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Why you’re getting coronavirus emails from every brand you’ve ever interacted with

Starbucks, Reformation, and Crocs are emailing customers about their coronavirus plans. Why?

An envelop with a chat bubble around it.
Imagine only having one unread email!
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Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

Just like it is most of the time, my inbox is full of hundreds of emails from brands. They’re brands to whom I have given my email and many more that I never knowingly did, brands whose products I do not own nor will I ever. But starting early this month and reaching a fever pitch in the second week of March, the brands don’t want my money. They want to talk to me about the coronavirus.

Boutique gyms I visited once informed me that they were reducing their class capacities and then a few days later that they canceled them altogether. A car-sharing company I signed up for and never used is letting me know how it plans to keep its community of car-sharers, whom I am not one of, safe. I know the coronavirus contingency plans of airlines, hotels, restaurants, delivery services, opera houses, mattress companies, and brands whose businesses seem extremely unrelated from the ongoing coronavirus crisis, like Levi’s or Harbor Freight Tools.

They don’t particularly annoy me, as a person whose combined unread emails total 57,000 and who understands people and businesses are feeling helpless right now, but I’m not the only one noticing them. “Oh sweet, I was wondering how every corporation I’ve ever given my email to was handling COVID-19,” tweeted startup founder Jason Mustian. Podcaster Adam H. Johnson wrote a PSA: “Marketing people: folks are scared and confused and eagerly checking email for work updates, emergency services and loved ones. if you’re a mid level copywriter at Yankee Candle please do not update us on how ‘your team’ is ‘responding to the Covid19 crisis’ literally no one cares.”

AdWeek analyzed 18 of these brand emails from places like Starbucks, Uber, and Crocs and noted that all of them stressed concepts like “community” and “health,” using the words “situation” and “monitoring.” This kind of brands-during-a-pandemic speak has become its own sort of language, most famously in the phrase “an abundance of caution,” a now-ubiquitous justification for enacting cautionary measures like closing restaurants or canceling flights.

None of these measures feel like an “abundance” of caution anymore — coronavirus cases continue to skyrocket in America, and many states have enacted shelter in place laws similar to those in Europe and Asia. Even the fashion brand Reformation, known for its all-cap and often horny email subject headings like “NOT BORING AT PARTIES” and “REJECT TIMOTHEE” in order to sell me $200 sundresses that barely cover my butt, sent me a coronavirus email. “We’re not sure exactly what is appropriate for a company like ours to be talking and posting about right now. What’s resonating with you? Do you still want to hear about new collection launches and sustainability related stuff? Or do you need a break?” it asked.

Do we? I’m not sure. To find out, I called Sean F. Cassidy, president of one of the top PR firms in America, DKC. He’s worked in crisis communications for major global brands for years, but none of us have ever experienced a crisis quite like this. His emergency management team, he says, was built out of lessons learned from 9/11, when many companies were implicated by the loss of employees, infrastructure, and demand. The most important one: “Complete transparency,” he says. “Compassion for your customers and an essential need to articulate tough decisions concisely and accurately.”

I asked him whether coronavirus emails from brands could only give consumers even more anxiety. “No, and I’ll tell you why,” he says. “I think the level of anxiety is about a 12 anyway. It’s very bleak. People are very nervous.”

What businesses are worried about first and foremost, he says, is financial disruption. The coronavirus outbreak has already caused a recession, which could ultimately become a depression. While the economy will be catastrophic for businesses, it will hit vulnerable American workers even worse.

“Secondly, they’re not sure what to do because this is unprecedented and there’s a need to strike a tone between being very sensitive to what is a very scary time [and making money]” he says. “It’s this odd mix of seemingly contrary imperatives here: On one hand, your instinct is the instinct of many people to be quiet, but at the same time, your customers and employees must hear from you.”

We tend to expect more humanity from our brands in 2020 than we used to. “Consumers today would rather be in business with a company that cares about its employees and represents values associated with kindness and caring and doing the right thing,” he adds. “It’s important that brands are not using this as an opportunity.”

Though Cassidy says he hasn’t noticed any particularly insensitive brand emails, others have. The direct-to-consumer minimalist apparel brand Everlane, for instance, sent an uplifting message to customers that “We’re in this together,” while promoting a $50 jeans sale. And it did this in the midst of laying off its eight temporary customer service employees (Everlane said it made the decision weeks beforehand).

Clothing brands have been struggling to hit a proper tone in communications with customers. Shoe designer Sarah Flint told Fashionista that she wasn’t sure how to go about the launch of an important collection last week and instead began the email with a personal letter. “When so many people are feeling understandably anxious, is it wrong to be sending cheerful emails about shoes?” she wrote. “This is challenging. It is a ‘first’ for us. We may not get it right.”

The sudden deluge of brand emails in the first week of March was also likely because companies were taking cues from one other, Cassidy explains. “There’s snowballing going on. Once everybody starts doing it, there’s a little bit of a compounding.”

That’ll likely happen again when the world starts to feel a bit more normal. “When that happens, brands will be in communication with their customers in a way that’s somewhat more transactional,” he says. “But frankly, it might not go back to normal for many months.”

No one knows how long this particular era will go on. It’s more than possible that things won’t ever really be the same. But personally, I can’t wait for my inbox to be full of awkward subject headings and worthless coupons for salads. It’ll feel good to be annoyed by something so pointless.

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