In These Uncertain Times, Some Marketing Appears Overly Optimistic, or Desperate

By Prof Timothy Dewhirst, Department of Marketing & Consumer Studies, Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics 

A woman in a mask works at a laptop

(Pexels/ Ivan Samkov)

This commentary originally ran in the Toronto Star Opinion. 

The pandemic is having a notable impact on many people’s physical, mental, and financial well-being. We now face remarkable uncertainty when navigating our upcoming plans.

Still, these uncertain times have not averted marketing pitches in our inbox that seem overly optimistic and hopeful in their outlook.

Remarkably, in September, marketing communication from the Toronto Blue Jays announced that the 2021 spring training schedule is available. Additionally, consumers were encouraged to buy ticket packs, including a 40-game option at Rogers Centre, for the 2021 regular season. Certain matchups of interest as well as specific giveaway days were highlighted.

While the Blue Jays were undoubtedly building on the momentum of being a contending team during this year’s shortened season, the marketing pitches appear tone-deaf based on the uncertainties of whether there will be a 162-game schedule next year, including 81 home games being played in Toronto.

Air Canada, meanwhile, has been marketing limited-time sales that encourage international flights to be booked within a few days. By promoting complimentary COVID-19 insurance — although conditions apply and assumes travel is completed by April 12, 2021 — the airline states that consumers can have “safe and flexible travel.”

Prof. Tim Dewhirst

Hotel chains are specifying wellness and staying safe by encouraging family vacations to the Caribbean. Newly announced concert tours are apparent, too, with tickets available for indoor events scheduled next spring.

The list goes on and on. Yet, there is a strong possibility that the promoted products and services will be undeliverable.

Some businesses are surely becoming desperate to generate revenue and cash flow. And, in the face of uncertainty, some people will try to be opportunistic — seeking a good deal or unusual front-line access — and take a chance with being agreeable customers. Even so, there are several instances of buyer beware.

Although consumer protection laws have been adapted to account for price gouging concerns, refund policies need renewed focus and consideration. It is morally questionable for companies to hold onto money indefinitely amid repeated “postponements” rather than regarding them as cancellations.

We receive many marketing messages based on our past purchasing behaviour. If purchasing tickets previously for the Blue Jays or travelling with Air Canada, we are entered into their database management system. In turn, companies attempt to build strong and loyal relationships with their customers through data-driven and purposeful dialogue.

But questions are emerging about the sophistication and adaptability of company databases. Are the algorithms being reworked to account for operations in a pandemic? Is the move to big data in business operations prompting marketers to lose sight about the lived experiences of consumers and their new realities?

From an ethical standpoint, do companies want to continue communicating about possibly unfulfilled promises, especially among their most loyal and valued customers?

By Prof Timothy Dewhirst, Department of Marketing & Consumer Studies, Gordon S. Lang School of Business and Economics