How is your brand handling Coronavirus communications?
Loyalty Strategy

How Brands are Communicating About Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Image by Muhammad Ribkhan from Pixabay

The national reality of daily life in the United States has changed progressively over the last week. Like a leaky roof that starts with a few drips and drops only to crash through later with a wave of water, the flow of announcements of brands reacting to coronavirus began to pick up pace early this week and reached a crescendo on Thursday.

On Monday, The Wise Marketer was disappointed to learn that the University of Miami cancelled all planned events held by outside groups for the time being. That meant our media partnership with The World Happiness Summit came to a screeching halt – for now. We had a staff member ready to board a flight to Ireland on Tuesday morning before learning the Irish Loyalty Awards event was cancelled. You can read about his loyalty-letdown experience with his air carrier here.

By Wednesday, many universities were changing class attendance policies for the next semester and were pleading with students away on spring break to return home as soon as possible. In case you don’t know, the concept of social distancing is incompatible with spring break.

Brand reactions to coronavirus

Thursday was the tipping point for communications about COVID-19 from many of our favorite brands. Our staffers noticed their email inboxes flooded with dozens of emails from airlines, restaurants, hotels, and others stating their policies regarding the spreading Coronavirus.

We did an informal triaging of these emails and noticed that brands were taking care to communicate clearly with their loyalty program membership groups. I’m sure that similar messages were posted on brand websites in the form of press releases and other posts, but what we saw yesterday was evidence of the power of opt-in. When a person agrees to join a brand’s loyalty program its not all about the points — it’s about developing a relationship and building trust with a brand you prefer. One way each of these brands added to their trust quotient with loyal customers was to share a clear point-of-view on how they are dealing with the virus and put member concerns at ease as much as possible.

Our list of brands that sent email about the Coronavirus included:

  • Air New Zealand
  • American Airlines
  • Best Western Hotels
  • IHG Hotels
  • Hotels.com
  • Chik-fil-A
  • Duffys Sports Grill
  • IHOP
  • Juice Laundry
  • Starbucks
  • National Rental Car
  • ABC Wine and Spirits
  • Speedway
  • WAWA
  • Silverspot Cinema

The public relations community must be generally on the same page as most of the emails followed a similar script, with these messages conveyed:

  • Yes, we’re still open for business (don’t forget about us)
  • We’re concerned and tracking CDC Guidelines and recommendations
  • We’re taking extra measures to clean and sanitize our locations to provide a safe environment for customers
  • We’re protecting our employees/associates, both to educate them about staying healthy and to accommodate their individual needs should they be out of work for an extended period

Some brands communicated in special ways and others shared new policies within their loyalty programs to provide more flexibility to customers, in turn demonstrating they care about the loyalty program membership. Here are a few in order:

Air New Zealand

Shared a video from Chief Medical Officer Dr Ben Johnston to answer common questions and concerns around COVID-19 to help plan future travel.

American Airlines

Also used video to communicate, sharing one from American Airlines President Robert Isom. In the video he discussed how the airline has enhanced its cleaning procedures, adjusted its flight schedule, and is working to give customers more flexibility with their travel.

Best Western Hotels

Advised this change to Best Western Rewards® saying,  “If you are a Best Western Rewards® program elite status member, we will protect your current status through January 31, 2022 without the need to fulfill the necessary annual stay qualifications. We understand your travels may have been interrupted by COVID-19 through no fault of yours. You are our loyal customer and we appreciate your business.”

IHG Rewards

Advised that “we are waiving cancellation fees for existing and new bookings at all IHG hotels globally for stays between March 9, 2020 and April 30, 2020 … [and] we are reducing the Elite membership criteria required (nights or points) this year by 25% or more. With this change, you can continue to earn Elite membership status this year and enjoy all the IHG Rewards Club benefits this brings through 2020 and into 2021.”

Hotels.com

Citing the US decision to prohibit non-US citizens who are from the 26 countries that make up the European Union’s Schengen Area or who have visited the Schengen Area in the previous two weeks from entering the United States, Hotels.com ensured “the option to cancel and be refunded”.

IHOP

In addition to stating their commitment to the health and safety of guests and team members, IHOP® reminded customers that they can order food to go, whether through pick-up or delivery. Ordering is available on the IHOP® website or app.

Starbucks

Starbucks leveraged the unique nature of its global footprint to provide assurance that it is navigating the health crisis wisely saying, “We’ve prepared our stores to respond quickly to any emerging situation, leveraging the considerable insights we’ve gained from our experience in China, where we continue to see encouraging signs of recovery with over 90% of stores reopened.”

National Car Rental

National offered flexibility to its customers to accommodate the burdens from the current health crisis saying, “we are extending our existing no-fee cancellation policy to include customers with pre-paid rentals booked directly through us. Customers who have booked through a third-party are encouraged to contact that party directly.”

ABC Wine & Spirits

ABC Wine & Spirits cancelled any organized tasting events until further notice and suspended all business travel on commercial flights for its staff. It also emphasized that products can be purchased online at abcfws.com for pickup in-stores or for home delivery using the third party delivery companies partnered with ABC.

If you can find humor in times of crisis, then you might smile when you think through the comments made about “Stocking our Shelves”: “ABC has kept its shelves stocked for you throughout countless pending natural disasters. We intend to do the same during this global public health crisis and feel very confident in the support we get from our wholesalers and suppliers. The high demand we face right now is forcing us to work smarter and harder to prepare for any unknowns.” Apparently, many customers are seeing alcohol as useful for more than handwashing.

Speedway

Speedway built its message around its brand promise to “Earn your trust one visit at a time” — a good reminder of what’s important in times of crisis.

WAWA

WAWA focused on the importance of its employee group, saying “Everyone knows that our associates are the heart and soul of Wawa”.

Silverspot Cinemas

Making a statement to address concerns about “social distancing”, Silverspot stated “To protect your personal space, we will be blocking a seat every two seats, so you can sit with your companion but will be at an extra distance from other patrons in the theatre”.

Summing it up

The outbreak of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) represents a threat to public health but also to the health of businesses around the world. The flood of emails we received from brands addressing members of their loyalty programs shows that the world does not have to come to a screeching halt due to a crisis.

The brands we highlighted here have taken the opportunity to remind customers of their highest priorities, reinforce brand promises, and clearly communicate loyalty program rule changes to accommodate the realities of this crisis on daily life.

The power of running an opt-in program is the permission to communicate with valued customers. Each of these brands followed a general script but added in chosen elements that complement their brand. Collectively, they may not be able to bring back March Madness, but they did contribute to building trust in the long-term relationships with most valued customers.

How Brands are Communicating About Coronavirus (COVID-19)
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