Empathetic marketing is the key to reaching customers sick of pandemic messaging

“Pandemic” was the word of the year for 2020.

And frankly, people are tired of it.

We may be done with COVID-19, but COVID’s not done with us. As small businesses look ahead to their 2021 content plans, one question rises to the fore:

How do you market during a pandemic to an audience that’s tired of hearing about the pandemic?

Customers Are Still Feeling The Pain

COVID-19 rocked the business world. It disrupted supply chains, decimated foot traffic, and decreased income for millions of people.

The virus’ toll on both lives and livelihoods dominated headlines. Misinformation and high-profile debates about COVID’s severity contributed to information overload. A recent study found that COVID-19 news, real or fake, led to months of fear and uncertainty.

People became emotionally exhausted. Depression rates skyrocketed.

This leaves businesses in a delicate situation. Talk about the pandemic too much and people will zone out or switch off. Don’t mention it at all and risk appearing insensitive to people who are suffering.

People don’t want to talk about the pandemic, but they don’t want to ignore it either.

Drop The Phony Empathy

Many of COVID’s impacts on business will fade with time. The shift to empathetic marketing is likely to be one that remains. With so many people feeling afraid and vulnerable, it is vital for brands to come across as human.

The brands that will win in 2021 will be the ones that connect with their customers on an emotional level. Lip-service sentiments like “we’re all in this together” felt phony last spring and are downright stale now. Be real. Look at your brand’s personality and the messages your customers need to hear and connect the dots.

Your audience wants your understanding, not your platitudes.

Verizon was a great example of this early in the pandemic. In April 2020, with lockdowns in full swing, the telecom company offered free access to e-learning resources. This went beyond recognizing the pain of parents thrust into the role of homeschool teachers. Verizon acknowledged its customers’ needs and offered help.

Empathy is listening and responding from a place of compassion. For businesses, that means understanding what your customers are going through. How has the virus affected them, if at all? Examine your analytics to understand your audience’s journey. Reference what you know about your audience against your content and SEO strategy.

When the virus pushed the holiday shopping season out of malls and onto laptops, Tommy Hilfiger recognized that for many of its customers, Christmas shopping isn’t just about buying gifts – it’s a beloved experience. In response, the brand launched an interactive online store that went far beyond the typical ecommerce site.

Navigation inspired by choose-your-own-adventure games led visitors through the virtual departments. As they explored the store, shoppers discovered digital versions of the little bonuses one would expect in a store at Christmas, like hot chocolate recipes and tutorials for DIY gift wrap.

Regularly take the pulse of your customers’ priorities. As interest in the pandemic wanes, so should your COVID-focused content. But you can’t go back to the same messaging you used in 2019. The world is not the same. Even as the virus fades to the background, your content should still be sensitive to its long-term effects on your audience.

Help Customers Move On

Audiences will respond positively to companies that help them move past the pandemic without pretending it never happened.

In May, as KFC began reopening restaurants in the U.K., it launched a humorous social media and ad campaign. The ads reassured customers that they no longer had to figure out how to recreate the Colonel’s fried chicken at home. At a time when hopeful, inspirational pandemic ads were still the norm, KFC reaffirmed its tongue-in-cheek brand voice even as it acknowledged the lockdown.

Focus your 2021 strategy on being customer-centric. Recognize where your customers are in their lives and point the way forward. If you strayed from your brand voice during the pandemic, now is the time to reassert it in a sensitive, human-first way.

Dana Herra is a copywriter and strategic content marketer. Her company, Herra Communications, specializes in helping small businesses express the unique edge that sets them apart. Before turning to marketing, Dana spent 10 years as an award-winning journalist. Connect with her on Twitter @DanaHerra. Learn more at her website,

Pandemic stock photo by Tomas Ragina/Shutterstock