Marketing during a pandemic is tough, particularly for small businesses. Public fear, social distancing, job security, economic distress and a host of other factors have affected commerce across the globe.
While businesses engaging in essential goods and services may get by, it’s those in non-essential segments that face the brunt of the crisis. Most do not have contingency plans for marketing during a pandemic. The preferred course of action for many is to cut costs immediately. This usually begins with downsizing followed by axing the marketing budget.
With the expectation of lower footfall, businesses prefer a skeleton staff. But, lowering marketing spends causes a further decrease in potential shoppers, whether in-store or online, consequently setting in motion another round of cost reductions. This appears to be a myopic approach to the problem.
One trap that many businesses fall into is failing to incorporate the right message into their marketing, one that is appropriate for the circumstance. They rely instead on typical ploys and practices used previously to boost sales. In other words, they don’t pivot.
Another misstep is neglecting corporate social responsibility (CSR), something that customers pay close attention to during times like this. Nothing says more about a company than the steps taken to support society.
These Aren’t Normal Times
During the course of the pandemic, many readers would have found themselves on the receiving end of discount coupons, special promotions and other loyalty based incentives. Most would have focused on attractive deals as opposed to addressing the elephant in the room – a raging pandemic. This business as usual approach is a recipe for failure. It casts a rather negative perception of the business.
I’m sure, several businesses would have felt very little yield from such efforts and eventually pulled the plug on further spending. Unwittingly, they attribute lower response rates to the pandemic instead of poor messaging and/or operational models.
The new normal warrants a different approach to dealing with customers. There is a genuine shift in the way people think. Fear is a very strong motivator for behavioral change. How you tackle that mental state is much more important than promotional prowess.
How Some Businesses Began Marketing During A Pandemic
Customers want to know what your business is doing to ensure health and safety measures are in place. Businesses like Amazon set the stage by instituting a three-pronged covid-19 response plan aimed at employees, customers and the community at large. You may follow the link to their blog post to read about their many initiatives. Domino’s offered a contactless service for pizza pick-ups which it advertised to a great degree on multiple media platforms. Promotional offers weren’t much of a focal point for them.
“But that’s Amazon and Domino’s”, some may say. I get that. So let’s talk about small businesses and how some have found new ways to stay afloat during these difficult times. A local restaurant here in Houston was socially active in the community long before the pandemic struck. During the pandemic, they offered free meals to those less fortunate, closed on-premise dining proactively and promoted incentivised takeaways through its online portal. In addition, their ad copy didn’t run like sales pitches. Patrons were not only taken aback by their generosity but also supported the cause through their orders.
Similarly, Vishala, a local grocer, who operated without a website or home delivery, set up a makeshift ordering system with curbside pickup. The rudimentary system ran primarily on email with a call back for confirmation. They let people know through those personal conversations what they were doing to address health and safety concerns. That approach didn’t cost much at all.
Similarly, Ovenly, a New York based retail and wholesale bakery, revamped its operations to offer contactless in-store transactions and to-go windows aimed at addressing public safety concerns. The Bow & Arrow Brewing Company in New Mexico depended on revenue from customers visiting their taproom. In light of lower footfall, they purchased a canning line and released two in-house brands which sold out faster than expected. Both businesses promoted their initiatives through social media, even appearing at a roundtable discussion on a CNBC live stream.
The point I’m trying to make is that, conducting marketing activities with a ‘business as usual‘ approach does not make sense in an environment that’s not equipped to accept it. At the same time, adjusting the business model to meet the new normal is mandatory for survival. Wishful thinking and hoping for a return to the good old days will not suffice.
Not Marketing During A Pandemic And Losing Brand Equity
If you decide to hunker down until the worst has passed, it’s very likely that many will forget about you when the sun shines again. In the interim, you would have lost valuable market share to competition if they chose the other route.
Downsizing, in addition, leaves a negative and terrible aftertaste in the market. Unfortunately, news like this tends to linger and garner more media attention resulting in a negative view of the business.
Now, downsizing may be inevitable in many organizations to stay above water, a fact understood and reluctantly accepted widely. But, how that strategy is managed is critical. An interesting article on this subject is available on HBR.
Branding And Corporate Social Responsibility
Corporate social responsibility should not lag far behind during such times. Businesses need to show their support for the community, a community that helps them stay in business. In addition to financial contributions, some companies pledge not to retrench employees, others distribute free essential goods, some create processes to help the vulnerable and some donate time to those in need.
Deloitte, for instance, partners with Age Action with volunteer work. Kroger provides restricted hours for senior citizens and high-risk groups. Practices like these spread through word-of-mouth and other media channels which only helps elevates the brand equity.
CSR scores jump when businesses act and give back. Those that manage the crisis with compassion may create more value for themselves when we turn the corner. For more information on CSR and branding opportunities, do read the post – The Necessity For Ethical Branding, available on this blog.
Currently, with people staying and working from home, purchasing patterns and media consumption is also changing. In fact, according to a recent Nielsen report, there is a 60% increase in video content watched globally. Additionally, FMCG e-commerce sales, news, current events and the amount of time spent on mobile devices have substantially risen year on year. These are opportunities for marketers to re-calibrate their campaigns.
Drastically reducing marketing during a pandemic is probably not the best idea. Cutting spends will weaken a brands position when life returns to some variant of normal.
Though the situation is unnerving and sales may fall in the short-term, it is important for companies to continue to invest in their brand/s. Following customer behaviors and media trends should help businesses navigate these uncharted waters. And, scripting messages that align with consumer sentiments will be critical to success both in the short and long term.