CORONAVIRUS

In turbulent times, market like Mister Rogers

Author and illustrator Mo Willems has been posting video drawing lessons on YouTube. (Courtesy Mo Willems)
Author and illustrator Mo Willems has been posting video drawing lessons on YouTube. (Courtesy Mo Willems)

At this point, most of us already have seen tons of articles and videos on things like, “How to do XYZ in the midst of COVID-19.” Some have been good. Others have been not so good.

As marketers in today’s fast-moving media environment, we’re told to be relevant. It’s one thing when that’s connecting to something in the zeitgeist like Tiger King or a current event.

But when it’s a global pandemic, it’s something else entirely.

What do you say as a brand? As a business?

As our family settled into our quarantined new normal — as “normal” as two adults, five kids, two dogs and one cat under one roof 100 percent of the time can be — I started grappling with this very question.

Honestly, I didn’t want to say anything at all. I didn’t want to think about business. I didn’t want to think about brand building and marketing strategy.

Then I heard Tom Hanks had COVID-19 and I was just done. Or so I thought.

Thinking of Hanks, I was reminded of his most recent role in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” in which he portrayed Fred Rogers. In my head I heard his calming voice saying, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

Sadly, we see this quote online often today in the wake of tragedies such as Sandy Hook and the Boston Marathon bombings. It’s comforting, but it also can be instructive when we’re struggling to be human businesses at a time of unprecedented uncertainty and fear.

We, too, can turn to the words of Mister Rogers and strive to be helpers first.

Creating helpful marketing as a core strategy is nothing new. The best content strives to be useful.

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My favorite incarnation of this approach is Jay Baer’s book, “YouTility,” which summarizes in its subtitle that “smart marketing is about help, not hype.” How can you create more helpful marketing during this scary time?

Let’s take a look through the lens of Mister Rogers.

Who are your people?

In thinking about the question of what to do or say as a brand in trying times, you first have to consider a more basic question: Who are your people? Who do you serve?

These people should be an easily identified part of your marketing strategy. If this isn’t clear, that’s another problem. (Sorry for the non-Rogers snark.)

If you need help remembering who your people are, sketch out a quick reminder of your core audience. Make sure it’s not just demographics.

What do they care about? What matters most to them?

You have to understand your people first to determine how you can help them. Mister Rogers once said, “Deep within each of us is a spark of the divine just waiting to be used to light up a dark space.” Knowing your people is the spark you need to light the way.

What Do They Need from You?

Once you have a clear idea of who your people are and what matters most to them, consider where they’re at right now in light of what’s happening. Close your eyes and try to imagine.

Think of this as your trip to Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Ask yourself what they need.

Follow that up with one more question: What’s something that you might be able to help them with?

“When I was a boy, I used to think that strong meant having big muscles, great physical power,” Rogers said. “But the longer I live, the more I realize that real strength has much more to do with what is not seen. Real strength has to do with helping others.”

Are your people hurting? How are they hurting? What can you do to help them?

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When I asked myself these questions, I realized that my people — brand builders, marketers, leaders — might be struggling with the very question of what to say and do, too. That’s why I’m trying to help by giving you some ideas here.

Your strength comes from helping.

How are other marketers helping? Let’s take a look at some examples from out in the real world.

How Can You Be a Helper?

In the wake of COVID-19, many businesses, brands and individuals are taking this approach, answering these two questions and finding bold, big-hearted ways to be helpers to their people.

U-Haul is offering college students suddenly displaced by virtual classes free storage. Peloton recognizes that fitness-minded folk may not be able to get to the gym, so it is making its app free.

Allbirds is taking things a step further by looking after the hard-working helpers at hospitals and offering them a free pair of their shoes.

My favorite helper through all of this has been more personal.

Children’s author Mo Willems knows his audience at all levels. The author of the Elephant and Piggie series and Pigeon books knows that kids nationwide are home for a while. And they’re scared.

To help, he takes to YouTube each day offering kids a 30-minute personal drawing lesson along with heartfelt, age-appropriate insights on what’s happening in his Lunch Doodle videos. It’s a favorite part of our seven-year-old son’s day.

As an overwhelmed parent juggling work and the aforementioned new normal, it’s a favorite part of my day, too.

Mister Rogers has been a remarkable helper in his own right many times over through the years. He helped us as children, and his words continue to guide us through the confusing world we find ourselves in, especially in strange, scary times.

Even Mister Rogers knew that make-believe only goes so far.

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“Imagining something may be the first step in making it happen, but it takes the real time and real efforts of real people to learn things, make things, turn thoughts into deeds or visions into inventions,” he said.

Remember your people, what they’re going through, and ask how you can help. Take real time and put real efforts toward doing this today and you can do your part toward creating a beautiful day in the neighborhood for your people.

Nick Westergaard is a marketing strategist, keynote speaker and author of “Brand Now” and “Get Scrappy”; nick@branddrivendigital.com; @NickWestergaard.

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.