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Marketing in coronavirus times (and beyond)

Profile image for Andy Headington

These are most certainly interesting times. The world is coming together to fight the coronavirus, an invisible enemy that has reached almost every corner of the globe.

I asked a question a few weeks ago about what people would want to read when it comes to Covid and marketing and people shared some ideas. But to be honest, I’ve put off writing this as I really don’t know how to properly cover it. There feels bigger issues at play that need thinking about.

Things like being safe, staying physically fit and mentally happy, trying to get work done among looking after & stay in contact with children, parents & loved ones… Marketing seems, well, pretty irrelevant in some ways.

But at the same time, we mustn’t let the current state of the world dominate all our thinking. The world of business needs to carry on and things WILL get back to a version of normal at some point. When that is no one really knows.

And what the new normal is, again, remains to be seen. But it will happen, and we must as business people, marketers and citizens in general, be ready when it does.

So, what must we do in these very troubling times?

I’ve seen SO much content around this that I’ve not had time to consume even half of it. Everyone is seeing this as an opportunity to produce something to help share their view and spread their word of what to do in these fluid times. Some of it is quite reactionary and maybe even out of date from only a few weeks ago, whilst some of it is grounded in deep principles and common sense.

I've tried to think as hard as I can about the lessons I'm learning and observing out of all of this. Below are a few areas that I think are important based on where we are now and most likely for the next 12 months. Frankly none of this is particularly clever or revolutionary but rather based on some common sense, underlying trends and stats from people more in touch with what's happening than me.

 

Digital is even more important?

It might seem lazy to start with me, a digital agency owner, saying that digital will be even more important in the future. And it quite possibly is. But you’ve probably experienced issues yourself in the last month – large websites down, products out of stock or just not available, having to seek out local producers to get things to your door... In lockdown, we’ve turned to digital even more and any resistance to online shopping for food, toiletries or even cooking equipment disappeared when needs overtook us.

Is this trend set to continue? I guess we really don’t know at this point, but various commentators are making prediction that will be the case. Campaign magazine recently wrote that ‘ecommerce is only going to accelerate’ while Sir Martin Sorrell did a ten minute interview recently explaining how he thought digital would help accelerate through V shaped recession.  Obviously, these people have as much reason as me to promote the benefits of digital but they likely have a point. 

But I’ve been quick to highlight numerous things over the years that would be easy for me to promote as the ‘in’ thing but haven’t. And even here I’m not sure how more important digital will be in the mid or long term, no one can truly know. If the trends shown in places like Wuhan follow the rest of the world where real world meeting places like restaurants and coffee shops are still seeing numbers way down due to nervousness about being around groups of people, then perhaps these changes will see more digital activity going forward. Or given we seem to spend all of our days online anyway (and what is 'digital' really in 2020?) perhaps what we do digitally will change. Maybe we'll do more commerce online and less time flicking through our feeds as our real world interactions become that much more precious. And maybe those businesses that still aren’t properly online or sell through 3rd parties like Amazon et al will now see the opportunity to go direct and build relationships with their consumers in new ways.

If digital wasn’t a core part of business for you at the beginning of the year, then by the end of it, it most likely will be.

 

Be helpful and empathetic

This has been done a lot by numerous people and you’ve probably read a lot about this. Brands helping people in need by offering free goods, services, use of space… the outpouring of generosity at this time has been amazing to see. The talk about ‘brand purpose’ in the marketing press in recent years is really being put under the spotlight. How you behave in this time is likely to have repercussions for years to come. Marks & Spencer famously helped the country during WW2 and these memories of support created loyalty among their buyers for decades. When you see Mr Wetherspoon telling his staff to 'get a job in Tesco and come back in a few months', you realise how not to do it. Will people go back when sentiment is so bad?

I’m not going to labour this point as so many others have covered this but if you aren’t trying to help in some way, then you probably should. But you need to do it for the right reasons, not just because everyone else is.

This is a time when everyone, businesses and individuals, need to come together as much as possible. Not only because we should but so that when things pick up again, we’ll carry on supporting each other during good times as well. It has been great to see the local scene carry on its community spirit online as groups like You Are The Media carry on the conversation in a virtual space while local drinks brand Conker has helped the local community by producing hand sanitizer from its leftover product.

Conker Spirit Hand sanitizer

As well as trying to help, we need to also be mindful of what every single person is going through right now. Oscilaing between feelings of helplessnesses, hope, dispair & delusion on a hourly or daily basis are not uncommon. We need to be careful as brands and individuals to create messaging that is empathetic to these emotions we all have. I don't think there is anything wrong with celebrating a new client win or regretting making announcements that are tough or unfortunately necessary. Showing you are part of this and share your messages in the right tone is fine. Overt celebration or cold statements are not the way to do it and frankly never have. 

 

keep spending on advertising?

Whilst people are being furloughed, taking salary cuts and some businesses are going bust, it would seem perhaps unkind or foolhardy to carry on spending on advertising when demand is down, and people’s lives are being tangibly affected.

However, for those with bigger budgets, and some smaller ones, there is an argument to keep spending through this time. The ever wise Mark Ritson outlined some research and data from past recessions in his Marketing Week blog recently. It showed that historicaly those that have kept spending through huge downturns end up coming out of recessions faster than their rivals compared to those that cut all costs or reduced spend (in fact the reduced spenders faired worse than those that cut everything!)

It’d be great if every marketing team was still in place with ability to keep spending at the same or similar levels. The reality for most businesses though is that this isn’t possible. And at the SME end of the market, things like market share and brand equity don’t come into our thoughts – it’s about selling as best we can to those that are in the market.

But every change in the market presents opportunity. My advice is to investigate how well your market is performing online and adapt accordingly. For some of our clients that means pulling all spend, for some it means upping it and for others it means going back to ‘core’ terms that have delivered profit consistently in the last few years while keeping a watching eye on performance. Assuming the best plan is to reduce spend, as has been shown in the past, is not always the best move.

With that said, early research from our own clients, we've seen patterns like this

In addition to this respected blogs like Wordstream, show that in some industries Cost Per Clicks have dropped by 50% or more. With traffic being much cheaper, if intent is still there, then it makes complete sense to be in the market when costs are so much cheaper. If you aren’t sure, then it could well pay to find out.

Covid PPC CPC averages from Wordstream

IRL WILL COME BACK SO PLAN FOR IT

I’ve long thought the idea of gathering up hundreds of people in a room to learn for the day is not always the best use of our time when there are many millions of hours of seminars available online. But conferences or events (like our own Attention! Summit) aren’t just about learning. It’s about the random meetings, the saying ‘I was there’, the tiny gems you pick up from overhearing a conversation or that one question from someone next to you. And much more.

I once tried to hold a ‘virtual festival of learning’ for our team where we watched some YouTube talks from some fascinating people that would’ve cost thousands to attend in real life. But it really wasn’t the same at all - it was just quite flat and sterile. And as for music or food festivals being as good online? Positives - no queuing for hours for food or the toilet. Negatives - about 96% less fun.

So regardless if you are a B2B or B2C brand, working in hospitality or sport, or anything else involving large groups of people, things will come back. We are a social species and there is something alluring about large gatherings; the sights, the smells, that sense of togetherness and not feeling alone that you can’t recreate in a virtual world.

We will go back to going out. We will go back to being in large groups. We will go back to sitting in conferences all day wishing perhaps that we were back our desks. Ok, maybe after this, not so much. But I'm sure real-world events will pick up again next year and perhaps our months of working at home will make us go to even more? Or maybe budgets will be stretched that much more that giving people more value & reasons to come will be the only way to get the booking.

Whatever events you do run now, you should be planning on bringing them back in the future and making them even bigger and better than you had done previously.

 

Gifting from afar

One of the biggest trends I’ve observed in the last month is the need for gifting online while in lockdown. We still want to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and other things with people we know and love but must adapt with the times. Easter this year was exceptional for online retailers already offering chocolate products but still good for other food retailers as people looked for interesting and quirky options to send to the families.

Google Trends Search volumes for Chocolate during Covid 2020

In these times of non-travel and distancing, there is a great opportunity for nimble brands to offer new products and services to those looking to celebrate from afar. For retailers it could be new bundles of goods, partnerships with brands aligned to you, creating new product lines or many other things to help spread joy to established customers or new ones alike. For example, if you can’t ride your bike much at the moment, why not offer cleaning or maintenance kits to help people get their bike ship shape while at home to be ready for the future?  

Becoming a ‘go to’ for cool, useful or just ‘wow’ gifts now, and most likely in the future, can be an important revenue stream for any business as I expect this trend to carry on the direction it was already taking online.

 

These are just some basic ideas here. For some the corona outbreak presents a huge opportunity to do new things, gain market share or help your community in unparalleled ways. For many, it's just a matter of survival. Whatever you do though, stay safe and stay healthy.

 

 

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