Email marketing and coronavirus: How brands are keeping things customer-focused and non-exploitative

by Sam Greenspan

These are unprecedented times, and all of us are coping with uncertainty about both the present and the future. 

Email marketing isn’t the most important thing in the world right now, but it’s our business and it’s a big part of how you run your business. We want to help our customers maintain their businesses and keep serving their customers in these difficult times, and part of that means figuring out how to strike the right tone in your email marketing. We found some examples of eCommerce businesses that we feel are doing this right: Adjusting their approach and messaging, and finding the right ways to use email marketing in this changing world.

Four approaches to creative email marketing around coronavirus

Here’s a sentence I never really expected to type: It’s tricky to market around a global pandemic. It’s important to tread lightly and delicately, not to exploit the situation (or appear as if you are), and to make sure your marketing never strays anywhere close to the “profiteering from tragedy” zone.

As we searched for marketing emails related to the coronavirus situation, we (fortunately) didn’t find any where brands committed major, insensitive, exploitative faux pas. Instead, we found brands who identified how their products fit a need in this “new normal” that their customers are experiencing and marketed them accordingly—and respectfully.

Please note: The emails we’re featuring here aren’t of the “a message from our CEO” variety. You’ve no doubt received several of those from businesses over the past week. Those serve an important purpose in keeping customers informed about how a business plans to keep them (and the employees of the business) safe during this pandemic. However, what we were looking for in this list was eCommerce businesses who got creative with their sales emails and found interesting ways to tie them to what’s happening in the world.

The work-from-home angle

Tons of people are experiencing working remotely for the first time right now. (We know that’s a big change—so our fully-remote team at Jilt and SkyVerge put together some tips for our new work-from-home colleagues.) That opens up quite a few needs, which different eCommerce brands approached in different ways, based on the nature of their business.

Marine Layer, a brand that is often at the forefront of timely and creative marketing strategies, sent an email offering comfortable clothes—after all, one of the top, top, top, top reasons people love remote work is the sweatpants dress code.

Marine Layer's work from home email

Elago, which sells computer accessories, took an approach that fit their products, even offering a discount to people trying to spruce up their home office situations.

Elago's email about setting up a home office

In both cases, the emails could be welcomed by new remote workers—and even help them get excited about some of the perks of working from home.

The health angle

Physical health is clearly on our minds right now—as are things to do outdoors and away from other people. Danny’s Cycles hit on both needs with this marketing email. The email makes it clear you can purchase a bike from home—strongly emphasizing that you don’t have to go to a store and make close contact with other people—and then, you can ride that bike to be healthy. The picture makes it clear that biking is something you can safely do with your kids while their schools are canceled. In other words: this email is designed to be an answer to a lot of concurrent needs people have right now.

Danny's Cycles emails around physical wellbeing.

Unagi Scooters took a different angle on personal health and social distancing that fit their product: A discount on scooters to help people avoid close contact situations like public transportation and ride sharing.

Unagi Scooters with a suggestion for alternative transportation.

The stuck-at-home angle

We’re big advocates for the benefits of email marketing calendars, so it wasn’t shocking to get a lot of St. Patrick’s Day-themed marketing emails over the past few days. Those have, no doubt, been scheduled for months. Here’s the email I received from furniture brand Apt2B that clearly started as a St. Patrick’s Day email—but ended as an “oh, we’re all housebound now” message. While the body of the email stayed the same, the subject line (“Need a sofa right now? We’ve got sofas RIGHT NOW.”) addressed something a lot of people are worried about: My house isn’t comfortable enough to be a place where I spend 24 hours a day. Quick-shipped couches seem like a very valuable service to some customers right now.

Apt2B's rush couch shipping.

Oriental Trading took a similar approach, and spoke directly to all the parents worried about keeping kids from going crazy while being sequestered at home for the next month (and quite possibly beyond).

Oriental Trading has ideas for keeping kids entertained at home.

The irreverent pivot

This approach won’t work for all brands. But a brand with the right voice and customer base can bring some levity and ingenuity to a difficult situation—like Red Chapter Clothing did here. They turned the toilet paper hoarding phenomenon into, well, quite possibly marketing gold.

Red Chapter Clothing makes t-shirt toilet paper.
Via: Milled.

Humor can be risky if used incorrectly, but at a time when fear and uncertainty are at their highest levels, humor can be a welcome diversion. If your brand has built consumer trust around a humorous or cheeky voice, then it could work for you, even in literally deadly serious situations like the one we find ourselves in today. But tread carefully.

Key takeaways

So, should you go about business as usual or orient your email marketing around the current global situation?

Regardless of which approach you’re considering, it’s a good time to take a look at the emails you have scheduled to send and make sure they’re appropriate. As stated above, I received several St. Patrick’s Day emails in the past week. I also received some celebrating Friday the 13th, World Sleep Day, and Pi Day. (We appreciate non-traditional holidays for email marketing—but maybe not right now, when they can feel like whistling through a graveyard?)

The best day of the year?
Name censored so as to not shame a company just trying to hang in right now.

The worst, though, might be an email from a sports clothing brand celebrating Major League Baseball’s upcoming opening day. That’s been indefinitely postponed and isn’t happening. As someone who was looking forward to baseball season (especially the first few months before my small-market team trades away all its good players), the email just bummed me out and made me feel like the brand isn’t really paying attention.

Opening Day isn't happening on time.

So while you don’t necessarily have to send email marketing messages relating to issues around coronavirus, it can also be unwise to send emails that completely ignore it and pretend right now is business as usual. 

Now, back to the matter of whether you should explicitly address current events.

If you have products that meet a genuine customer need right now, and you can market them in a way that’s respectful and not exploitative, you should strongly consider leaning into the current situation. After all, you really are serving your customers by helping them out right now, so it’s win-win.

If you can’t see an angle where your products would help your customers right now, or you feel uneasy about pandemic-driven sales, there’s still an important role for email marketing right now. Even if customers aren’t buying from you at their normal cadence, email is a way to keep up your relationship with them and stay top-of-mind for when they are ready to purchase again. Consider more content-driven email, like a newsletter or user-generated content, to keep people entertained and give them a much-needed distraction.

And please, stay safe out there.

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