COVIDwashing and marketing winners and losers

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As the epidemic is slowly going out in Europe, it’s a good time for a summary of how swiftly did the marketing industry react to this (and we are really sorry for using this cliche expression) unprecedented event and how sensitive brands are to public sentiment. There are losers and winners, dos and don’ts, and lessons learned from successes and failures. Let’s have a brief review of what went well and what could have gone better.


If we were to prepare a COVID19 ad starter pack, it would include:

  • A deep voiced narrator
  • An essential worker at work
  • Friends on Zoom tapping glasses against the camera
  • A balcony concert
  • Home fitness
  • Clapping for (Insert your local health service provider)
  • “Stay home”
  • “We are in this together”
  • “We are here for you”
  • Somber piano music playing in the background

A YouTube user Microsoft Sam made a very spot-on video on it:

Uncreative ads are not terrible, they just miss the point of advertising, because no one is going to remember them.

What you will remember, but for the wrong reason? COVID-washing, virtue signalling with an intention of using pandemic for marketing, but without giving real support.

This happened to Draper James, a brand owned by Reese Witherspoon. In their infamous charity action Draper James offered free dresses for teachers, in recognition of their efforts during the pandemic.

What they didn’t foresee is the fact that 250 dresses may not be enough for over a million teachers who applied. Outcome? A huge disappointment and a very counterproductive PR stunt. Truth to be told, the campaign was well-intended, but badly communicated and the execution was even worse.


Just like there are two kinds of losers: the boring and the ingenuine ones, there are two groups of winners: the creative and the genuine ones.

Frito Lay has noticed the criticism of COVIDwashing early on and based their ad on numbers and real support they provided while mocking other brands (somber piano music: check).

Here are some other good examples of marketing done right:

  • Polish brewery Żywiec decided to support the restaurant business by picking up the unsold beer and returning money to the restaurateurs.
  • They have also produced a vitaminized drink for the healthcare professionals and distributed it in 100 Polish hospitals.
  • North Face donated one million euro to support the outdoor community, an overlooked group for who makes a living on travel and exploration.
  • Big players can afford marketing that is not generating the return of investment, but for small businesses no-ROI-marketing is a bold move. Therefore kudos go to the Viet on Tour food truck, who on a daily basis was supporting health professionals in Warsaw. The staff was serving a nutritious Vietnamese gruel. A dish called cháo hành Thị Nở was distributed for free in front of hospitals.

Once the public learned how to use the safety measures, got used to the situation and started to organize their life in a different reality, the time came for lighter and almost humorous advertising.

In this category Burger King is, well, the king, with their social distancing a(i)ds, such as mega wide paper crowns in the German market and triple onion Whooper in Italian restaurants:

Social distancing Whooper    Burger King social distancing crown

To say that the real value always beats an empty marketing tittle-tattle would be a cliché, but true nonetheless. Sudden crises act like a good litmus test for brands’ ability to listen, and react timely and appropriately.