We are living in historic times, experiencing a global health crisis and the resulting economic impacts. In these unprecedented times, many are fighting to keep their businesses running, balancing work and family life while staying at home.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the privilege of developing crisis strategies for clients as well as speaking on the importance of brand pivots and staying relevant and visible. My key piece of advice is to avoid going dark completely during a crisis, as that won’t help keep your business alive.
Take Airbnb as an example. At the end of March, the company reportedly opted to halt marketing activities to cut an estimated $800 million in 2020. Airbnb’s internal valuation decreased by 16%, and the company saw a 40% drop in bookings.
While the drop in bookings can likely be attributed to customers’ travel concerns and stay-at-home orders, the point is that when companies can’t change course to meet market demands or during a crisis, they don’t fare well. Remember Blockbuster?
On the other hand, we saw companies launch during the Great Recession and were able to thrive.
My point? During a down economy or a crisis, you want to be seen and heard. You could opt to be a brand that does good or a brand that makes people feel good. So, yes, brands must pivot from their normal activities and course correct.
Here are my thoughts on what brands, especially small businesses, can do during a crisis.
Make empathy part of brand messaging.
Irrespective of company size, every business must change its focus and messaging during a crisis, whether it’s a natural disaster like a hurricane or a global pandemic such as COVID-19. In both cases, people are impacted — employees, customers and communities.
The corporate message must show empathy in some form. You could start by posting a message on various channels acknowledging the disaster and how people can reach you (website and social channels). Second, once you’ve identified your purpose, reach out to organizations to see how you can help, from delivering meals to manufacturing ventilators.
Ford was one of the first brands that I noticed make a pivot during the recent pandemic. Ford pulled all its ads (subscription required) about selling cars and replaced them with a new campaign focused on providing financial assistance to customers impacted by the pandemic. Needless to say, the response was positive and it was a great way to engage with customers.
Be helpful. Don’t sell.
Remove your scheduled social posts promoting sales sheets and product webinars. Replace them with helpful short videos, infographics and pictures that show what your brand is doing to help the community. Turn your webinars into tips and videos into tutorials. You could also share images of people dropping off masks or building homes after a hurricane, or working from home to help customers alongside their pets and kids.
For example, one of my clients not only donated their software, but also collaborated with a team of engineers and medical professionals globally and volunteered their expertise to help make masks, producing 50,000 in only four weeks. Highlighting efforts of such social good in visuals and stories can break through the clutter and show a brand’s human side and that we are all in this together — be it a recession or a pandemic.
In short, don’t be tone-deaf and continue selling. Be helpful. Be a resource. And once the crisis is over, people will be more likely to remember and come to you.
While we are working from home, we can still remain visible. Participate in virtual networking sessions and offer to lead a virtual discussion on topics that you are an expert in. You can also create platforms for people to share ideas and concerns so they can stay connected, not isolated.
For example, an organization I’m a part of started hosting a virtual networking session every Wednesday morning. I am also hosting the organization’s fireside chat to give influencers a platform to help and educate people on a variety of topics while showcasing their expertise. Yes, it’s additional work, but we hope that once the crisis is over, we’ll see an increase in membership and corporate sponsorships.
Be creative. Give back.
Brands like Zara and Dyson pivoted their manufacturing facilities to design face masks and hospital gowns and ventilators, respectively. Many small businesses are giving back in their own way, from cooking for healthcare professionals to making hand sanitizer. My favorite is the New York donut shop that is featuring Dr. Anthony Fauci on their donuts to thank the doctor for his hard work. Last I heard, those donuts were flying off the shelves.
Find creative ways that align with your brand’s mission and capabilities to give back during a crisis, and do so genuinely and authentically.
“These are all good ideas, but how do I get started?” is a question I get from small businesses and startups. Here’s my response:
• Avoid knee-jerk reactions with marketing budget cuts. Companies often consider the marketing function as superfluous. In reality, brand building is a long-term effort. Cutting back and going dark means the brand loses mindshare, which can translate to a loss of sales down the road.
• Leverage your corporate marketing professionals. They are the experts in corporate positioning and brand building, even on a shoestring budget. Work with them to develop a strategy fast, and have them train the rest of your team on executing the program effectively and efficiently.
As author Peter Drucker said, the only two functions of a business are innovation and marketing. So, let your marketers spotlight your innovations and amplify the feel-good stories. Remember, marketers are magicians. We create brands. We bring ideas to life. We make change happen.
It’s the marketers who keep the brand alive and drive customer engagement, especially during a crisis. So, think twice before you totally slash your marketing budget.