Nearly every business struggles to survive a crisis and the triple whammy faced in the US and many other countries right now makes it particularly challenging to achieve marketing success. Sure, some companies like Amazon and Charmin face vastly increased demand and remain profitable. Other businesses struggle to find a footing with consumers, hoping to survive long enough to come out on the other side of the current situation.
Consumer backlash against marketing efforts during a crisis
The reality is that a crisis is the wrong time to start worrying about survival. In fact, companies hoping to achieve marketing success by sending empathetic emails to customers or pay lip service to the struggles faced by large swaths of our economy may do more harm than good.
Recent global unrest sparking protests that Black Lives Matter offered companies an opportunity to do more than offer the equivalent of thoughts and prayers that many interpreted as hollow messages designed to offer the appearance of empathy and solidarity while, in fact, meaning nothing changed in their policies or operations [source]. For while Lego unlinked (temporarily?) to block sets of police, consumers don’t see a sustained effort to support the movement. The NFL, with its seriously late efforts to support Black Lives Matter 4 years after firing Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee during the national anthem, faces challenges from consumers to put their money where their mouth is [source].
The same is true of the pandemic and the financial crisis spurred when companies abruptly closed their doors in March and stayed closed for months. Companies sent heartfelt messages supporting the lockdown as a means to protect millions from the deadly virus.
And, the lockdown worked. According to scientists, the lockdown saved 60 million Americans from a potentially deadly infection [source]. Yet, even as they were spouting words supporting the safety provided by lockdowns, they had their hands out for money designed to help small businesses survive. Ultimately, several large businesses that took advantage of loopholes returned the money to allow reallocation to small businesses. Consumers weren’t placated.
How to achieve marketing success in a crisis
So, if the tactics mentioned earlier don’t help businesses achieve marketing success during a crisis, what works?
I’ll break down the answer to this question by listing tactics that work before the crisis and those businesses can use during the crisis. Let’s start with strategies a brand needs once a crisis starts.
Marketing strategies during a crisis
Let’s assume you don’t have time to enact marketing change in the middle of a crisis. What strategies help a business achieve marketing success despite the crisis?
Actions speak louder than words
We’ve probably all received multiple emails from brands we use offering sympathy with the problems we’re facing during the crisis. Maybe, the brand even listed actions they’re taking to ensure your safety and that of their workers, such as grocery stores putting up shields for workers and offering special hours for seniors, who are most vulnerable to death if infected.
For many consumers, these responses seemed like businesses were doing the bare minimum to respond to the pandemic while ignoring the financial toll the pandemic placed on the most vulnerable in our society–those already living paycheck to paycheck.
Contrast these responses with those of leaders of the pandemic response; companies who are likely to not only survive the crisis but to come through even stronger than they were before the crisis.
For instance, Publix Supermarkets, a major player in the Southeast, bought up food from farmers that would otherwise be destroyed and donated it to food banks in support of those who couldn’t afford to eat with no paycheck coming in. Or, an even bigger player in helping to feed Americans during the financial crisis is Chef Andrés, who’s no neophyte when it comes to feeding hungry people in a crisis; having provided food to Puerto Rico as they recovered from the hurricane as well as other crisis situations. The chef, along with hordes of volunteers and donated food, provides meals in multiple US cities through his charity, World Central Kitchen.
And, consumers won’t forget the largess of these companies. They’ll choose these brands over other brands who only provided thoughts and prayers in the crisis, not real help. The publicity from these projects alone more than compensates for the expenses incurred (which are tax-deductible anyway).
You can’t take back bad actions with words
As the NFL is discovering, simply acknowledging they made the wrong decision about players taking a knee isn’t sufficient. They must make Kaepernick whole again if, objectively, his firing was simply a function of that act.
Real estate companies are now facing the music. After decades of actions that used power to force consumers to accept high rents, governments forced them to forgo evictions during the pandemic, even though some landlords didn’t follow the rules in the first place. Now, many of these landlords are forcing tenants to repay back rent or face evictions. San Fransisco seeks to make the forbearance on rent permanent, meaning landlords can’t collect back rent that accrued during the pandemic. In part, this governmental action follows years where landlords priced average folks out of a hot real estate market. Consumers are fighting back using the power of their vote to force the government to act.
The moral of this story is that, in a crisis, you must take positive action to counteract mistakes you made with consumer trust in the past. You can’t simply talk your way out of the problem you created.
Think outside the box
So, your business is closed due to the pandemic. You’ve still got bills and, if you’re a good employer, you have employees you’d like to take care of, yet you have no money coming in. The solution might involve reimagining your business.
For instance, a couple of local breweries recognized they were in the alcohol business and transformed from making beer no one was drinking (because their pubs were closed) to making alcohol-based sanitizers with demand curves that broke the graph.
Businesses who never saw themselves as pure-play retailers suddenly realized they could only reach customers online. Boutiques started delivering the product to the customer’s mailbox while restaurants, grocery stores, and other essential retailers with shuttered dining rooms and customers afraid to enter their stores started offering curbside pickup. I, for one, dread the end of curbside pickup as I love the convenience of having someone else do my picking.
Hence, when the world turns on its axis, think about survival in a different way. It isn’t business as usual.
No one likes uncertainty and, when money is involved, consumers hate uncertainty even more. In a crisis, gather as much data as possible, extrapolate from that data, and make concrete plans about the future. Then clearly articulate those plans to consumers and other interested parties. Part of the reason the pandemic had such a catastrophic impact on the financial health of the US is that no one offered clear guidance on what the future looked like.
Taking a page from the Chinese experience, countries like New Zealand and South Korea acted quickly and developed concrete plans to return to normal. Whereas in the US and much of Western Europe, the reaction was slower and uncoordinated. And recovery happened haphazardly.
If countries had taken action to shut everything down immediately and completely, keep everything shuttered for 3-4 weeks, then open everything up again to everyone except those showing symptoms, the pandemic would be over, as it is for New Zealand. Moreover, the financial consequences would be muted as certainty increased.
Business planning would also be more effective without the open-ended nature of the shutdown and more businesses would survive.
Marketing actions before a crisis
Probably the best strategy to achieve marketing success during a crisis is to have customer-focused marketing strategies before the crisis hit. Consumers are more willing to forgive failures and mistakes during the crisis (or anytime, for that matter) if your overall treatment of them was good before the crisis.
Hence, the best tool for weathering a crisis is to build a relationship with customers, employees, and other stakeholders well before the crisis.
Meet or exceed expectations
When you meet or exceed customer expectations, customers are satisfied and satisfied customers often purchase more products from you in the future (although it’s not guaranteed). One way to ensure you meet customer expectations is to:
- keep your promises — don’t promise more than you can reliably deliver. If you exceed your promises, customers are even happier while failure to achieve what you promised is a recipe for disaster. For example, USAA (a financial institution serving military and their families) always gives insurance customers a little of their premium back when the cost of covering insured vehicles is lower than expected. This year, due to Covid-19, they made grand announcements of an additional return on premiums because people weren’t driving and, thus, weren’t getting into accidents. Unfortunately for the company, this extra reward was pitifully small making customers feel like the hype wasn’t worth the little money they got back. If USAA hadn’t made a big deal about the extra payment, just sent an email with the small extra payment to customers, they probably would have been much happier.
- audit performance to ensure you eliminate as much chance for failure as possible. This is especially true with service parts of your business since it’s impossible to do quality control on services. A service audit follows interactions with customers from start to follow-up, identifying opportunities for failure along the way, and creating contingencies to cover possible failures.
- quickly acknowledge failures and make customers whole. A sure-fire way to increase customer dissatisfaction is to delay acknowledging your failure or offering inconsequential solutions to fix the problem. For instance, many travelers (pre-pandemic) traveled for business, and expenses were paid by their employer. A failure at the hotel inconveniences a traveler who spends a lot of money on hotels and has choices when it comes to booking travel. Offering to discount the hotel stay has no benefit to the traveler. Instead, Marriot keeps goodie baskets behind the front desk. When travelers complain about their stay, the hotel hands them a basket of goodies as compensation. Different value baskets compensate for failures that differ in the amount of inconvenience.
Be a good corporate citizen
If you’re a company known for supporting social causes important to your community, consumers give you a break when things go bad.
For instance, McDonald’s supports almost any cause in their local community without requiring a lot of paperwork or a lengthy application process. At a minimum, McDonald’s provides drinks and cups to almost any non-profit and, through their charitable foundation, provides support for families facing a healthcare crisis. When a major crisis hits, customers scale back on purchases but companies who are good corporate citizens see their profits shrink less than their competition.
If you boil every bit of advice in the post down, what you’re left with is the realization that you achieve marketing success during a crisis is the same things that make you marketing successful before the crisis. If you have the right marketing strategy, surviving a crisis is less fraught with doubt than otherwise.
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