5 Worst COVID-19 Marketing Mistakes and What You Can Learn from Them

daniel-page.jpg  Director of Business Development, ASEOHosting

  WWS contributor


By this point, you've heard everything there is to say about the coronavirus pandemic.

How it's one of the most challenging times any of us have lived through. How it's brought about unprecedented changes in the way we work and live. How it's strained our finances and our mental health almost to the breaking point.

You know, because you lived through it. You've brought your business through it (hopefully) relatively unscathed. Maybe you were even among the lucky lot that saw increased revenue from the crisis.

Whether or not the pandemic is over, most businesses actually handled it relatively gracefully from a marketing perspective. Most, but not all.


Baffling Marketing Fails of COVID-19


Today, I'm going to go over some of the worst, most baffling marketing fails of COVID-19 and the lessons you can learn from the marketing mistakes.

Let’s dive in…


1. Free Mask with Your Meal (Subway)


One Subway franchisee in Calgary, Alberta, Canada had a (not even remotely) brilliant idea for how to drive sales during the pandemic.

Amidst widespread reports that medical professionals were suffering from a shortage of protective masks, he erected a billboard promising a free mask with the purchase of any two regular sandwiches. The result, as reported by The Toronto Star, was very predictable.

People were outraged, corporate was brought in, the sign was taken down, and the owner gave a half-hearted apology about how much his franchise was struggling.

A Calgary Subway came under fire for a promotion to give away medical masks if you buy a sandwich. Photo: Twitter @BossLady_JHS

The takeaway: Do not, under any circumstances, play on the fear and anxiety of your audience in an effort to drive sales, no matter how much your business is suffering. People's nerves are already frayed. If you try to manipulate them, especially by playing on COVID-19, you'll pay for it.


2. What's Social Distancing? (Progressive Insurance)


On March 7, Progressive Insurance uploaded a video spot advertising its home, auto, and renter's insurance bundles. That seems innocent enough on paper, save for a few problems. The ad was released at a time when many people were already facing an uncertain financial future, and to make matters worse, it features people having a grand old time at a karaoke bar.

Y'know, that thing that none of us were able to do for several months?

The takeaway: Pay attention to what's going on in the public eye. Because your ads aren't released in a vacuum, and if you push a spot out regardless of what's happening in the news, you'll end up looking either out of touch or completely tone-deaf.


3. Masks Don't Work Like That (ASOS)


Take a look at this screenshot uploaded by Twitter user Scott. It features an ad for ecommerce retailer ASOS's chainmail face masks, which were released in August 2019 and promoted as a defense against the flu season.

Unsurprisingly, the brand was mocked for the bizarre design even back then. But when the company again tried to promote the product in March, it received a ton of flak.

It's since pulled the ads (and masks) entirely, explaining that the ads were automated and automatically promoted from the website. 

The takeaway: If something doesn't work the first time, it's not going to work the second time. Also, your social media feeds are not a fire-and-forget advertising platform. You need to curate them.


4. Suffering from Success (Lysol) 


You might be surprised to see Lysol on this list.  After all, it's no secret that their products have been wildly popular during COVID-19, to the point that they were nearly impossible to find anywhere. That's exactly the problem.

Even as Lysol's products flew off store shelves and people desperately turned to online retailers to acquire more, the brand continued running bright and cheery advertising spots, annoying people who'd stocked up and twisting the knife for those who couldn't.

The takeaway: Learn to read the room. Consider what your audience is thinking, how they feel, and why they're currently buying your products. Adjust your marketing accordingly.


5. We (Don't) Care About Our Employees (Multiple Brands)


As reported by Buzzfeed News, many big businesses made the claim that, during the coronavirus pandemic, they would continue paying their employees even as retail outlets shut down. Unfortunately, this ended up being completely untrue. They simply took people off the schedule to avoid paying them for scheduled hours.

Many employees saw their shifts cut even at locations that remained open, while others were essentially paid in peanuts. Some brands, like Ann Taylor, even threw their managerial staff under the bus for it. Yeah, not great.

The takeaway: The takeaway: Do. Not. Lie. Seriously. You might think you'll get away with it, but you won't. People will find out, and when they do, you'll look horrible for it.

Also, maybe respect your employees? They're pretty important.


Conclusion: Just Exercise Common Sense


A lot of the mistakes above are rookie-level marketing errors. It's baffling that anyone would make them, much less established brands.

Use your better judgment, and you can avoid falling into the same traps that any of these businesses did.

Daniel Page is the Director of Business Development for ASEOHosting, a leading provider in SEO hosting and multiple IP hosting. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn.