COVID-19 marketing: utility, brand building and horseshit
A focus on survival has replaced consumerism. Yet too many marketers still have their head shoved squarely up their ass. Here are 20 tips for marketers to navigate COVID-19.
(Note: This article was originally published in April 2020, at the start of COVID-19 in Australia.)
The overwhelming majority of Australian businesses are in — hopefully short-term — freefall thanks to COVID-19, and some marketers are struggling.
And business sentiment is largely mirrored society-wide, albeit on a personal note. Our concern for our health, finances, family and future is palpable.
We’ve raced to the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and our once rampant consumerism has been replaced by a focus on survival.
Yet despite this, or potentially in some perverse way because of it, too many marketers are still operating with their head shoved firmly up their ass.
Brands that get it
I’m an optimist at heart, so let’s start with some positivity during this otherwise crazy time.
There are clearly some shining examples of Australian businesses whose marketing leaders have their finger on the pulse.
I never thought I’d say this, but Australia’s banking industry has shown leadership and empathy. (I still can’t believe I wrote that!)
Their collective marketing and broader communications have generally been on point during this time of financial crisis, as has the Australian Bankers Association.
Equally, they have dialled up appropriate messaging around the importance of their employees’ mental and physical safety — something they should be commended for.
But it’s not just the big boys. Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA) typifies a smaller company that is shaping the best practice playbook. And for their members, having access to the right information can literally be the difference between life or death.
Within days BCNA created a bespoke coronavirus landing page, opened their call centre on weekends, undertook a media blitz to make sure people received relevant and accurate information, and recorded a coronavirus specific podcast in response to unprecedented enquiries.
And their distribution, through myriad channels, was seamless, despite having one of the smallest (albeit most talented) marketing and comms teams in the country.
I’ve also been blown away by the speed of response, and generosity, of some global behemoths:
- Zara is producing scrubs for hospitals and making its logistics and supplier network, especially in China, available.
- Novartis commits to supply 130 million free doses of malaria hydroxychloroquine, if it’s effective against COVID19. And they released a $20 million global fund to support impacted communities.
- LVMH, the world’s largest luxury company, is using three of its cosmetics facilities to produce and distribute free hand sanitizer. It is also supplying several million surgical masks.
These companies are being genuinely compassionate, useful, timely and relevant.
They have focused on what they can do to help, not sell. They have made values-based decisions, looked beyond profits, and taken a long-term view. This is how you build long-standing salience and reputation.
Some marketers need to adapt — NOW!
Unfortunately, these leading lights are the exception and not the rule. (But now is the time for empathy and kindness, so I have decided not to name and shame.)
Like you, I am still:
- Seeing too much self-aggrandising, tone-deaf marketing and customer comms.
- Being retargeted for products that are not important at this point in time.
- Receiving far too many automated messages and sales promotions.
- Being bombarded with sales messages on websites, when all I want to understand is what this company is doing regarding my personal situation — i.e. purchasing food, assessing loan terms, checking my ever-dwindling Super, trying to understand if my insurance covers me if I get sick.
- Having my inbox clogged with inane notices from businesses I haven’t dealt with for years, all telling me about their internal COVID-19 response.
- Being asked if I want to have sales meetings with people I’ve never met, who have little relevance to my business. I would not have met them a month ago — why in God’s name would I meet them now?
This is unequivocally not the time to bastardise your reputation in the pursuit of selfish, short-term targets.
People are concerned about their health and their loved ones. They are worried about how they can feed their families and protect them. They do not have the bandwidth for a lot of the misguided marketing dribble some believe is important.
Would all businesses like more sales? Of course, we all would — irrespective of whether you’re ‘Joe’ the bartender, pub owner, or travel agent. Everyone wants to be able to go to work and to support themselves and their loved ones.
But this situation is what it is. So please don’t prostitute your values, disrespect society and blatantly try to profiteer during this time of upheaval.
What should we as marketers and comms professionals do?
There is no singular approach that is right for all audiences and brands. And just as the situation is morphing at light speed, what is appropriate for marketers today may be very different to yesterday.
Here are 20 tips — in no particular order — for marketers to consider that span big and small business, as well as B2C/B brands:
- Invest in long-term brand building. But please do it in a way that’s relevant to people today. Recognise their pain points and show how you are adding value to individuals or society. This is your chance to demonstrate how you live your brand values unequivocally.
2. This is particularly true for in-demand brands, like online fitness apps or food delivery services. Consider how you can add value to, and scale your audience. We can’t go past Lush’s personal hygiene campaign, where they used their storefront, as well as online, to educate people on how to wash their hands correctly.
3. My favourite word: utility. We don’t all have LVMH or Novartis’ budgets, infrastructure, or supply chain… and we don’t have to. For instance, HCF has drawn a line in the sand regarding parents of teenagers, and they’re producing high quality content designed to empower discrete audience. Utility = trust = long-term commercial outcomes.
4. Nurture your tribe. You have worked hard to build up a tribe. Don’t go quiet. Instead, continue to build a meaningful connection by adding value, guiding and supporting them. For instance, if you sell athletics apparel, consider talking to your tribe about how to stay fit and healthy indoors. This aligns your expertise and positioning, and may provide partnership opportunities — i.e. live streaming with one of your ambassadors. Just leave out crass promotional offers or discounts that will quickly erode trust.
5. Enhance user experience. Our job is to make our customers lives easier. Ensure your owned channels make it as seamless as possible for them to find, or do, what they want during these challenging times. Too many businesses are not surfacing COVID-19 information front and centre on their channels, updating it, or tailoring for specific audiences and pain points.
6. Make sure your marketing is relevant. Telstra has done a tremendous job of ensuring their advertising flexes in response to change. They haven’t decreased spend, but have instead refocussed it to ensure they’re not promoting products stuck in China, or that are insensitive. Similarly, McDonald’s is using old creative for TV that focuses on their drive-through experience. Low cost, but highly relevant and intelligent.
7. Nail your messaging. Be genuine in all of your communications and show you care about both your employees and customers.
8. Demonstrate how you’re true to your mission. Despite what you write, people remember what you do, and how you do it. For example, Atlassian is providing many of its tools to small teams for free. Why? Because their mission is to help unleash the potential of every team. Now more than ever, actions speak louder than words.
9. Retention trumps acquisition. Too many businesses have the 70–30 acquisition vs retention pyramid inverted. We all know it’s far easier — and cheaper — to prosper by growing existing business. Will you retain all of your existing business? Unlikely. Is it far better to focus on supporting, partnering with, and delighting the customers you have? In my humble opinion, yes.
10. Redirect trade and sponsorship into content and distribution. Typically 30–40 per cent of many B2B marketing budgets are allocated to tradeshow sponsorships and activations. Instead, invest this in thought leadership content that can be used either now or in the future, and targeted to a very specific niche audience.
11. Turn off short-term promotions. We ran our first ever lead gen campaign one week before COVID-19 hit hard in Australia. The campaign was — in our humble opinion — a cracking idea, added value for customers, and we put a lot of effort into it. But the climate was wrong, so we shut it down.
12. Rethink your media mix. Social isolation renders out-of-home (OOH) advertising largely useless. It seems simple, but optimise your marketing mix so it makes sense for the here and now. And consider if you’d be better off reinvesting that spend into owned channels, amplified through digital. OOH at cinemas, airports, railways, intersections etc, are categorically not going to give you anywhere the yield they did last month.
13. Transition f2f relationships online. Let’s pick an industry that relies a lot on personal relationships, like investment banking, accounting or private equity. You can still have one-on-one conversations, but technology can enable you to scale it to many. Now more than ever, people want advice from a trusted source. Forget the format; this is a chance to start leveraging content to build relationships that will come into its own down the track.
14. Please, not another ‘free’ webinar! Enough said. Unless you’re truly adding value, stop adding to the noise.
15. Increased internet usage does not equal sales. Recognise and understand that shopping is not the solace of everyone’s isolation. Yes, internet usage will go up exponentially — largely thanks to people having a lot more free time to kill. A large chunk of this will be spent on gaming, movies, and social media — particularly for parents with kids. Will there be some shopping? Yes. But, I would suggest, it’s a far less discretionary spend than ever before. Recognise and understand this.
16. Social listening is an asset. In times like these, social media can provide an unfiltered view of people’s pain points and emotions. Pay particular attention to your tribe as well as macro trends, data and conversations.
17. Accept lower search volumes. There will be huge drops in organic traffic for most non-essential businesses. Accept this, but with a caveat — you must ensure now more than ever that important content, if not your whole site, is optimised properly. And understand you may need to invest in SEM.
18. You’re not Amazon. You may have, or perceive, an option to transition to e-commerce. But be warned, you’re competing with online retailers like Amazon who have highly adept supply chain and fulfilment infrastructure. Be careful not to overpromise and underdeliver.
19. Plan for the future. For some businesses and marketing teams, with both the cashflow and bandwidth, this may be an opportunity to focus on how you capitalise on opportunities when we do come out the other side of this. (Remember though, even if your business has the capacity, emotionally your employees may not. Please be kind and respectful.)
20. Don’t stick your head in the sand: Perhaps more than anything else, recognise this is not business as usual for anyone. We are all scared on multiple levels. That fantastic acquisition strategy you wrote for 2020, rip it up — at least for now. In times of crisis, your focus must be on your audience, not internal targets.
Marketing is often maligned, sometimes justly and sometimes not. But this is our collective opportunity to help be the voice of customers, as well as your organisation’s social conscience.
I know what side I’m on — I hope you’re with me.
And most importantly, during these crazy times, stay safe and be kind. We will come through this.