COVID-19 has turned the business world upside down with many states on lockdown or under stay-at-home orders, adversely affecting business owners’ outreach and marketing efforts. Without marketing they can’t adequately reach their customers.
As states slowly reopen, many businesses are trying to decide how to return to normal. How can businesses adapt to this rapidly changing environment? What are the do’s and don’ts for branding during this time?
O’Brien’s answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: A lot of entrepreneurs hesitate doing any type of marketing or branding during this time because they don’t want to be sensitive. How can businesses adapt to these times of uncertainty?
O’Brien: When this originally started happening or when we started hearing rumblings, I thought back to the recession, the recent financial crisis. I thought about how scary that was for me as a business. But also, how scary it was for my customers and, in some cases, for their customers.
What I learned during that time was that the people who continue to stay in the market and continue to be true to themselves and their brand, adjust their message so they don’t appear tone deaf. Those who are out there, were exponentially more successful after the financial crisis.
It makes sense from a marketing perspective; you have less competition because some companies can’t afford to do it.
But, if you can or if you have the propensity to be able to weather that risk, it really is the right thing to do, especially during COVID-19. During [this time], we’re all at home in front of our technology, listening to podcasts, listening to the radio, or watching television. So, the share of voice that you can have is way bigger and your costs for that share is lower because you just don’t have the same competition.
This is not a set it and forget it time in advertising or marketing. There are lot of people in front of their televisions more than ever in the last two years. So, television advertising is great, print advertising is okay, and radio is up, as well. Digital is your best bet because it can target your specific customer. And if you have a good message and offer, people are home and they’re engaged in their technology. Advertising is working, especially if you have a consumer product or you have a home improvement product. People are sitting in their houses looking around saying, “You know I want to do something different than sit behind my computer.” And they’re noticing the crack in the wall. There are a lot of industries that could be taking advantage of this because people are home.
A lot of marketing also is integrated; it’s multiple tactics at one time. You’re continuing to get in front of the customer when it’s most relevant to them. Through email marketing or marketing automation, you’re providing content that is relevant and positions you as a leader in your space.
And if your messaging is reflective of your brand and sensitive to what’s going on, people really appreciate that, and they have more time to consume that message. Many of our clients have stayed on and we’ve adjusted their television ad or their digital ads to be more relevant and align their brand to the sensitivities in the market. Those clients that have stayed on, I know are going to be exponentially more successful. I have one client that never wavered during the last financial crisis; he kept all of his dollars in the market. They’ve grown over 1000 percent in the last 12 years. Before that they had grown 2 to 3 percent year over year.
Timeliness is really critical. We all have Google minds now. Our physiology has changed as humans with all this technology. And we want “instant” everything. So, if you’re not in front of your customer in a timely manner they notice. Then you become less important than those that send them valuable information. So timeliness is absolutely critical.
And making sure that your website is mobile and responsive is really important. Most companies know that, but some still struggle with it and it presents an antiquated feeling about your brand. It’s not just important from a user standpoint but it’s important from a brand’s point
Q: How can entrepreneurs continue to market yet remain empathetic?
O’Brien: Just be a human. Empathy is important. A brand is your character. It’s what you stand for and what you don’t. So, if you know what your brand stands for and you can connect that or align that to the fear in the market or the opportunity in the market, it creates relevance and it’s authentic and fits your brand. If you need to pivot or repackage something that’s fine. Just stay true to your brand and stay out there.
And, sharing ideas, sharing thoughts, sharing your time or whatever you can do as an organization to connect at a human level will make people remember that. It’s like that Maya Angelo quote, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” That’s especially true during this fear. Everybody is scared so in marketing it’s really just to be a good human and treat people like you want to be treated.
Q: What branding recommendations do you have for start-ups in this environment?
O’Brien: On the one hand, I think they have more opportunity because they have less rigid ways. They haven’t done it in certain way for a long time so there may be more opportunity for them to pivot quicker and see the forest through the trees on opportunity.
On the other hand, it’s “just keep pedaling.” Now is not the time to retreat. It’s not the time to be paralyzed. It’s the time to get out there and move because you have less competition right now. There are less people who are active in the market because some people have gone quiet. Some people have gotten paralyzed. So, you have this opportunity to have some momentum that maybe it would have taken a lot more work before. Keep pedaling and don’t give up.
And, be a lateral thinker. Agile is a relevant term right now. Be flexible and nimble. Figure out what is it that your customers need. And find a way to fill that need. If that means modifying your product or partnering with someone else to make a better solution, then pick up the phone and reach out to people to come up with a solution that meets the market need.