Marketing Through a Crisis

By Bryan Owen BP Essentials, Marketing, Strategy No Comments on Marketing Through a Crisis

Marketing and Communication experts are in a unique position to use our collective creativity and firepower to inspire, guide, and manage through a crisis.

How well we come out of this on the other side will depend on our ability to adapt and change…and do so quickly AND in the right direction. We need more than incremental change, we need to pivot

Here are a few ways marketing and communication professionals can navigate our new normal:

Pivot Your Story

If you don’t know your organizational narrative really well going into this, you’ll have an impossible time in a crisis. You’ll be scrambling with what to say, how to say it, and where to deliver. Which means you risk coming across as inauthentic and irrelevant, or you’ll take the “safe” route and go dark (spoiler alert….this is NOT safe). 

When things are crazy, you need to return to your core story for inspiration and guidance. It gives you purpose and clarity, and it’s of the few things that won’t change. 

Your story is the narrative that connects with your audience, it defines who you are, why you exist, and how you solve problems for others. Without a narrative, your marketing and communication is disconnected and forgettable. So if you don’t have a well-defined narrative (NOT just talking points), your immediate next step is to get the right 3-5 people in your organization together and find a guide who can help get it into a structured narrative. If you want to do it yourself, you can use our story framework and host a card-sorting exercise with your team (a virtual one, of course). You’ll find it much easier to decide what to say during a crisis when you get this down on paper. 

Once you know your organizational story, you can start to extend it to the current situation. How does your truth statement apply to the current times? If it’s centered around empowering your audience, there’s a good chance they need to hear that message now. What about your solution? If it helps solve a problem during normal times, how does it help your audience get through this crisis? Maybe you offer services that make life more convenient or help them prepare for the future. Translate your story to the current environment in an authentic way– you’re not writing a new story, you’re extending it to a new context. 

Now that you have a good story, adapted for the current situation, you can then re-think how and where it’s told.

Pivot your Format

One of the most obvious changes forced upon us during this crisis is the physical separation of people, eliminating one of the most effective forms of communication and connection. And while nothing can replace a handshake or an authentic in-person meeting, you can get pretty close with the right format of digital communication– which typically carries the added benefit of portability and scalability. A sales pitch can be translated to a nice PDF, a product launch can be done with a motion graphic, and a key message or training session can be delivered via video. In most cases, changing the format of communication is better than canceling or delaying the effort. 

This is most prescient when considering the conferences and events that have fallen victim to the COVID-19 crisis. Even with restrictions on travel and social distancing, you can still deliver just about any type of event you need for your event—from keynotes to interviews to roundtables. 

Your event delivery strategy should be guided by the type of information you want to share. If the agenda is dominated by one or two long-form presentations, or you want everyone to get the information at the same time, you might want to live stream the event. If you’re looking to provide a traditional conference feel, with multiple sessions in various formats (e.g. keynotes, interviews, roundtables) delivered via self-selected “tracks”, you may want to look into a learning management system (LMS) built for events. While there are plenty of great solutions available, our OnboardU platform might be a good fit if you’re looking for a branded, video-driven event experience with customized content for each attendee. 

Pivot Your Products

You’ve worked hard to build a set of products and services that meet a set of really important needs in your market. Now it’s time to step back and look at your tools to see how you can re-purpose them for something different. Something bigger than your business. 

For example, IBM is applying their significant computing and analytics power to help researchers find a cure for COVID-19 and guide public health decisions. This makes sense, considering they’ve developed tools that identify patterns in massive datasets. And Google is stepping into the front-lines of the crisis by creating a set of digital products to help protect the capacity of the healthcare system. They’re really good at aggregating resources and they own some of the most widely visited online properties in the world. 

This principle applies to human resources as well. If you’re in the professional services business, you’ve likely found that client work has slowed significantly. Which means you have unused capacity and highly-skilled labor ready to apply their talents to a new set of problems. If your business is in finance, reach out to groups of business owners who are facing some major financial decisions on their own. If you have great writers, try to find ways to get helpful, accurate information out to the people who need it. And you might be surprised at how many committees, task forces, and non-profits are looking for experts. We’re part of a task group working with the US Chamber of Commerce as a voice for small businesses, helping policymakers understand how COVID-19 legislation will impact Main Street. We’re certainly not experts on policy, but we can speak honestly and passionately about our business and industry.

Pivot Your Spending

Advertising is particularly sensitive to changes in the culture and the context in which the message is received. A funny Ad that asks us to buy something we don’t really need can be acceptable, even entertaining, when things are normal. But that same Ad could seem insensitive when presented amidst a crisis of life and death. It’s one of the few times where Advertising can actually backfire, and the money you’re spending to build your brand could cause irreparable damage. We all need comedic relief, but know where to inject levity and where to redirect your message. 

If you don’t have the ability to swap out assets with more appropriate messaging, pull your Ads temporarily. But ideally you can pivot quickly and replace your message with something more appropriate. Your team or agency partner should be able to come up with ideas that can be produced quickly. Think about how your messaging can shift from serving your organization to serving the community. Invest in content that provides helpful information, inspires others to help out, combats mis-information, or offers your help. Let your audience know how you’re supporting them, that you actually care. Even if you’re not a mission-focused organization, you’ll still have plenty of opportunities to express altruism. It’s good for the world and goodwill for your brand. 

Times of crisis are actually a great opportunity to use your resources for the greater good, which has the secondary benefit of building your brand. People want to do business with people and organizations who are doing good for others. 

We’ll get through this. And we’ll be more prepared for the next massive change. 

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