While some may be tempted to implement a “wait and see” approach to growth, it’s decisive forward-thinking action that wins the day. Generally speaking, marketing budgets should not be considered a soft target for companies looking to cut expenses. That’s a short-term fix with potentially devastating long-term consequences. If you intend to be successful for the long-haul and enjoy a quick recovery, it’s time to lean in to branding and marketing in this unprecedented Coronavirus economy assuming you are in a cash position to do so. If the stimulus package is as robust as rumored, most companies should see notably improved cash reserves.
You can generally segment businesses into three groups given this new reality forced upon us:
(1) Those that rely almost entirely on foot traffic and are forced to temporarily shutter their doors such as restaurants and traditional retail.
(2) Those that must adjust their strategy to one that is more digital or virtual in nature in order to maintain revenue such as B2B service companies that can no longer sell face to face.
(3) Those that are thriving with little incremental effort due to the fortunate position they find themselves in – either supporting areas of need through the pandemic (such as healthcare suppliers) or e-commerce companies which are thriving due to consumers being forced online for nearly all of their day-to-day purchasing needs.
Regardless of which vertical you represent, maintaining visibility in your market is essential for long-term profitability and growth.
The Awe-Inspiring Courage of Business Leadership
The RedRover pack and I have an unusual vantage point for the pandemic. We are in the trenches every day with our clients through this crisis, strategizing with CEOs and marketing executives about how to ensure a strong footing on the other side of it. We are understandably seeing a range of emotions including anger, anxiety and fear. And then we see these same executives set aside those feelings and get down to the business of strategy with a laser precision that’s downright awe inspiring. They are courageous and decisive in selecting their path forward. These are our everyday heroes – losing sleep over making payroll and feeding families, and powering through regardless.
Over the next several weeks, I’ll be sharing the most effective marketing strategies that forward-thinking companies are executing during this crisis. My hope is that you’ll find additional inspiration to advance your vision forward with a full-on marketing offensive.
Let’s begin with branding – as that’s the foundation of your company. Despite what you may think, branding isn’t who you say you are. It’s what your customers think you are.
Recognize the Colossal Brand-Building Opportunity in Front of You
Whether a few tweaks to your strategy are all that’s necessary or you are in a vertical where no level of discounting or promotion will drive consumers to spend, now is the time for fearless brand building. It’s an opportunity to influence how the market defines your brand – perhaps irrevocably so.
Consumers are online with more available time now than ever. Take advantage of that captive audience by showing – versus telling – them what you stand for.
The infamous billionaire Richard Branson has spent the better part of his career preaching that employees are most important to the Virgin model. The world took notice when he said “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of clients.” Fast forward to the Coronavirus, where Virgin Atlantic’s initial response was to force its employees to take eight weeks of unpaid leave amid decreases in flight demand.
The world will return to normal eventually. People will again eat in restaurants, patronize bars, take trips, shop locally, and enjoy movies and the theater. Business executives will again attend trade shows and meet in person. Ask yourself about the likely state of your brand when it does. Will it be elevated, tarnished or just irrelevant because your voice wasn’t heard? Pressing pause on your brand-building for the next several months will be incredibly costly ground to regain because some of the fiercest brand loyalty comes during times of crisis.
Certainly, Virgin Atlantic is in a vertical where no clever sales promotions were going to drive demand in this Coronavirus reality in which most consumers are paralyzed with fear and hunkered down in their homes. Regardless, though, the airline giant nearly missed a golden opportunity to shift public perception and elevate their brand further by taking a stand and proving to the world that they actually live by their core values. Branson ultimately realized the optics of the situation and announced on March 23rd a pledge of 215 million to protect Virgin jobs. That will no doubt be Branson’s legacy through this crisis, and it will do much to build even stronger brand loyalty.
In a few verticals, short-term performance marketing and sales promotions can certainly pay off right now. For others, this type of marketing will underperform given the current market conditions. The larger opportunity available for all brands is longer-term brand-building. So how do you do that?
Take a Stand – This is the time to shout from the rooftops your company core values and to show the world that you live by them even in the toughest of times. Integrity is doing the right thing even when it’s hard.
How can you get the word out? By contacting local or trade media to share the story of how your team is supporting your community and customers, by calling each of your key accounts to see what they need and bending over backwards to deliver it even when it’s well outside of your service offering, and leveraging your social-media army (your employees) to share the story of how your team rallies together for the greater good when times are toughest.
Deploy Cause Marketing – Is there a deserving charity in need where you and your team could make a difference – one that is particularly meaningful to your customers right now? Identify a cause that fits, design and deploy your give-back strategy which often includes rolling up your sleeves and offering sweat equity, and tap an internal team member to journal your efforts – including photos and video. Not only do you have the ability to shine the media spotlight on a charity in need, but your brand will be elevated in the process.
Offer Meaningful Aid – If you have customers negatively impacted by this pandemic, what kind of meaningful support can you offer that won’t break the bank? Consider complimentary services, a personal care package, relevant introductions to strategic partners that offer value, or even a small distraction that may help them gain perspective. This goodwill will do much to elevate your brand and strengthen loyalty with current customers.
Deepen Relationships – This is the time to lean in and invest in forging even stronger relationships with your key accounts. Just be sure to approach it from a place of generosity. How are they fairing? What obstacles are they facing? What do they need?
Be a Bridge Builder – If you sell equipment to the restaurant industry, restaurants clearly aren’t buying. Could you be a bridge builder that brings together local restauranteurs so they can pool their talent and ideas into a single market-wide strategy designed to ensure they have the cashflow to re-open when consumers venture out again?
Rally Your Team – Branding starts on the inside with your team. In times of chaos, leaders tend to under-communicate. They’re focused on solving problems and removing obstacles after all. You can’t invest too much in communicating with your team – your confidence in the future, your strategies for overcoming and growing, and your support of them. This is also a time when leaders forgo their questioning skills in the rush to move on to the next task. Nothing says “I care about you” like a leader who asks thoughtful questions and actively listens. And when your staff is virtual, you’ll need more communication than ever.
Be a Thought Leader – If you have expertise in a field that’s in demand right now, it’s your responsibility to speak up. Thought leaders look to the future and set a course that others will follow. Reach out to local or industry media to inquire about stories in the works where you could lend your expertise. Or better yet, write your own original content featuring your unfiltered views with the goal of creating disruption and new thinking. If your “voice” is unique, you might even be able to negotiate a regular column with an industry trade publication.
Develop a Unified Brand Voice – This is the ideal time to examine the strength and consistency of your brand so that you are positioned for dominance through the recovery.
Are you creating a client experience that motivates client commitment? Brand harmony happens when you create a unified brand experience where all customer touchpoints blend to tell a consistent, compelling, differentiating story. Are you creating brand harmony or brand dissonance?
Start by asking yourself what you want your customers to believe about your brand and how you want that story coming to life as they interact with your team, your website, etc. Then conduct a customer experience audit where you map out every customer touchpoint (e.g., website, collateral, sales team contact, billing department contact, website chat, customer service). There are likely dozens of touchpoints. Rate how well you are delivering on that ideal customer experience at each individual touch point. Develop an action plan for creating a truly unified brand experience.
Kimpton Hotels creates a unified brand experience by training and recognizing employees for creating Kimpton Moments which are guest encounters where the hotel employee moves heaven and earth to deliver a truly personalized, memorable experience for their guests. Employees are rewarded, promoted and measured based on their ability to consistently create these special moments. What is your version of the Kimpton Moments?
At the end of the day, the Coronavirus economy is an opportunity to prove your grit. While many of your competitors will take a wait-and-see approach, you will race past them as the economy rebounds by playing offense and leaning in to branding and marketing in times of crisis. Be decisive and assertive. Test and pivot until you land on a strategy that resonates. Maintain high visibility in the market for long-term profitability and growth.