Marketing in a time of crisis

Sandra Pretorius

Sandra Pretorius

Marketing Director at Reapit

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Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

As it stands now, the human race is neck deep in times of challenge and controversy. And as ever, where there is chaos there are both the heroes of the battlefield, emerging from the unlikeliest of places, and the scoundrels ready to score. Unsurprisingly we’re seeing the same thing happening in the world of brands.

In essence branding is the process of creating a brand’s personality through what it wears (think design and creative), what it says (PR, social), where it goes (events) and what it supports and believes in (CSR). If you do it right, your target audience will relate to your brand on a very personal and emotional level, much like they would to another person. Then there is Marketing, which is a lot like playing on Tinder with that brand personality. For the consumer, this constant game of ‘options dating’ can be exhausting, especially when we’re wired to avoid loss at any cost. And yet most of us now accept that you have to kiss several frogs before you find a prince in each product category – mostly because it’s really hard to judge a brand by its polished, agency designed cover. Unless there’s a pandemic like Covid-19 – an unrivalled equalizer and façade stripper. In the face of loss and survival, we’re suddenly seeing brands show up as their truest self on social media and in the press. 

Some brands have emerged as honest-to-goodness heroes, doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, asking neither recognition nor knighthood for it. And then there are brands that are becoming either hated or irrelevant because their messaging was either patronising or disconnected, or both. David Ogilvy famously said that we’re marketing to a moving parade. But the parade’s been cancelled, the band disbanded, and the members sent home indefinitely. Doesn’t look like some brands have even noticed. Swipe left asap.  

So how might brands adjust their marketing in what many are calling ‘unprecedented times’? After all, few of us took Pandemic Marketing 101 at uni. Below are a few suggestions, and whilst they are by no means perfect nor exhaustive, they are rooted in the fact that brands, like people, can choose how they show up in a crisis. 

#1 – Stop selling, start saving and solving.

With revenue dropping fast in most industries, the instinctive response is to find ways to sell more, faster. The challenge is that most consumers don’t want to be sold to in a time of crisis, they want to be helped. They want to see heroes step up and find ways to solve their problems and save the day. Capt. Tom Moore and his phenomenal fund-raising appeal for the NHS is a textbook example of this.

Which is why marketing’s main objective in a crisis should change from grabbing share of wallet to grabbing share of mind, preferably top of mind, even if no one is buying. And how that gets done is just as important as that it gets done. 

Help your customers and prospects to remember you by giving them an unforgettable reason to do so: start by respecting the psychology of the customer when trying to find ways to help. Are you worried? So is your customer. Overwhelmed? Kids driving you crazy? Tired? So is your customer. We’re all helping outside of our traditional spheres – could your brand do the same? Customers and prospects alike can be amazingly generous with their brand love when they see your company trying hard to save and solve. 

Of course, if you really want to save the day, find a way to empower your customers by freeing up their funds to either stay afloat or have a little extra with which to reach out to their communities to help. There are several businesses right now that can afford to reduce their premiums because we drive less, adventure less, get out less etc. but there are also a myriad of other opportunities that can be seized, especially by those businesses showing growth in this time. Be fair and generous when you review ways in which you can help, and then go ahead and take that risk, because history is full of heroes who did just that and are remembered to this day. Ever heard of Florence Nightingale?

A word of caution though: people have inborn radars for spotting the sale dressed as a sacrifice, and the resulting disappointment, amplified by the emotionally charged state of the world right now, could end up taking your brand down a very slippery slope towards total rejection.

#2 – Have real conversations

When the world is spinning at just the right speed and your Costa coffee is perfectly heated, the veneer that covers it all tends to stay in place. But life has stopped spinning in many ways, the veneer has melted off and several weeks into the crisis customers are left with a profound awareness that nothing is a given anymore. Conversations are turning from shiny fluff to big questions and gritty topics, from inward focussed to outward serving. Can your brand carry a real, human conversation on a relevant topic in the public space? If not, now is probably not a great time to talk about the price of veneer. 

#3 – Rock the night shift

For many businesses night has fallen, and with it their marketing departments have gone dark too. But just because your PPC budget flatlined or your events got cancelled does not mean that the door to marketing should display the closed sign. Think about it – has there ever been a better time to have meaningful conversations with your customers than in the still of night when you can actually hear each other? This is the time to double up on customer care. 

It’s also the time to double up on good old marketing housekeeping, whether that is to finally dig deeper into customer data, improve navigation on your e-commerce site, review the analysis of web traffic performance or whatever else has been lurking in the shadows of your project management app. 

Take stock of where you are right now and commit to sharpening the blade: have you got clear, documented and unified processes in your department? Have you got the best technology to get the job done – there’s no time like the present to review competitive products available. Are there any extra skills your team can learn during their time at home or whilst on furlough? Coursera offers a fantastic range of free courses from highly respected universities and institutions across the globe that can make a huge difference to your team’s overall efficiency when they are back on track. 

#4 – Use a burning platform to drive innovation

Albert Einstein noted that in the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity. We all know that the crisis will end – so how are we using this time to learn and apply the lessons taught by the storm? Think of yourself as a consumer and how this crisis has changed you. If you’ve changed, so have your customers and prospects. Which means there has never been a more opportune time to drive change and innovation to make sure your company stays in step with your evolved customer. Consider the refinement of processes and products, how you interact with your customers, how you can better serve…the list goes on, but it all starts with an awareness that the pace has changed – because the last thing any brand wants at the end of this crisis is a Dear John that says “It’s not you, it’s me – I’ve changed”.

#5 – Trust your gutfeel

When in doubt, don’t. Oprah Winfrey once wrote that where there is even a split second of doubt, there is reason enough for pause. She reflected how, whenever she was hesitant, she would honour that feeling by digging deeper no matter how great the opportunity seemed. An approach that has saved her from several bad decisions in her life. As marketers we don’t have a whole lot to go on these days, with hardly any comparable stats and data trends to guide our marketing plans. Which means that there has probably never been a better time to let your moral compass and your gutfeel work in tandem than right now. 

If you’re not convinced that the offer to your clients is the best you can do, then don’t even go there. With so many hero acts on display, there’s a different yardstick in town these days – and whether we like it or not, brands are also being measured by a higher standard of care and contribution.

In closing

It takes a lot of courage to be a good marketer because you’re always pioneering new campaigns, ideas, pricing, channels, plans – and even more so in a time of crisis. But if ever there was a time to have courage under fire, this must surely be it. Get out there, do the right thing, and be present in the lives of your customers, because that’s what real people and brands do when the storm rolls in.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.