What Can Builders Market During a Pandemic? Try Empathy and Security

During a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers are looking to brand marketers for two things: support and security

By Mike Beirne, Senior Editor | April 13, 2020
Empty store shelves during coronavirus pandemic
Home builders can play a role in providing comfort and security for homebuyers by showing empathy and understanding people’s needs during the stress and uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic. | Photo: stock.adobe.com

There’s COVID-19 messaging on your website and you’ve sent emails to customers and other stakeholders assuring them that your model homes and design centers are open by appointment, and you’re practicing social distancing and taking other measures to protect the health of employees and the community. But if many home builders and other businesses are doing the same thing, and customer email inboxes are overloaded with similar messages, how does your brand stand out? 

One way is by maintaining—or even increasing—your marketing activity.

 

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4 Ways Builders Are Responding to Coronavirus Through Their Marketing

1] Repositioning the brand and increasing marketing 

As the first shelter-in-place orders rolled out, John Allen, president of Brown Haven Homes, in Blairsville, Ga., got proactive. He repositioned his company’s branding strategy and increased marketing spend by 50%, pushing out more Google ads, social media, and posts on Facebook and Instagram, with the tagline “Peace of Mind Is Priceless.” 

Among those posts are videos of new-home specialists and general managers walking sunny jobsites in one of Brown Haven's five communities in the North Georgia mountains or by a bucolic lake in the Carolinas. “We could be breaking ground here on your new home in 90 days,” they say. “Peace is priceless.”

 

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“It speaks very well to those quarantined buyers whose net worth [in the stock market] just dropped 20%,” says Allen, adding that the message can resonate with prospects from metro Florida and the Northeast who are considering the refuge of small-town living. “Maybe you don’t want to buy a home, but what is your peace of mind worth? Why stay quarantined in an apartment? You could be having peace of mind in one of these homes right now.”

2] Responding to what consumers are seeking from brands right now

People look to brands for help with their lives, especially in a crisis. But in a study conducted by Ipsos Reid before the pandemic, just 14% of consumers perceived government institutions and agencies, entities whose job it is to manage public health and infrastructure, as trustworthy. The public opinion research firm asked almost 1,000 U.S. consumers last month what kind of marketing communication do they want to hear from brands during this crisis. Seventy-four percent said they want to hear from helpful brands, 72% want to hear from companies that have a social responsibility to offer aid during the coronavirus crisis, and 71% want to hear from brands that can help them navigate the crisis.

There are two things consumers who are stressed out by fear and uncertainty want from brands right now, says Natalie Harper, founder and managing director at Harper Public Relations, an Edmonton, Alberta, firm that handles marketing for the Alair Homes franchise network of custom home builders: 

1] Positive messages that make them feel hope and comfort

2] Advertising that provide a sense of security.

“Providing comfort and security is what home builders do,” Harper says. “How we do that now is by showing empathy, understanding people’s needs, and anticipating and being there for their moral and physical comfort.” 

Strong brands have a history of taking a stand, she points out. “There’s a huge opportunity for us to establish an even closer bond with our customers, stakeholders, our team, and anyone who has the power to influence our brand,” Harper adds.

 

woman wearing protective mask sanitizes medical equipment during coronavirus pandemic
According to a study conducted right before the pandemic by public opinion research firm Ipsos Reid, just 14% of consumers perceived government institutions and agencies as trustworthy, while a survey conducted in March showed that 74% of respondents want to hear from helpful brands during the COVID-19 crisis. | Photo: U.S. Navy

 

3] Offering homebuyers empathy and solutions during a crisis

Marketing history is replete with brands that connected to key, impactful moments in people’s lives during a crisis by showing empathy and providing a solution to a need. Print ads during World War II from Chesterfield cigarettes, Coca Cola, and Lifebuoy soap carried a “we’re all in this together” theme. Ford offered customers car payment relief during the Great Recession. And today, with COVID-19, Nike streamed TikTok workout videos to people in China enduring that country’s lockdowns in response to the pandemic.

“You don’t want to do a heavy sell right now, but you do want to remind people that you are open for business,” says Carol Ruiz, president of New Ground PR & Marketing, a national firm based in Marina Del Rey, Calif. “Tell them what is online, that they can take a virtual tour, complete paperwork online ... Remind them that now is still a really good time to buy a home. Interest rates are incredibly low, there still is a housing shortage, and it’s not going to get better, plus there may be an even greater shortage after this [pandemic] is over.” 

Sales associates for Trumark Homes, with main offices in San Ramon and Newport Beach, Calif., are showing empathy by sending BombBomb video emails to clients. Recipients see that, much like they are, Trumark salespeople are also sheltering at home and working remotely. The video features a message akin to, “We’re going through this crisis together and we’re someone you can connect with for a virtual tour of a home, whether you're considering buying or are just starting your search.”

Strong brands have a history of taking a stand. “There’s a huge opportunity for us to establish an even closer bond with our customers, stakeholders, our team, and anyone who has the power to influence our brand.” —Natalie Harper, founder and managing director, Harper Public Relations

“Even though it's another email, in that message is a face, a person, so it makes you stop and ask, What is this?” says Linnea Chapman, Trumark’s marketing director, Northern California. “Members of our sales team are making these videos in their homes and often there's a dog or a cat in their lap, kids might be running in the background. It’s very human and I think that also helps connect with people during this time.” 

Garman Homes’ Facebook page is sharing social media content from homeowners who operate small businesses affected by shelter-in-place mandates. The Cary, N.C., builder also reached out to existing homeowners to share on Facebook about their favorite spaces while quarantined, garnering responses ranging from the porch swing on the front porch, playing with toys in front of the fireplace, and reading in the living room.

“We’re re-sharing small-business owners’ content on our pages and getting them support from fellow homeowners, since there’s an existing point of connection among homeowners and putting a face to that,” says Alaina Money-Garman, Garman founder and CEO. “We’re also reaching out to buyers under contract and talking to them about the spaces they’re most looking forward to, as a way to reinforce the bond we created before we started to shelter in place.”

4] Providing compassionate connection with homebuyers during the pandemic

COVID-19 messaging, though essential for crisis communication, doesn’t have to be treated as an obligatory, boilerplate exercise. It can be thoughtful and compassionate. The landing page of Frederick, Md.-based builder Wormald Homes’ website has a popup that says, “Introducing a safer way to shop for new homes: Private appointments.” Wormald touts the company's use of private appointments for homebuyers and DocuSign for signing documents electronically, as well as the potential to lock in interest rates for a year, and details about all of the steps the builder is taking to protect customers and employees during the pandemic, such as regular cleaning of frequently touched surfaces in model homes. 

Then there’s the builder’s sign-off: “Be safe and virtual hugs from Wormald.”

 

Mike Beirne is the senior editor of Professional Builder and Custom Builder magazines. A two-time Jesse H. Neal Award winner, Mike has nearly 30 years of journalism experience plus numerous news and feature writing awards, including honors from the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Society of Business Press Editors, and the National Association of Real Estate Editors. He also operated a masonry restoration business for more than two decades.

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