As the coronavirus pandemic moved across the United States, the stock market plunged and many of the country’s businesses closed, a major platform for social media influencers had a rosier message: “Good news in consumer shopping trends!”
RewardStyle, which connects retail brands with thousands of Instagram personalities and bloggers, told influencers in an email on March 30 that orders through its app, LikeToKnow.It, had surged. It encouraged users, who earn commissions on products they help sell, to “keep posting to capture this demand while using a softer approach to drive shopping.”
“We recommend that for every 5 posts, you make 2 posts relatable about life at home and 3 posts about shopping,” the company said in the email, which a recipient shared with The New York Times. “This approach creates a softer sell in your feed while continuing to provide guidance to your followers during this time.” RewardStyle also provided an image that said “Staying In is So In,” that could help “give context and balance” to shopping posts. People stuck at home could be a good thing, a company representative wrote, adding, “Nothing like a little retail therapy to help pass the hours.”
The messages were jarring to influencers uneasy about promoting new fashions in the midst of a public health crisis that was crushing the economy. But they provided a glimpse into how desperate retailers and marketers are tailoring their sales pitches for newly homebound consumers, who are fluctuating between panic and ennui while scrolling through their Facebook and Instagram feeds. Retail sales plummeted 8.7 percent in March, the largest decline since the data started being tracked three decades ago. With online business now crucial for many brands whose futures are threatened by store closings, the sell itself has become a delicate dance.
“People are more anxious, they’re on high alert, they’re under a lot of stress and there’s a lot of bad news they’re consuming and experiencing,” said Mae Karwowski, chief executive of Obviously, an influencer agency that has been adjusting the tone and messaging of campaigns. “We want to make sure brands aren’t attached to those really negative things that are happening while still acknowledging that we’re all communally going through this.”
Apparel chains have whipped up ads with references to indoor living, social distancing and videoconference calls. Loungewear has become de rigueur. Even Brooks Brothers — yes, Brooks Brothers — has advertised its “work-at-home styles.”
“Keep your hands to yourself and get denim delivered,” Gap said in an ad that showed a person’s hands in their back pockets. Joie advertised a “cozy meets chic” sweatsuit, a month after promoting $250 floral tops.
“A tip for tomorrow morning’s 9 a.m. videoconference call: Doubled-up headbands make bedhead look beautiful,” Anthropologie proclaimed in a recent Instagram post. The brand Lively gamely promoted its “perfect work-from-home bra,” even as the necessity of such garments has been questioned in a quarantined world. The subject line of a recent email from Reformation simply read: “WHAT DAY IS IT.”
Brands are aware that people are glued to their phones and they are desperate to engage. “Every Instagram Story frame going up, we’re seeing an increase of 30 percent more viewers than we normally would — that’s such an aggressive increase,” said Vickie Segar, founder of Village Marketing, an influencer agency.
But they are trying to proceed carefully, with messages of optimism and self-care and varying levels of references to the grim state of the world.
Some companies have barred any mention of the coronavirus or Covid-19 in influencer posts, even if the ads are about staying at home or taking care of family. Ms. Karwowski’s agency, Obviously, has recommended that influencers working at home should portray products in everyday clothing and that images should feel “bright and cheerful.” It advised against advertising from bed or in pajamas.
“Being in bed can work if you’re talking about self-care and taking care of yourself, but not ‘Haven’t left my bed in days — send help,’” Ms. Karwowski said. “One thing to ask yourself if you are a creator: How is this going to make my audience feel, what emotions will it bring out in them?”
The idea, she said, is to aim for positivity and calmness rather than stress or anxiety.
Ulta Beauty, the cosmetics chain with 1,200 stores that are currently closed, introduced a new ad campaign with Obviously this month called “See Beautiful Today.” It was based on the idea that “no matter how dark the world seems, people seek moments of beauty to help get through difficult times,” a representative said. A group of influencers will create quarantine content for Ulta this month, like how-to hair tutorials and do-it-yourself nail care as part of its broader focus on self-care and joy.
This type of messaging represents a “much softer sell” and acknowledges today’s reality, Ms. Karwowski said. “It’s more of a conversation.”
Influencers are also changing how they sell products based on their personal challenges. Jacqueline Granquist, a 31-year-old part-time influencer in San Diego who has worked with brands like Joie and Hobo bags, said that she had been posting more about her own struggles and encouragement for others even as she promotes fashion items. Ms. Granquist recently lost her waitressing job because the restaurant closed, and she said others are facing similar issues and may not want to shop.
“Even I’m in a situation where I shouldn’t be spending money and here I am trying to sell products,” Ms. Granquist said. “It is a different world and a weird way to sell and so I think that’s why I’m posting more messages saying, it’s OK to not be OK, or that I had an off day today, and trying to humanize it a bit. It’s not just, ‘Buy these shoes.’”
She added, “I don’t think I normally would have posted that kind of stuff prior to all this.”
Amber Venz Box, co-founder and president of RewardStyle, said that the email her company sent last month came after some influencers had briefly stopped posting and others shared group pictures that showed they weren’t “adjusting to the new reality.” She said she wanted influencers to feel empowered to post and to be tasteful in their approach.
“Brands are struggling for authenticity in this Covid crisis and influencers provide that in a way that other channels fail to do,” she said. “We know consumers are seeking escapism that our influencers provide.”
Taylor Lorenz contributed reporting.