The data indicates that this isn’t business as usual, but marketers shouldn’t retreat. Here are six ways to read the moment and rise to it.

My contrarian opinion: As this virus wreaks havoc on our society and economy, marketing, communication and brand are as important as they’ve ever been.

In the next 3 to 6 months, many businesses won’t survive. Some will face insurmountable product, demand and supply chain challenges. Others don’t have the cash reserves to float them through several months of zero revenue. We’re only a month into this crisis, and already these companies have started closing their doors, with many more to follow in the months ahead.

But there is another category of companies that are positioned to survive this downturn, and maybe even come out the other side ahead of their competition. These might be companies outside of the most badly affected industries or diversified across enough categories to blunt the impact of the virus’s economic shock wave.

Many of these companies will also fail, though on a slower timeline. This will be because they fail to quickly understand how the rules of the game have changed in this messy, constantly shifting, transitional period between the “old normal” and the “next normal.”

Companies will — during this  “); background-size: 1px 1px; background-position: 0px calc(1em + 1px); background-repeat: repeat no-repeat”>great unwinding, or  “); background-size: 1px 1px; background-position: 0px calc(1em + 1px); background-repeat: repeat no-repeat”>great acceleration— fail to read the moment and rise to it. Because marketing departments own so many customer and buyer touch-points, their work in the months ahead will play a pivotal role in the success or failures of their companies.

Your Audience Changed Overnight.

All good marketing starts with an understanding of the audience. And if you sell to human beings, your audience has probably changed. There may be fewer people in-market for your product. Or those prospective buyers may be looking for different attributes from a brand, evaluating you on a different set of dimensions. In recent days new studies from  “); background-size: 1px 1px; background-position: 0px calc(1em + 1px); background-repeat: repeat no-repeat”>Forrester,  “); background-size: 1px 1px; background-position: 0px calc(1em + 1px); background-repeat: repeat no-repeat”>Edelman,  “); background-size: 1px 1px; background-position: 0px calc(1em + 1px); background-repeat: repeat no-repeat”>4As,  “); background-size: 1px 1px; background-position: 0px calc(1em + 1px); background-repeat: repeat no-repeat”>IAB and others validate this thesis. Some of the key takeaways:

  • Consumer sentiment is shot: There is widespread distrust and negative sentiment from consumers toward government, media and companies. Forrester found that sentiment toward companies has waned on every measured dimension.
  • Consumers care that your brand cares: 65% of those surveyed say that if a company does not participate in finding a solution to the current crisis, they are less inclined to buy from them in the future. And 37% say they have already tried a new product because of steps companies have taken during this crisis.
  • This isn’t the time to go dark: Only 15% of people do not want to hear from companies at this time. But people are expecting companies to be part of the solution — partnering with NGOs, non-profits, doing good work, etc.
  • Protect your people: 90% of those surveyed believe that companies must do everything they can to protect the physical and financial well being of their employees, even if it is not in their financial best interest.
  • Strike a different tone: The Edelman study says that marketers should avoid amplifying the product attributes that were important before; give facts, but they must also be delivered with compassion and empathy.

Earning trust with prospects and customers is what you need to be striving for in this moment; there is low trust that companies will do the right thing and act in the public’s interest. As a brand, you should assume low trust, and aim your messaging, content and advertising toward overcoming it.

Forget Everything You Know About Marketing Channels.

If you’re a data-driven marketer watching your numbers, you’ve probably seen them going haywire. On the organic side, content that used to drive predictable traffic has dropped off. On the paid side, the channel mix you had been fine-tuning quarter after quarter has suddenly buckled. Ads that performed last month are returning double-digit drops in CTR this month.

As a result, in the early days of the crisis, marketers have reflexively pulled back. Nearly a quarter have paused all advertising (24%), with another 46% adjusting down spending for Q1 and Q2 ( “); background-size: 1px 1px; background-position: 0px calc(1em + 1px); background-repeat: repeat no-repeat”>Source.)

This may be the first time in history that advertising is cheap, but advertisers aren’t investing:

  • Facebook usage up, ads down: There’s a 50%-70% increase in usage on Facebook in the areas hardest hit by the virus, but a decrease in advertising investment, especially as brands look to not have their ads placed by negative news (WSJ). 48% of advertisers report that they intend to increase spending on Facebook, while 21 percent are reducing.
  • Google is on its way up: 37% will increase spending on Google while 14% are reducing.
  • Earned and paid channels are most trusted: The most trusted channels by consumers right now are (in order): (1) Earned Media, (2) Paid Advertising, (3) Social media, (4) influencer marketing — with social and influencer lagging behind earned and paid.
  • Video up, ads down: TV and video streaming are up dramatically — as much as 40% on some platforms, but ad spend is reduced by 20–30%.

The recent IAB study shed light on how marketers plan to “reopen” their marketing channels and when.

They predict easing the spending freezes in May/June and spending more those months. This points to some expectation that things will begin to return to normal by that point, but also indicates uncertainty.

It’s unsurprising here that traditional media spending will lag digital media. Although digital display was down the most (41%), it’s expected to come back in the biggest way.

And overall, digital video, social media and paid search look like they will be the first channels that brands look to spend on.

These data points are helpful because they give you an indication (albeit indirectly) of consumer behavior on performance channels. It is likely that performance marketers began to see the impact of aforementioned shifts in consumer behaviors manifesting in their paid campaigns, and pulled the plug.

A Lot of Lead Bullets: A Six-Part Strategy for Building Brand During the Crisis

Where do we go from here? Earlier this week I re-read Ben Horrowitz’s fantastic essay on the a16z site,  “); background-size: 1px 1px; background-position: 0px calc(1em + 1px); background-repeat: repeat no-repeat”>Lead Bullets. His premise is that, when it comes to dealing with serious challenges in business, there are no silver bullets; you just have to use a lot of lead bullets.

Marketers and brands would be smart to keep that in mind as they plan their response to COVID-19. It should be clear from the data above that not responding isn’t an option if you intend to stay relevant.

There is no single stunt, campaign or marketing activation that will help your company win in the era of COVID-19. Rather, you need a set of tactics that are executed in concert with one another, that will together help build trust with your customers and prospective buyers.

1. Find Your Role in Solving This Crisis. Amplify Those Stories.

What is your company doing to help out in this moment? It better not be nothing. Companies exist to do more than vacuum up the world’s wealth, and now more than ever before prospective buyers and customers are holding businesses accountable for their impact on the world.

You can’t fake this part. Your buyers are smart. If you try to fake it, they will see through it and punish you for it.

Look for ways to help your communities, buyers, vendors/suppliers, and employees. These real actions and values are the ones to amplify now in the stories you tell across channels.

2. Be a Good, Authentic (Non-Terrible) Human.

This is the time to be human. Your advertising, your social media presence, your blog and exec communications — these should all take on a human tone. They should show vulnerability. This isn’t the time to be slick and polished.

We are farther apart than we have ever been from one another, and yet we have a window into each other’s lives in a way we never have. Through this window, we get to see our customers, vendors, and executives as whole people, with messy bedrooms and children crying in the background. For better or worse, the partition between work and life has collapsed for many of us.

To try and whitewash this moment and speak in your normal brand voice comes across as weird, fake and robotic. Embrace it. Be personal. Be authentic.

3. Use Marketing Channels to Help Your Customers and Prospects.

Many (most?) brands have responded to the crisis by doing this:

You can’t just slap “in uncertain times” on your typical ads and content and expect it will resonate.

You should immediately shift your content strategy toward being relevant, substantiveand helpful.

Source: Me and PowerPoint

To be relevant, think about how the daily life or job of the people using your product has changed as a result of the crisis. Seriously, sit down and take 20 minutes to jot down as many examples of change as you can on a sheet of paper. Ask your customers, too. Next, ask yourself what knowledge, insights and guidance you can provide in this moment that can help them through it

Does every piece of content you produce need to connect to COVID-19? No, of course not. But many should. Aim to provide real value to your customers with your content and try not to be self-serving.

4. Shift Your Message. What People Need and Want from Your Brand Has Changed.

What customers want from your brand, product and industry may have changed, and you need to transform your messaging to account for this.

This goes beyond the shift in tone I wrote about earlier. The dimensions on which your product and brand is evaluated may have shifted. For example, if you are a B2C or D2C product, the environment in which your product is used (now 99% at home) may have changed. What does this change in product usage and experience mean for how your prospective customers will evaluate your product against the competition?

If you are a B2B SaaS company, the relationship parts of your business — your support and services — may be just as important as the software you sell. Your buyers may be inclined to select a partner who will stand by them, train/advise them, and help them in rough times over a product with better performance. Many brands are already making this messaging shift at a brand level:

Source: IAB

Now is the time to survey your customer and prospect base to understand if there has been a shift in what they look for out of a brand. If the data indicates a change, then revisit your brand and product positioning, and look go elevate different attributes (ie. perhaps long term value over speed/performance).

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Spend, But Be Agile. Test, Fail Fast and Iterate.

Multiple reports and analysis from  “); background-size: 1px 1px; background-position: 0px calc(1em + 1px); background-repeat: repeat no-repeat”>Kantar, Credit Suisse and Ebiquity have found that companies who invested in marketing through past downturns fared better than those that did not:

“Brands that increase spending during a recession achieve market share gains averaging 1.6 percentage points during the first two years of a recovery, said Christian Polman, chief strategy officer, speaking at an Advertising Research Foundation webinar on recession impacts late last month. Brands that maintain their spending average a one-point share gain, while brands that cut spending during a recession average a 0.7-point share gain during the subsequent recovery, he said.” — “); background-size: 1px 1px; background-position: 0px calc(1em + 1px); background-repeat: repeat no-repeat”> Ad Age

Companies that freeze their marketing dollars during this time will lose market presence to competitors that spend intelligently. Remember that building brand is a long-term investment. You cannot plant seeds in the morning and expect shade in the afternoon.

But in terms of managing your spend, this is not the time to “set it and forget it” or to lean on things that worked before. You should move forward in a fast responsive fashion, quickly testing different messages on different channels and dialing up investments where you see results.

Craft a series of experiments to test messages and channels that work, and then quickly double down where you see good performance. Plan to repeat this and re-test often; the shift in consumer sentiment that happened in early March may not be the only shift we see during this crisis. So think like a product team launching an MVP — launch, look at the data, and iterate.

McKinsey even recommends marketing teams  “); background-size: 1px 1px; background-position: 0px calc(1em + 1px); background-repeat: repeat no-repeat”>adopt an Agile working style throughout the crisis.

6. When Everyone Else Zigs, You Zag.

This is not the time to do safe, derivative marketing. Because there is no playbook, we have a tendency to think conservatively rather than creatively. It is easy to lean on what your competitors are doing as a guide when the path forward is uncertain.

If you’ve watched how brands have responded to the crisis, you’ve seen this play out at a macro scale. In the immediate aftermath of the crisis there was:

  • A kind of stunned silence from brands
  • Followed by emails talking about “how much we care”
  • Followed by inspirational, “we’re in this together” messaging
  • Followed by clever plays on social distancing

I’m not sure where the herd will move next, but it will surely happen en masse.

Lead with compassion, empathy and avoid tone-deaf stunts, but also lead with creativity that sets you apart from the herd. Pressure-test your plans and message against competitors. Are they all running the same tactics with the same message and the same tone? If so, that’s a strong indicator you should do something different, or risk having your message fade into the background.

Out of This Messy Transition, Toward the Next Normal.

These strategies are meant to help brands weather the period of uncertainty that we all find ourselves in. As this crisis progresses, we’ll all look for indications that things are stabilizing — states and businesses reopening, the economy starting to climb back, infection curves flattening and finally a vaccine. But keep these two important facts in mind:

(1) The recovery may not be linear. Things may get better then get worse again. A positive trend line can be interrupted at any moment by a spike in infections or a stock market plunge. Build uncertainty into every plan, and be prepared to be nimble.

(2) Things will not look like they did before. This is a transformational event for every person in the world. I’ll leave the predictions to economists, futurists and psychics, but it is clear that we can expect no quick reversion to January 2020.  “); background-size: 1px 1px; background-position: 0px calc(1em + 1px); background-repeat: repeat no-repeat”>It took six years for the airline industry to recover from the attacks of 9/11. How long will it take to recover this time? Could you see yourself flying coach on a transatlantic flight anytime soon? Are you in a hurry to book a cruise?

Things will not return to the way they were. While this plan will give you a framework for thinking about the crisis, the smartest marketers are already thinking about and planning for the recovery without knowing what shape it will take. Expect more uncertainty and embrace it understanding that, in true Darwinian fashion, those who adapt the fastest will survive and thrive. Welcome to our new normal. 🙂