As readers of this blog know, I occasionally like to riff on the ads that I see on the New York City subways.  (You can find some of my own favorite Subway Series posts here, here and here). Marketers test out their new products and new ways to market them for a captive audience.  Seeing those ads may be one of the few things I miss about my daily commute (that, and actually having a daily commute).  So, working at home during the pandemic, and sitting at my computer all day, I’m seeing only what’s online.  And what I’m seeing and reading a lot about are brands’ well-intentioned, though not always well-planned or well-executed, COVID-19 response efforts.

A story I read about in the New York Times this morning is a case in point.  As reported in the Times, Reese Witherspoon’s fashion line, Draper James, announced on its Instagram page that it would provide teachers with a free dress to thank them for their efforts during the pandemic.  Teachers had to “apply” and "winners" would be selected “while supplies last.”  Unfortunately, the company purportedly only had a supply of 250 dresses to give away and over a million delighted teachers applied.  We’ve seen this problem before.  Remember this debacle?  These “limited supply” situations can lead to legal problems but, perhaps even more likely, serious PR and brand problems.

In addition to limited supply offers, there have, of course, been many, many ads showcasing brands' donations to COVID 19-related relief efforts.  As readers of this blog know, cause-marketing is regulated by the states.  A reminder about those rules is here.  But as with the Draper James situation, in addition to the legal requirements, it really is important to keep PR concerns in mind too.  A promise by a brand to donate contingent on consumers’ purchases of the brand's own products just may not play well during a crisis, even if this type of cause marketing is perfectly acceptable to the public in other times. Admittedly, it may be hard to predict when a campaign will hit a wrong note with the public, as Mastercard found out during a World Cup-related campaign supporting child hunger relief efforts in 2018.  But it is critically important to think this through: consumers may just not have the tolerance right now for a campaign that requires their action in order to trigger a desperately needed donation.

Marketers may have the best of intentions, but to keep a campaign from backfiring, they must think both holistically about consumer takeaway and in minute detail to make sure execution will work as planned.