Phase 1 — Connect
It’s tempting to believe that our customers are gone. For many, there are fewer transactions – some are seeing none at all. But even if people aren’t visiting stores, attending a game, buying certain products, or going to restaurants, hotels or resorts, it’s important to remember that they are still your customers; they’re just not spending right now.
Currently, a lot of companies are falling back on what we call Phase 0: a message by email or text stating, “Hey, here’s how we’re handling this crisis.” While this is an understandable response, it often stops there.
Example: A colleague is a regular at a gym offering spinning classes but given the current crisis, they’re closed, at least for the time being. During this time, they’ve mailed them an ad. Their only angle consisted of encouraging them to buy a stationary bike from them. They haven’t contacted them to ask what they’re doing to stay active or to share tips on how to replace their usual workouts; their only goal was to secure a transaction. They haven’t asked themselves, “What more can I do?” The answer is fairly simple: engage and connect with their client. We contrast this with Orangetheory, who is deeply engaged with their customers by providing daily workouts, tips, advice and contact. But not many companies are doing enough to connect with their customers right now. Many are failing to realize that many of their customers are at home on their own, bored. Who’s more likely to win when the market opens back up?
It’s vital to understand who your customers are and what your relationship with them is. What problems do you solve for them and what needs do you fulfill? First and foremost, connection is about understanding the nature of the relationship with that customer: where is it and where does it need to be on the spectrum of transactional, need-based, relationship-based or trusted advisor? Take stock and be honest about the basis for value exchange with customers. Ask your team:
- What customer problems do we solve? What are they functionally and emotionally? What psychological needs do you address?
- What is our current contact strategy – who, when, what, how? How does that need to change?
- In the absence of a physical product or experience, how will those needs be getting fulfilled, if at all? How could we help?
- What is the opportunity to build rapport; communicate more often; empathize; seek feedback; or create connections across customers and inspire community?
Use these questions as the basis for connecting on a deeper level with your audience. Rethink your contact strategy – be useful, relevant, engaging and understanding. Be creative – it’s likely that customers are also ready for something new and light to brighten up their mood. Why lose customers to a competitor just because they’re engaging more actively, more creatively, and more relevantly than you are?
And think about contact frequency too. Take social media platforms like TikTok, for example: their levels of engagement have gone up manifold since the pandemic began. More people and platform owners are communicating more and more often. People are craving connection; they’re just not being provided with it by brands. Don’t miss your opportunity to connect and deepen your relationship.
Phase 2 — Adapt
This second phase is all about accepting that things have changed. At this point, a choice needs to be made regarding which marketing initiatives will be pushed forward and which in the current stock will be adapted. Too often, we’ve heard of clients putting a stop to all activities. History has proven this is a mistake – even if it is an understandable reaction.
A focus on recognizing what your customers are going through during unpredictable periods is key, as is figuring out how a brand’s voice can adapt to your customers’ new reality. An excellent example can be found in Ford: they’ve switched their advertising to feature new credit terms that will be extended to their customers. They’re connecting and adapting their marketing while putting the right message out at the right time.
So, what do you need to do to properly adapt? It starts by understanding your current plan of record. This sounds obvious, but many find it hard to just audit their:
- Segmentation and targeting strategy
- Value proposition and key messages
- Product and service plan
- Communications plan, calendar, and budget
- Creative products to show an understanding of what’s appropriate right now
This needs to be pushed through a simple filter of customer, capability, and competition. What’s changed for each and what does this imply for our marketing plan? Once we have this, a simple start, stop, continue exercise will help establish a new adapted plan.
Think about whether you need to adjust your brand’s tone, your creative approach and ideas, product and service messaging, consider revising KPIs to be more focused on brand and engagement, and figure out how to best transform your distribution and marketing channels. Considering customers are online more than ever, it’s time to turn to social media channels. E-commerce and one-click social commerce should be optimized right now; the big shift is away from websites in favor of Instagram and other social media transactions. Given the free time many have on their hands, it’s also time to consider optimizing web-based news channels and TV channels. In short, adapting is all about changing the brand tone, product offering, messaging, service offerings, media mix and after-care, and creating ways to engage your customers differently than before.
Consider your marketing strategy today and its place in the existing, changed landscape and ask, “What has to change in order for our marketing to remain timely and effective while creating value?”
Phase 3 — Accelerate
This too shall pass, of course – and we will at some point return back to growth. Our colleagues and partners in China, Korea, and Japan are already experiencing the surge. History has proven time and again that the best prepared during a recession for growth are those that do win market share. So how will you prepare for what might come next and be ready now for coming business opportunities? What new ideas come to the surface and where should we look for creative opportunities to change?
First, consider likely demand patterns. People will want to jet out of the house as soon as our days of social distancing are over, so it’s key to consider how your company can prepare to leverage that. Could your company partner up with another one to offer new experiences and solutions? If so, could you offer other types of solutions than your current offering? However you choose to pursue new opportunities, these complex partnerships must be prepared ahead of time. Ask yourself, “Which relevant brand solutions can be provided that also offer an experience with an edge?” Build campaigns around what customers will want once this period is over. Trends that were peripheral or that were gaining prominence pre-crisis typically end up becoming accelerators during and right after recessions. Experiential platforms and DTC were what many companies were moving towards before COVID-19, and should be solutions and businesses that you’re leaning into now.
But a word of caution here, too: don’t expect everything to be completely different following tough times. It’s tempting to think this period marks a sea change in consumer sentiment and markets. While that’s partly true, people are still people and we don’t change quickly. During the last credit crisis and recession, we imagined banking would never be the same, that people would be less greedy, that trust was gone and would never return to the system, that there wouldn’t be property booms like there were before – but people largely reverted right back to normal behavior. Regardless of the tumultuousness of the current reality, you shouldn’t expect too much change on the flipside: consumers are going to have the same needs when we emerge from this period and your opportunity with them will likely remain as it was; you just might need to go faster to keep up with what will probably be rampant demand. So rethink the customer journey and ask yourself if your brand is as differentiated as it can possibly be. Do you have the right insights, and are you focused on your customers’ pain points and demand levers? Are you fast enough?
Second, you must assess your competitors, both the obvious ones and the inconspicuous adjacencies. It’s important to think about your competition more broadly than before; reconsider what your competitive edge will be based on, and how you’ll position your brand and differentiate yourself from the crowd moving forward. Scenario-plan competitive activities and how those might affect your choices going forward. Plan and be nimble – have multiple potential competitive responses and be ready to mobilize.
Given that new marketing programs and campaigns take months to put into place, now is the time to be thinking about the next steps and to start planning. We really don’t have a moment to lose! At Sid Lee, we’re already experiencing clients moving to this stage – and creatives, strategy, business management and artisan specialists were all in at the beginning, enabling us to move fast when we identified opportunities.
Then, analyze the changing trends and identify the ones that present the right opportunities. One way of thinking about this is with the “Four Virtual Walls.” On Wall One, you pull out all of the trends that you see in and around your category and begin to shape them into themes. On Wall Two, all of these themes converge around consumer insights and demand patterns, and you begin to uncover major concept areas to work with. On Wall Three, you post all of your ideas and opportunities that might be relevant for your customers. This is where all of your customer insights and trend analyses start to solidify into ideas and initiatives that you can move forward with. On Wall Four, these concepts form into concrete projects that you must invest time and resources into going forward. Experiment, move quickly, and prioritize progress over perfection.
Finally, remember to think fast and slow. Be strategic, but also creative and expansive. What happens when we hunker down during extended times of crisis is that we tend to stop thinking long-term and creatively, which is only ever detrimental to business. If you’re unable to bridge the gap between the present and what’s coming next in your leadership mindset, forward-thinking work is difficult to do. We have to create an environment in which people feel comfortable enough to think beyond the present and not just be pulled back by the gravitational pull of today’s urgencies. It’s atypical behavior: in a crisis, we instinctively focus on the here and now, but as leaders you have to be able to toggle between the now and the next.
Leadership pro tip: Carve out time
During a crisis, it’s necessary to first and foremost make sure everyone on your team is connected and focused. We need to ensure that we’re communicating enough with our teams, making sure that client business is taken care of, and checking that the financials are right. However, once all of that is taken care of, it’s important to book some time to just sit back and think about what’s coming next. Somebody once said, “If you don’t make time for thinking, then there won’t be any.” This may sound really obvious, but how many of us are actually scheduling blocks of two or three hours in our agendas that aren’t devoted to meetings or emails, but instead are dedicated to thinking about the future? What happens after should always be the main focus.
In times of uncertainty, it is imperative to take action not just for right now, but also in terms of what to do next. If you think about how long it takes a fully integrated marketing campaign to go from brief to completion, you’re looking at nearly three months. Even if you don’t feel like you should be prepared, you should be; the aftermath of a crisis will be here sooner than you think.