Forty days and forty nights
Like a ship out on the sea
Prayin' for her each night
That she would come back-a home to me
Life is love and love is right
I hope she come back home tonight

It's now been some 40 days since the US got serious about acknowledging and responding to COVID-19, with various forms of quarantining happening across the country.

As you'd expect, there's been a wide range of actions and reactions, both from individuals and from brands. Some have been helpful, others have been... less so.

More on that in a moment. First, for a moment please indulge the history and etymology geek in me.

* * *

The word quarantine has its origins in Latin: quadraginta means "forty." It then made its way to the Italian quarantena in the early 1600s, when "forty" and the concept of detention were combined.

You've probably heard the phrase "40 days and 40 nights." It's Biblical in nature; it's a phrase that simply meant "a really long time."

To give you a sense of some of examples: the 40 days and 40 nights of rainfall while Noah and family rode out the flood in the ark; Moses' intercession on behalf of Israel for 40 days and 40 nights; Jesus' fast for 40 days and 40 nights in the Judean desert.

This strong Judeo-Christian tradition with this length of time (though there are examples in Islam, Hinduism, and other religions) became associated with the Black Death in the 14th century, when infected ships that arrived in the port city of Venice had to dock at isolation wards on outlying islands for 40 days.

The time period allowed for the infections to dissipate (the Venetians assumed that airing out the ships did the trick, when in fact the disease ran its course and killed the infected on board).

That effort was the first instance of large-scale institutionalized public health.

* * *

And so we're nearing that 40-day mark ourselves. What has happened during that time?

If we can take some inspiration from another source, let's turn to Muddy Waters' 1956 hit "Forty Days and Forty Nights":

Forty days and forty nights
Since my baby left this town
Sunshinin' all day long
But the rain keep comin' down
She's my life I need her so
Why she left I just don't know

Just like the rest of us, marketers have been a bit shell-shocked. Suddenly, the work-from-home routine is now not just a luxury or a flexible work arrangement; it is mandated. And everyone is spending more time in front of screens.

What's a marketer to do?

Are we to keep business going as usual so that we can provide a sense of normalcy to customers? Or should we, out of respect and uncertainty, shut off our content marketing spigot?

Like Muddy Waters, we "just don't know."

Forty days and forty nights
Since I set right down and cried
Keep rainin' all the time
But the river is runnin' dry
Lord help me it just ain't right
I love that girl with all-a my might

But some marketers have been able to find their footing, realizing they have the ability to have an effect on their communities. I began chronicling such behaviors in a Google Doc at on March 14.

That's when I noticed a growing trend. GrubHub had suspended fees, Comcast and T-Mobile extended unlimited data to all of their customers. Companies were looking out for their customers—whom they love with all-a their might—and were doing the right thing.

The document is now over 12 pages long, through my own continued vigilance and contributions from the community (and it's still open for editing—please add more if you know of any!). From Ford's and GM's manufacturing ventilators, to Nike's making personal protective equipment, to Hilton's and American Express's making a million hotel rooms available to medical personnel, these stories are just the tip of the iceberg.

Those hopeful examples show how brands are stepping up to act in ethical and community-minded ways to help the public get through this crisis. That, more than any kind of content marketing, is what will endear them to the public when the crisis passes.

Forty days and forty nights
Since my baby broke my heart
Searchin' for her in a while
Like a blind man in the dark
Love can make a poor man rich
Or break his heart I don't know which

That doesn't mean marketing necessarily grinds to a halt during this time. But how marketers decide to approach it will make the difference between love and breaking some hearts.

Putting your email list on power blast and tackily inserting COVID-19 or coronavirus into the subject line or theme won't do it. Nor will platitudes about your employees who are otherwise underpaid or underappreciated.

In a recent pair of virtual summits I hosted for Brand Innovators, I noticed a curious collection of R-words as brands talked about what's most important during this time:

  • Responsive. Marketers need to acknowledge the changes and the difference in situations and be responsive as a result.
  • Respectful. We should also understand that there are times when it's inappropriate to sell, and instead remain silent.
  • Resilient. By observing needs and understanding what we have to offer, we can change our offerings and help those in need with our assets.
  • Reconnect. This is a great time to reach out to colleagues, vendors, and customers who haven't heard from us in a while, to check in on them and see what they might need from us.
  • Relationships. social media has allowed us to market to people for a decade, but how social have we really been? Now's the time to build these relationships digitally.
  • Relatable. A crisis is the perfect time to show your vulnerability; when people see that kind of authenticity, they can relate to you.

The waters before us may be muddy at the moment, but as the current calms, the sediment will settle. And like rivers that overrun their banks in a flood, they sometimes forge new paths in the process.

There may be new opportunities for your company as you observe the market around you and take stock of what it is that you truly stand for.

If you can't make sense of it right now, give it 40 days or so.

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image of Scott Monty

Scott Monty is an executive coach/adviser and a keynote speaker—and the only classics major who's been a global head of digital and social for a Fortune 10 brand. He helps the C-suite embrace virtuous leadership and better communication with timeless strategies.

Twitter: @ScottMonty

LinkedIn: Scott Monty