the most complex of human motivators when marketing during crisis.

When we consider Scope, we see it in terms of how large audiences want their considered set to be.

This is related to the other motivators, such as leadership. Or the transfer of the responsibility of the decision to others. What we seek to understand in looking at scope is what gives the customer or prospect permission to include scope. That is, including the scope of either your product or category into their consideration.

predicting marketing successSo, in good times, the fulfillment of scope is defined as having many choices. And, in tough times it is defined as having precision and more focus.

In good times, audiences seek a wide scope, with lots of choices. In tough times, we are looking for “right.”

But, in tough times, more focus is needed.

Our considered set is smaller and we often give expert advice more weight. In a climate such as the effect of the coronavirus, giving consumers too much choice creates an immediate barrier. Because they are looking for a decision to be done simply. 

Comfort (Good Times intensity 2.0 — Tough Times intensity 9.0 — Acceleration 9.18)

predicting marketing successHuman beings seek comfort no matter the situation. But the intensity surrounding it is much stronger when marketing during crisis.

In good times, comfort is simply accepted as the norm. Most of us feel that we already have comfort, so a comforting message means little.

In tough times, however, comfort is no longer a given. So it is actively sought. 

Note the differences in intensities with this motivator within the two situations. It is only a 2.0 on a 10-point scale in good times.

In tough times, it’s a 9.0 with one of the highest rates of acceleration among all the motivators. When marketing during crisis, aim for providing comfort to your target audience. Because it is no longer a given.

Change (Good Times intensity 1.5 — Tough Times intensity 7.0 — Acceleration of 6.99)

predict the success of marketingThe longing for human beings to be in control is a prime motivator no matter the situation. predicting marketing successWhen we think about change as a key persuasive human motivator, we actually think about it as a barrier than as an attraction. The changing situation determines its intensity.

In good times, the resistance to change is simply feeling uncomfortable.

And, in tough times it is outright feared. Therefore, in tough times, change messages should be softened, otherwise, they will feel to audiences like a loss of control.

Marketing during crisis means not rolling out something new or game-changing. It will be feared much more than accepted.

Community (Good Times intensity 1.0 — Tough Times intensity 7.0 — Acceleration 9.31)

predicting marketing successCommunity refers to the acceptance of a community that affirms our existence and is related to Affirmation.

It represents the wish of all human beings to be part of an affirmed group. Very few people are capable of acting as completely independent individuals, especially emotionally. (The ones that do, we can sociopaths.) Therefore, for the vast majority of people we wish to influence, we must understand the importance of community and the acceptance that community offers.

predicting marketing successIn good times, the fulfillment of community is simply about the individual. That sense of community can be seen as being a leader, a rebel, etc. Because there is less at stake.

In tough times, there is too much at risk in going it alone, so you seek safety in a community or being a part of a group. When marketing during crisis, there is safety in number. The marketing idea that you should do it because everyone else is has greater power in tough times.

Marketing during crisis: A summary

Now that the coronavirus is changing the world (and possibly bringing in a new normal), companies and their brands have reached the point in which their communications must change. They must change in order to survive through this crisis.

predicting marketing successThe Comprehensive Model for Persuasive Human Communications allows them to alter their messaging. Alter it in such a way so that it becomes more meaningful in context.

If nobody adapts to the current context, the default choice will always be the market leader.

But the situation actually presents an opportunity for those chasing the market leader. The opportunity that reaches target audiences so deeply it causes action because the circumstances have changed The primary human motivators are discombobulated, and marketing during crisis means you must adapt to succeed.


COMPREHENSIVE MODEL FOR PERSUASIVE HUMAN COMMUNICATIONS: A mathematical model that measures the impact changing conditions have on emotional intensities of primary human motivators. The model can be used to predict and formulate messages for brands that will resonate most strongly with target audiences during times of crisis or bad economic times.

INTENSITIES: The relative strength of human motivators expressed as a ranking on a 10-point scale based on the particular attributes examined by the model.

ACCELERATION: The rate of change for the intensity of a human motivator from one state to another, measured on a 10-point scale.

VALUE OF MESSAGE CHANGE: A mathematical representation using intensity and acceleration to predict the value in terms of its overall impact on each motivator.


Marketing during crisis


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