Reading The Room: Marketing During A Crisis

crisis marketing advice

Well, this is all pretty bonkers, isn’t it?

Like many people, the past weeks have seen my email inbox filled with heartfelt wishes for my continued good health and current working situation. Sometimes these wishes are extended to the immediate members of my family.

But these sentiments of concern and goodwill aren’t from friends, colleagues, or clients. They’re from companies. Companies that, in many cases, I don’t even know.

In the space of a few weeks, COVID-19 has turned the entire world upside down. As I write this, around 50% of the world’s population is under some kind of lockdown. Attempting to avoid a recession, governments of every political persuasion are throwing colossal amounts of cash at the problem. Businesses of every size are in a state of understandable anxiety.

Hence the deluge of “Hope you’re OK…we’re still open if you need to buy anything from us…together we’ll beat this” emails, written with as much empathy as a kick in the crotch.

I’m amazed that marketers would think receiving mails like the above would be met with anything other than derision. For me, communications like this are not just insensitive. They reek of opportunism, insincerity, and superficiality.

When put under pressure, is this really the best marketers can do?

Marketing During A Crisis

Like it or not, what’s clear is there’s no longer such a thing as ‘business as usual’. Sure, customer attention has moved further online than ever. But the nature of the content consumed is much narrower. People are only concerned about the state of this pandemic, and its effect on events they care about in their daily lives.

We’re all still in an ‘information assimilation’ mode. All of us are being knocked for six by ever more shocking headlines. As a result we’re looking for information and education. Heck, sometimes we’re even looking for entertainment as a means of escape, however temporary.

What we don’t want, however, is being asked if we’d like to buy a new toaster oven.

Marketing during a crisis, even one as pervasive as Coronavirus, still provides an opportunity. But a bunch of short-sighted, reactionary, communications-led tactics aren’t the way out of this hole. The solution is more strategic, certainly more subtle, and probably more longer term.

I get that cashflow is falling off a cliff faster than Usain Bolt on crystal meth. But reactionary, desperate, comms-based efforts aren’t the solution. An effective marketing plan will depend on your particular business, industry, and customer expectations. But there’s an argument to be made that the best COVID-19 communications plan right now is no COVID-19 communications at all.

Businesses currently experiencing a backlash in the treatment of their employees – forcing them to go to the office, or to take unpaid leave – will have a tough time rebuilding customer trust. Similarly, using the excuse of a crisis to plug your product, without reading the sentiment of the room, won’t win you many friends.

Branding Is Showing Us Who You Are

Instead of blasting out poorly-considered communications demonstrating as much sensitivity as selling fur coats to vegans, the brands that are building positive sentiment are doing other things.

Brands that get crisis marketing understand that, at the moment, now is probably not the time for big-budget advertising, or contextually-insensitive social media posts. Right now, marketing during a crisis is about showing your customers who you are as a brand.

Maybe you read about luxury goods’ leviathan LVMH changing their perfume production lines to run hand sanitizer? But you didn’t read the press release sent out in advance – because they didn’t send one. You didn’t see them put Bernard Arnault on every news channel, nor was there a conversion-rate optimized landing page on their website. Instead of beating their own drum to score points, they just got on with it. In fact, LVMH shipped 15 tons of sanitizer before anyone even knew what they had done.

Other examples? How about US television station CBS giving everyone free episodes of Star Trek Picard, or Disney releasing Frozen 2 on their new streaming site three months earlier than planned? Or how about Ford changing their scheduled ad campaign at the last minute, to one about how they’re giving customers flexibility with their car payments.

I doubt your business could make such a grand gesture. But I’ll bet there are things you could do with the intention of helping people – customers or otherwise – during this, our collective hour of need.

From a marketing standpoint, does that mean your business should retreat into its shell until the dust settles? Far from it. Recessions or (gulp) depressions are bad – of course they are. But they’re cyclical and impermanent. Now’s not the time to batten down the hatches and hide until the storm’s passed. In fact, quite the opposite.

You shouldn’t stop marketing. However, you probably should stop marketing in the way you’ve been doing. Your job is still to provide information. But the execution probably needs to change.

There’s empirical evidence showing organizations that continue marketing efforts during a crisis bounce back faster and higher once “the new normal” reveals itself. Getting your marketing house in order now will pay dividends down the road. After the 2008 financial meltdown, brands that continued to invest in marketing recovered nine times faster than the ones that didn’t.

The opportunity to generate revenue and build strong relationships remains. However there’s probably a realignment regarding who you reach out to, and the nature of the value proposition with which you decide to lead.

1. Review Your Current Planning

Perhaps that ad campaign, email newsletter, or future blog article needs to be put on hold. Review what you have planned over the next few weeks and months to see if it’s still appropriate to current customer sentiment. Blasting out marketing messages without consideration to the trials and tribulations customers are experiencing right now marks you out as insensitive, or worse.

Are you making opportunistic marketing decisions now (such as a price increase, for example) that customers will judge you on? Are you using customer feedback and/or social media channels to gauge sentiment, to ensure you don’t put your foot in your mouth with upcoming messages and actions?

There is no such thing as being “top of mind” during a pandemic. Your brand comes across as out of touch and opportunistic. Customers aren’t thinking about buying your product. We’ve got more important things on our mind.

Of course your marketing needs to continue. But you need to contextualize why your message still matters in the current environment. What worked yesterday probably won’t work today, let alone tomorrow. Either rethink your messaging to better fit with customers’ worldview, or consider a different type of offer.

2. Adapt To New Customer Behaviors

More than likely, the environment that customers will experience your content will have changed. Already, some companies are re-evaluating their previous aversion to “work from home” employee policies for when things calm down.

Will post-pandemic customer behavior mean a rethink of work-life balance? A stronger commitment to family life? Increased anxieties within social spaces? Global emissions have dropped due to cancelled flights and reduced commuting. Will this kick-start a greener economy?

Behavioral changes may mean the channels customers expect to receive communication will change. Perhaps your new marketing plan will include all those things you’ve been putting off until now. Things like running live-streamed virtual events or webinars, video instruction manuals, or podcasts. Many businesses could better serve customers through digital transformation of internal business systems. Maybe it’s time your online store integrated with your inventory system, accounts software, or customer support platform.

What are you hearing from your market? Develop a new view of your customer, their evolving needs and new attitudes. Maybe there’s an entirely new customer segment that has only now revealed itself. Alternatively, the opportunity may be in market education. Not just in regard to new solutions, but concerning new problems that customers aren’t thinking about today. Does your marketing come from the side of the people, in sympathy with their needs? Or are you seen as just there to sell them something?

3. Review Your Business Model

What will the ‘new normal’ look like for your business, your people, your customers? Will the products you sell still be as fit-for-purpose as they are today? Take stock of current customer acquisition processes, pricing, distribution, sales channels, or even product development.

Maybe now’s the time to pull the trigger on that new website you’ve been promising the sales team? How about working on a better customer (or employee) onboarding process? Does your business accept payment via Apple Pay or Google Pay? Perhaps it’s time to take a look at new automation tools or software to increase internal process efficiencies.

Marketing In “The New Normal”

Things are unlikely to return to how they were before COVID-19. When the new normal reveals itself, marketing will come under increasing pressure to deliver measurable results ASAP. It’s only natural – sales forecasts and business planning made just months ago will have been flushed down the pan. But the reflex to sell immediately is not only myopic: it impedes brand building efforts that generate longer term advocacy.

Now is not the time to beat your corporate chest. It’s time to be seen as a valued corporate citizen. The world does not need vague and empty promises of support, or concern. We’re looking for your help in helping others.

Hang in there, everyone. This too shall pass. Meanwhile, don’t forget to wash your hands.

You’ve been reading Reading The Room: Marketing During A Crisis on KEXINO, a marketing blog for startups and small businesses by Gee Ranasinha.
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