Targeting Parents with Compassion in the age of COVID-19

Dec 8, 2020 Rian Chandler-Dovis

I did the unimaginable recently. I took my family vacation on an international trip. Yes, during a global pandemic. That choice revealed critical truths about marketing and brands. That lesson is a focus on compassion.

We left the country for our family vacation. On the surface, a trip to San Jose del Cabo sounds irresponsible - dangerous even. Our decision might seem tone deaf - but I assure you it was not. The swift judgements we received (and understood) reminded me of the many ways marketers see our customers as surface-level targets instead of people dealing with the daily complexities of humanity.

The truth is that my family had just experienced a seismic loss. We were in the throes of grief. Our trip was meant to give us a marker between what had been and where we go from here. The trip was cathartic for the remaining members of our family. 

But of course this truth was invisible to outsiders. Similarly, the true motivations behind our customers’ behaviors are often invisible to marketers.

Our family’s crisis isn’t in isolation. Many — maybe most — customers today are experiencing a range of hardships made more difficult by the pandemic. Brands must acknowledge this reality. Brands that reduce some of the psychological strain brought on by COVID-19 (by isolation or change in household responsibilities), will gain greater loyalty now and in the future. Nowhere is this more important than with brands favored by working mothers.   

Brand Must Acknowledge Reality, Especially When Marketing to Parents

Parents, especially mothers, are subjected to critique on an ongoing, ever heightening basis. There are perceived rights and wrongs to everything we parents do (or don’t) do. And just to add more insult, social media adds the impossible task of making parenting look easy, or at minimum, make it look Insta-perfect. (Instagram is especially influential. Thirty-nine percent of moms with children under 18 noting they spent more time on Instagram during the pandemic than other channels.)

I don’t have to tell you that life is never as perfect as the polished images we share. The confluence of history and habit means women are the primary caregivers in most households. Our duties cycle between chef, teacher, breadwinner, household CFO, personal assistant, and cleaning crew. Let’s not forget we also serve as the ender-of-fights and master of time outs; you name it, moms must deal with it. Pressures added by the pandemic mean that even the most privileged among us find themselves struggling to accommodate expanding household roles and growing demands. Many fear being vulnerable or asking for help. A lot of working women feel overwhelmed. And many feel negatively judged. 

As one example, notice the response to a woman who swapped her “professional” photo on LinkedIn with a more casual one reflecting the reality of working from home. Among the negative responses: "If you are that casual about how you present yourself, are you going to be that casual about the work I give you?". Women, especially working moms, are held to difficult-to-manage standards. 

Brands Who Compete on Compassion Win

Brands realize consumers are facing multiple challenges. The smartest ones are figuring out ways to ease the strain. For example, AdAge reports, “More than 80% of moms report that the way brands behave during the crisis will affect their [the moms’] desire to use those brands in the future, according to a recent study by market research firm GfK”.

One excellent example I’ve observed is how Chick-fil-A is taking a minute to ask people, “how are you doing?” at the drive-thru window. Corporate leadership should be applauded. This simple and kind start to an efficient ordering process acknowledges the difficulties of this new reality. I’ll bet it also reduces guilt some mothers have when purchasing fast food for their children. 

To compete using compassion brands must do the following:

      • Demonstrate compassion and kindness. Both must be infused throughout the sales process, from start to finish. Most critically, it must be genuine.

        For example, Netflix hosts a weekly Instagram Live show where stars like actor Noah Centineo talk to mental health experts about how to manage stress, anxiety, loneliness, and other COVID-19 adjustments.
      • Communicate in a straightforward and honest manner. Being relatable will go a lot farther, and be more meaningful, than aspirational, unrealistic messaging. This doesn’t mean changing your ads to show mothers as a hot mess or focusing on negative realities; it means toning down the idea of “perfect” and encouraging all of us to give each other the benefit of the doubt.

        For example, the women-lead media company The Skimm had to lay off 20% of their employees due to COVID business pressures. They shared a public statement, reading in part: “We had to say goodbye to people who helped us build this company, contributed time, talent and creativity, and believed in the two of us.... Today was the lowest low....". Notice and appreciate the vulnerability and transparency in that statement.  
      • Be a resource to help parents navigate their stress. Chick-fil-A does this beautifully. A simple refinement of a sales message, or a support team message, makes a difference. Your brand’s efforts might not even be outwardly visible. Consider how you can change internal processes to streamline or eliminate stressful parts of the process.  
      • Leave out the judgements and focus on being an ally. Just as outsiders couldn’t have known the context for our family’s trip, brands must be careful not to make faulty assumptions. We have been inundated with ads that remind us to socially distance and wash our hands. Some are great ads. But we don’t need more instruction, we need allies who acknowledge that this time is hard. Really, really hard. Especially for moms.

Brands should re-examine how they interact with their biggest customer base. Those who sell to mothers should be especially mindful of the ways they can genuinely be of service. However this looks for your brand, remember: alliances forged in tough times tend to yield the most loyalty later on. Right now, we’re gravitating toward those brands mindful of the stresses associated with the new normal. 


Rian Chandler-Dovis is VP of Brand Strategy and Partner at Brand Federation. She has over a decade of experience working with some of the world’s most influential brands: American Express, GM, PepsiCo, MIT, Samsung, and WWF. She is a mother and foster mother, working alongside her three children currently at home.

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