By nature marketers are a competitive lot. Nothing gets the adrenaline pumping faster than surpassing sales projections, beating the control, dislodging competitors, or nailing a long-awaited product launch. However, COVID-19 has completely pulled the rug out from under all our nicely laid plans.
In these days and times, we can no longer afford to operate the way we did before. Most importantly, the customer can no longer be seen as a means to an end. The customer must be our reason for being. There is much to be done, and in every step, in every decision, we must rethink the basics. And when we answer those questions will guide the answers.
As we lay down new marketing plans, we are faced with planning for at least two realities—right now and later.
In the ‘right now’ reality, our questions are:
- What does our customer want or need right now?
- What will our customer buy right now?
- How can we help right now given our resources?
- What changes do we need to make right now to make this happen?
In the ‘later’ reality, our questions will be:
- What will our customer likely want or need in 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, and beyond?
- What will our customer likely buy in 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, and beyond?
- How can we help in 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, and beyond given our expected resources?
- What changes will we need to make in 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, and beyond to make this happen?
In our old normal, there is often not a huge difference in the answers to these now and later questions within a year’s stretch of time, except for seasonality or a huge structural shift such as a merger, acquisition, or sell-off. But, amidst COVID-19, circumstances change rapidly, necessitating us to constantly be asking and re-asking ourselves these questions.
Stay-at-home measures have drastically changed customer behavior and spending patterns, both in what people buy, how much they buy, how they buy, and IF they buy at all. The scramble to find footing in this environment will be a constant challenge.
Three Trends to Expect
Economic Uncertainty Continues
Given the state of the world, this is no shocker. COVID-19 is not going gently into the night. Whether we encounter a secondary resurgence after stay-at-home measures are lifted or an annual visitation launching new waves of the epidemic, until vaccines and treatment are readily available, the GDP will continue to take a hit. Too many people have lost jobs, too many are unable to get unemployment or other financial support, and those fortunate enough to still have incomes are unsettled, spending a lesser portion of their discretionary dollars. Some sources project as much as a 40-50% decline in consumer and B2B spending in the year to come.
Buying Digitally is Here to Stay
Whether you subscribe to the ‘21 days to form a new habit’ belief or newer research that shows it takes 66 days, either way we are there. In both consumer and B2B markets, the pandemic forced many who had seldom to never purchased online to learn how, and across the board most of us now do a much larger portion of our buying online. In the process, new purchase habits have formed, whether that means an online shopping cart purchase or a more involved sales process made up of videoconferencing and phone calls. Even in the ‘later’ reality when we can again shop in person, there is no doubt that a much larger percentage of sales will continue to be online driven.
Openness to New Brands
With product shortages, people are more willing to try substitutes in place of long-favored brands. Assuming the replacement product experience is a good one, there is an opportunity for new habits to form around product choice as well. For others, openness to try new brands Is born of economic necessity—here lowest price will win.
Strategies for Right Now
Regardless of your business situation, work to keep communication lines open. Marketers will need to keep customers abreast of rapidly changing product availability, pricing, and means of doing business. Let your clientele know you’re thinking of them, support them now however you can, and share that you will be ready to work with them when the time is right.
But, don’t stop there. There is a host of ways that marketers can save the day right now.
Your Marketing To-Do List Right Now:
- Know Your Budget. You’ll need to do more with less than usual. Help lead the way to ensure the financial house in check.
- Stay lean.
- Do not overextend.
- Work towards more substantial reserves.
- Innovate. It’s time to let your idea people and master problem-solvers take the lead, looking for unique ways to break out from the competition.
- Be nimble.
- Be ready to speed up decision-making. If you take a month to launch a new service, you may have already missed the opportunity.
- Realign your marketing.
- Redefine your market, products, benefits, promotions, vendors, inventory.
- Test, test, test—launch quickly, evaluate quickly, rollout quickly.
- Drop what’s not working, the sooner the better. These products and services can be tested anew when the market changes, as it inevitably will.
- Show you care. Advertising should focus on how you care and how you can help. Resist hard-hitting sales pitches just because you are open for business again—and it should go without saying, absolutely no COVID-19 Sales!
- Make it personal. In addition to instituting policies to keep everyone safe, now more than ever, people want to be noticed. Call customers and staff by name, smile behind the face mask (yes, we can tell), and go over and beyond in service. Basic courtesies we should always practice need to be front and center now.
- Beef up alternate contact strategies and digital platforms. Consider now how to do more business online, use videoconferencing and webinar capabilities, or if pertinent to your business, promote delivery and carry-out services. Not only will these avenues continue to serve the trend, but you’ll be ready for any future disruptions to in-person connections.
- Utilize downtime. Consider how you and your staff can effectively use downtime, whether that is getting ready for business to reopen, planning future business initiatives, or absorbing new professional or skills training.
- Take care of the community at large. While our first goal must be to stay in business, can serving the larger community be a part of the solution? Some businesses have empowered furloughed staff to make and donate masks for their communities. Distilleries have adapted to make hand sanitizers, and manufacturing plants have retooled to make ventilators. This kind of service mentality, born from a place of empathy, will benefit these businesses as they reopen. People will remember.
- Outline your planning guide now for the next disaster. While this may not be a 100% marketing-led initiative, marketing will play a critical role. Marketers are needed to plan how to handle potential product/service interruption and affected clientele, to project business impact, and to communicate disaster preparation and business continuation plans to various stakeholders. As communication experts, marketers are in the best possible position to create this playbook, with input from HR, IT, Operations, and other vital areas. Even if all you have time to do now is keep a checklist using the current situation as the real-life run-through, there’s no better time to start.
Strategies for Later
Once business has somewhat stabilized and you’ve tackled the more critical issues at hand, now it’s time to deal with the ‘later.’
Your Marketing To-Do List Later (and soon-to-become right now):
- Continue the new measures you established in 2020, both for protection and growth. Financial stability, stronger communications with all stakeholders, innovation, nimbleness, and a solid technology infrastructure will continue to be important.
- Take strategic planning seriously. Create teams to look at burgeoning opportunities as well as potential threats for the next year, three years, five and in some cases ten years. Understand where your weak points are and work to shore them up. Flesh out your business continuation playbook now that some time has passed from your first draft.
- Revisit your branding and what makes you unique. Ensure that your brand is consistently applied across all marketing channels.
- Build out your customer journey process with regular communication and personalized support.
- Seek out the right people. Both in marketing and in other areas of the company, specific HR strategies must be put in place to recruit, hire, and develop people with the types of skills set you will need to accomplish your plans.
We will get past this pandemic. Once vaccines and treatments are commonplace, our lives and businesses will settle on a new normal even if it takes a while to get there. The question is: When that day comes, what will we have learned? Have we learned how to better serve our customers? Better care for our staff? Found ways to support our community? Have we learned to innovate? Are we ready for the next unexpected turn?
The more of those lessons we can master, the sooner we can navigate our way to an even better future.
Be sure to check out our section on Mastering Marketing.