So Now What?
Marketing Advice For Times Of Crisis

It’s 10AM on March 30th—do you know where your customers are right now?

They’re at home, of course. And you are too, most likely.

It’s rare when a single cause—in this case, a global pandemic—can have such an all-encompassing impact on the daily lives of people regardless of where they live, what they do for work, what generation they represent, and so on.

One of the characteristics that proves universal in that rarity is the sense of empathy we can all share, if only for a moment, with all humankind. That is encouraging. But the politicians and social media trolls will see to it that the moment doesn’t last too long.

With the hand we’ve been dealt, what is a marketer to do? The term new normal is the phrase du jour (in addition to flatten the curve), where just yesterday it was digital transformation and a slew of other business buzzwords.

In times of plenty, we have the luxury of expressing our brand positioning with a range of emotions in respect to “the state of the world at that very moment.” In times of uncertainty—where an invisible threat to our very existence shakes us from our mortal cores on up through our communities, countries, economies, and beyond—we don’t have a choice. We have the new normal, where the most important and first among all emotions is fear, and all of the actions we take thereafter are its result.

While it feels as though we are all navigating unfamiliar territory, our current situation is not without precedence. We can look to the not too distant past for guidance on how to act under extreme adversity—specifically the time immediately following 9/11, and more recently the great recession of 2008. Within both, there are some valuable lessons we can learn to help us operate more rationally and confidently as marketers today.

“Emergencies must give way to normalcy. Baseball and football games will resume. Companies—employers—must sell products, and so they must market. Ad schedules need to be planned and purchased, and businesses must look to the future.”
—George W. Bush, September 2001

Act with courage

Given the enormous pressure to control costs and maintain liquidity, communications budgets seem dispensable. Don’t give in to anxiety and the immediacy of this moment to slash your spending without due cause. Categorically, you are putting your long-term viability at risk. A prescient article published by the Wharton School of Business in November 2008 quoted a research study that found that companies that chose to maintain or increase their advertising during times of recession had significantly higher sales after the economy recovered—up to 256% higher than those that did not continue to advertise.

“When times are good you should advertise.
When times are bad you must advertise.”
—Popular Wisdom

Stay True to your Brand

Certainly, there are a lot of marketing types out there wondering how to proceed. Some taking the tact that it’s business as usual, while others grasping at straws to find the fix that would make their brand visible and relevant given the circumstances. So what do you do when the answers don’t seem obvious? Follow your brand purpose, or your WHY as defined by Simon Sinek.

“Everyone wanted to know what they could do in the wake of 9/11. At the New York Times Company, no one had to even ask that question. Our mission is to put out the best newspaper we can, so that readers can be as informed as possible. Just like a trauma surgeon, this is what we train for. There was no question that our employees felt that their job had meaning.”
—Russell Lewis, Former CEO, New York Times

If your brand purpose is honest, relevant and customer centric, and it is understood and internalized by all employees, it will act as your guidepost while critical decisions are made.

Demonstrate empathy

In times of crisis, customer intimacy takes on an entirely new meaning. Rather than just understanding your customers and their relationship with your brand in order to market to them more effectively, marketers have the opportunity to use that vast wealth of customer data to solve problems and offer reassurance.

We’d urge you to consider the needs of your customers today, and what you might do to offer relief. Some simple, sage advice from the Association of National Advertisers recommends the following:

  • Get really close to customers. Markets must understand their new priorities, goals, fears and heroes.
  • Be sensitive about the message, tone, imagery and placement of advertising. Comb existing ads and marketing materials for irreverent, edgy, maudlin and comic references, and determine whether they are still appropriate.
  • Help the nation restore consumer confidence. If marketers can weave persuasive, confidence-building messages into their marketing communications, our nation will greatly benefit.

What will tomorrow bring?

What can we learn from past crises? This too shall pass—and the human race is extraordinarily resilient. A research study conducted by the Federal reserve post 9/11 found that consumer confidence had not significantly waned and the worst fears about the economic outlook would not be realized. And in retrospect, that turned out to be true. Steadily the U.S. economy got back on its feet and life returned to relative normalcy.

In times of adversity where fear rules the day, there’s a tendency among many to retreat. Alternatively, being pragmatic doesn’t mean one should act solely on impulse. But stop for a moment, take a deep breath and remember this: “If you do the right thing, success will surely follow.”

That’s the mantra we’ve lived by since we started this agency. Every strategic bit of wisdom we share with clients and our colleagues emanates from it. And now more than ever it’s the best advice we can give.

Steve Marsho
Posted by Steve Marsho