The tactics that every brand should be implementing
The past month has been a whirlwind of business continuity and customer communication. We are adapting to a new normal that is polarized between hyper-demand (grocery, insurance) or a catastrophic drop in demand (retail, aviation). In both cases, marketing budget risks becoming discretionary while business rightly focuses resources on solving existential operational challenges.
So, what role should Marketing play to remain relevant with both leadership and customers?
Without doubt customers’ immediate functional needs have changed and with that elevated concerns about our health, wealth and what the future might bring. Complicating this further is the uncertainty; will this last 3-4 months, or become a 1-2-year event that fundamentally reshapes society? Don’t underestimate the possible societal change. The Black Death was credited with ending feudalism, Spanish Flu led to socialized healthcare, and World War II brought women into the workforce.
Unsurprisingly, in a recent survey we conducted during this crisis, the two most prevalent business concerns were cash management and whether we are experiencing a permanent change in customer behavior. As marketers, we’re responsible for responding to both. And, while business survival is the immediate focus, businesses that also plan for the bounce-back become long-term winners. The tactics required to do both can be divided into three time periods:
- First month: Manage through the chaos
- Second month onwards: Survive the new normal
- Third month onwards: Prepare for the resurgence
Manage through the chaos
In brief, there are three tactics that should be prioritized.
First, update customers on how services have adapted to deal with the current reality. Conciseness and clarity are important to avoid confusion and the risk of overwhelming customer service channels.
Second, provide empathy and reassurance. This needs to be authentic and relevant. Don’t spam the entire distribution list. People are currently being bombarded by every brand with which they’ve ever interacted. The result? Fatigue and disgust at what comes across as cynical crocodile tears. Brands getting it right include Vanguard, which has a video delivered personally by the CEO for website visitors. American Airlines is calling each Concierge Key to recognize the value of the relationship. Ally Bank is contacting every mortgage holder to acknowledge and reassure around the generous solutions for those now at risk of missing payments.
Third, act in support of the community looking beyond the bottom-line. To avoid virtue signaling, this needs to be impactful and anchored in the essence of the business: LVMH with hand sanitizer, Dyson’s ventilator, Four Seasons opening up its New York hotel to house medical professionals and LyftUp providing free rides to people in immediate need.
The outcomes to prioritize include:
- Minimize pressure on service channels (operational resiliency and cost management)
- Protect booked revenue (short-term cashflow)
- Strengthen brand equity (long-term customer lifetime value)
Survive the new normal
The rules of the game in your industry have changed overnight. Once the immediate crisis management is addressed, it’s time to understand those rules and ensure that your brand remains meaningful. It’s only by diagnosing what’s changed that businesses can develop the tactics to optimize for the new reality. When resources stretched and time is of the essence, agility is more important than rigor.
A design sprint is an effective way to deliver actionable insight for the business. The approach we describe takes three weeks but can be delivered within one if needed. The objectives are two-fold: Identify near-term activations to stabilize today’s business while also scenario planning for the variety of pandemic outcomes and how best to position to win under each outcome.
Week 1: Frame the new context
Bring a cross-functional team together, led by marketing, to level-set on the current situation, identify known market changes and the most urgent imperatives for the business. Use desk research to learn from the past, benefit from emerging solutions and broaden the pool of available knowledge. Bring the group back together to generate hypotheses for each imperative and then prioritize which hypotheses to test. This participation will help with buy-in later when it’s time launch pilot initiatives.
Week 2: Profile shifting consumer needs
Digital ethnography allows a rapid and intimate look into the current lives of your target customers. While changes in behaviors are visible in sales data, understanding the drivers of those changes will pinpoint new sources of friction that brands can help solve.
Social listening, IVR records from call-centers and machine learning will then supplement the richness of this insight to surface topics and sentiment at scale, creating a demand map within which the ethnographic learnings can be placed.
Week 3: Define future scenarios
The customer understanding and desk research provides the stimulus to war game two alternative scenarios. The first sets a market context, where the pandemic resolves within the next 3-6 months, followed by a shallow recession. The second scenario considers 12-18 months, triggering a global depression. For each, we need to answer:
- How have the functional, emotional and social needs of our customers changed?
- Which of these changes are temporary versus a permanent shift?
- What actions do we need to take to serve these changes?
- How will others seek to compete for this change in behavior, taking care to look beyond traditional category boundaries?
- What portfolio of moves will best balance serving the short-term while best positioning the business for the future recovery?
Then, add a degree of competition. Have each participant ‘own’ responsibility for a different element of the market, enabling dynamic modeling, as individuals react to the actions of others in the room. Use the outcomes from this to prioritize short and longer-term insights and actions to consider testing.
Week 4 onwards: Deliver business impact
Use the insight and actions learned to adapt your go-to-market activities using a test and learn approach. Rapidly assess and optimize through fast cycle waves of innovation. Prioritize speed over fidelity of the implementation. The polarization of demand means that the marketer will likely follow one of two routes.
Act to modify the pattern of demand to smooth peaks, protect workers and avoid overwhelming operations. Communications will have a role to play, for example by providing reassurance to minimize stockpiling. In grocery, make the math easy to show how long a pack of toilet paper lasts or provide visibility into the supply chain for the volume that’s coming. Use humor to convey essential information without appearing patronizing. Promotional programs can be repurposed to recommend higher availability products & services.
Digital will be the hero of the hour. The more tailored your offer can be to the needs of the individual, the more meaningful your provided service will be. Increase availability of service agents through live chat, which enables a single agent to manage 4-6 conversations simultaneously versus only one by phone, with simpler enquiries triaged by well-trained chatbots.
Few services are entirely digital, so look at opportunities to increase contactless steps in the value chain, particularly those involving the customer. Curbside pickup, drive-thru, home delivery. Even basic steps like shielding the check-out provides a tangible signal to employees and customers that you care and are taking steps to adapt to the current reality.
If we also understand why customers are exhibiting new behaviors, it also enables us to better predict future patterns. This intelligence will enable operational optimization, for example the morning spike in demand at Zoom as school children nationwide check-in with their classmates. The marketer can usefully bring customer insight into the business, not just apply it within their own responsibilities.
Outcomes to prioritize include:
- Balance demand (Business resilience, cost management)
- Raise average transaction value (Cashflow)
- Remove frustrations (Cost to serve, Customer Lifetime Value)
While strong demand has its challenges, weak demand from an isolated population is proving catastrophic for many businesses. In this environment, is there a role for marketing?
With budgets needing to be cut, now’s the time to resolve the debate of performance marketing versus brand marketing. For example, what happens if you no longer buy Google keywords to be top of their search results? If you’re eBay, you found that stopping all ads on Google for three months had almost no impact on the bottom line. For every dollar they were spending, they lost roughly 63 cents.
Brand marketing, in contrast, is something you should fight hard for. It’s how you keep meaning alive for your brand. If there’s no demand, then demand-led marketing is not only wasted, it’s tone deaf. This is where marketing creativity becomes an essential tool for the business. First, apply it internally by asking how to keep the organization motivated during a time of extreme cost cutting. Then, deploy it externally and cost-effectively. Mobilize your most passionate customers; they want stories to share and also care about the survival of the company.
Brand marketing can also make extensive use of earned and owned channels. What can we learn from the media playbook to generate interest? Inspiration and humor are two levers that can sustain brand meaning. Most importantly, find a role for your company in society beyond selling.
Outcomes to prioritize include:
- Minimize marketing spend (cost management)
- Maintain consideration (future cashflow)
- Strengthen brand equity (long-term customer lifetime value)
Prepare for the resurgence
Whether the current crisis is over in three months or two years, a resurgence will come. History tells us that it is a small number of businesses that will disproportionately capture the value in the upswing. As marketers, we have a pivotal role in ensuring that our companies successfully ride this wave. There are three broad themes to address: Brand preference; Addressing change; Managing scale.
The most substantial question to answer is, ‘what has changed’? Of the functional, emotional and social needs during the pandemic, which have become material shifts in how people shop and consume? To illustrate, ‘Zoom’ has become the Go-to brand of the pandemic, keeping businesses and schools running and friends and families connected. Distance learning is a capability that will have been accelerated and remain for those that invest and learn from the crisis.
On an emotional level, insecurity around health and wealth may be sufficiently traumatic to influence fundamental attitudes. How many of us had grandparents who would insist on saving every last scrap to re-use, due to their experience of rationing?
On a social level, will we be comfortable in densely populated environments? Will we forgive companies that treated workers poorly, that we perceived didn’t offer us fair terms when obligations were cancelled? We just don’t know at this stage. The smart marketer will use a mix of measurement and belief to judge where the market will be, not where it was, and not where it currently is.
At some point you’ll need to make a judgement call to persuade your colleagues to invest in a more rigorous customer strategy and reassess your product/market fit. Understand how your business design needs to evolve to meet the needs of your priority targets. Be clear on the drivers of brand preference and what the business needs to do to win not just in the story, but also the experience. It’s always been surprising that many companies separate responsibility for the customer experience between bringing them to the door (marketing) and serving them (operations). Making a promise and delivering on that promise are just two sides of the same coin. They need to work in harmony to deliver a coherent and compelling customer experience. A strong customer strategy should provide guidance and inspiration to both.
If the organization is clear on the target audience and how they can be best served, then each function can work quickly knowing that the whole will be greater than the sum of the individual parts. By contrast, companies that wait for the resurgence to arrive will see each group of employees deal with rising demand by solving only for the piece of the puzzle that they themselves can see. Efforts risk being disjointed without top-down purpose and principles.
Our physical isolation has accelerated digital adoption and, therefore, the means for a more personalized service. However, for the majority, there will be no large budget to build new customer management tools ahead of the resurgence. A challenger mind-set is needed. Use the customer strategy to identify the target audience and prioritize points of intervention. Signals from incoming demand data augmented by true customer understanding enable AI-powered personalization to version your creative, your product, your offer providing next-best-action point solutions that can be deployed quickly and cost effectively. Use this approach to begin an investment flywheel.
As your insight and initial actions provide an advantage against less agile competition, you’ll generate the cash-flow to enable further investment to broaden your personalized customer management across every touchpoint. The early results on the touch points you control as a marketer will also help persuade owners of other touch points to pull your expertise into their operations.
Given where many of us are now, this feels like a nice problem to have. Yet if your customer strategy is right, it will be important to ensure that the future demand can be met effectively. Digital is unlikely to be the point of failure, especially given how robust both bandwidth and scaling have been when we entered lock-down, almost overnight. More likely it will be a combination of supply chain and staffing that creates the choke point. Supply chain from disrupted global manufacturing and logistics. Staffing from a traumatized workforce many of whom may be mentally and physically exhausted.
While this isn’t for the marketer to solve alone, as owner of the demand pipeline, it’s important not to over-prime the pump. As customers return, manage demand to your operational limits. Ensure that stock-levels and staffing are an input to automated customer management. Be transparent and open in communication. Given the unprecedented nature of events, most customers will appreciate and forgive the inevitable challenges of reopening for business after so long.
We’re still managing through the chaos of today, but tomorrow’s Go-to Brands will already be planning for the coming resurgence. Those that intimately know their customers’ changing needs and how to authentically serve them will demonstrate the value that marketing brings to every organization, even during periods of existential threat. No matter the lack of budget, the challenging circumstances and the uncertain future, marketing remains the creative heart of any brand. Now’s the time to chart the next chapter of your company’s journey.