by Nick Kastner, Director of Brand & Digital Strategy

I don’t think any of us could have anticipated the next recession being caused by a global pandemic. Now, we can’t say we weren’t warned. In a TEDTalk in 2015, Bill Gates discussed the risk if an epidemic and how we weren’t ready. However, that presentation, although seen over 22 million times on Youtube, was widely ignored.

I actually remember this talk being discussed in national news – but again – that was the buzz of the day and widely disappeared immediately after.

So, now it’s happened. COVID-19 is at this point between 80 – 90% of media coverage (if not 100% in some areas), we continue to see cases in the US increase and many, if not all, businesses are scrambling daily to determine messaging, next steps and how to handle the situation. And, at the core of the situation are a variety of questions: How do we survive as a business? How do we treat or cure COVID-19? How do we continue to offer our products and services to customers? Can we stay afloat during this time of crisis? If our income drops to zero, what do we do? How do we support our community? And – most importantly – how do we keep our family safe?

Now, I don’t have answers to all of those questions. There are a lot of GREAT people and organizations who are working to answer some of those very questions – politicians, financial advisors, nonprofit organizations, business owners, researchers, our amazing healthcare workers and many more. For me personally – in times of crisis I always lean further into my faith and trust that God has this handled – and daily pray that this pandemic will be miraculously cured so only my God receives the glory for doing so. Fortunately, that’s not up to me to decide. And, what few answers I do have, probably aren’t perfect – because none of us have ever attempted to market, hold business or shelter in place in this sort of situation. It’s new for all of us.

However, what I can offer is some simple guidance that we’re providing our clients in these times of uncertainty. So, while protecting your family and loved ones should always be priority number one – we also know that part of that protection regards your financial well being of your family and the businesses at which you work and manage.

So here are a few simple thoughts that you might find valuable.

We know – that we don’t know.
Both fortunately and unfortunately, we don’t know all of the details of our current situation. Just a month ago, we were all running active campaigns for clients and were discussing our next moves as companies. Today, almost all companies and organizations have had to shift their messaging, make decisions on the fly as the next “right thing” to communicate to their stakeholders, or even shift their business model all together. For some, this has caused extreme crisis in their business. For others, it has been an opportunity to grow their business AND help their communities.

None of us know what tomorrow may bring or the shift that may occur in our organizations – but we have to be ok with that. Until such time as the spread of COVID-19 slows, we have to be ok with the constant change we’ll see in our circumstances. The best thing we can do as marketers is be prepared for the shift. For a number of years, agility in marketing from a planning perspective has become popular – and there has been no better time to make that come to fruition. So, planning for your social post that will occur a month from now – probably won’t be effective. Now, you can plan for when this is all over – but you can’t predict tomorrow – or next week – right now. You have to be ok with designing ads on the fly, making decisions as they need to be made, and simply being wise in those decisions.

Don’t Ignore Reality.
Some brands may be able to march on with no change in their messaging. However, for the majority of companies, you have to shift. Ads that ignore social distancing seem distasteful. Promotions that seek to place people in groups are out of place. And, if you’re continuing to do the things you’ve always done – well – you’re probably doing it wrong.

For many of our clients, we’re assisting them in shifting messaging on a weekly basis. Ads that were to be run at the end of April are being pulled and shifted to later dates. Or, the messaging is being completely altered to present our new reality. Even social posts featuring groups of individuals (unless they’re healthcare workers) are being pulled to focus on social distancing or activities that can take place during a shelter in place. We’ve worked to develop online ordering tools for a local restaurant as their business has shifted to take out orders only.

One of the brands who has done a great job in shifting messaging is Budweiser. Budweiser is a brand that SHOULD continue to advertise in these uncertain times. Data shows that alcohol sales have spiked as consumers stockpile goods – but also as they attempt to deal with the added stresses that shelter-in-place (and home school) brings. However, the ad developed by their agency is well produced and utilizes imagery that reflects our current reality.

Now, I assume that your immediate thought was “well that’s Budweiser – they can do that.” Another brand that has done a good job is one of our clients – BGW Dental Group. They’ve developed a fundraiser to help purchase 3D printed masks (with N95 filters) and they’ve continued to produce short videos on updates on what their office is doing to support the community. These aren’t high-end productions, but simply cell phone videos that any of us could produce.

Don’t Oversell Fear.
One of the frustrations that many of us are struggling with is the fear we see across media and on the web. The fact is – this is scary for everyone and you don’t have to remind us. On television, you’ll see news outlets continually use the color red – which typically represents warning – which adds to the negative hype. You also don’t see published the number of recovered individuals as I think the work to drive fear is purposeful – in hopes that individuals will pay attention and stay home. In social posts, individuals – if they’re not talking about the Tiger King – are posting fear mongering articles from some blog that it’s the end of the world or a random conspiracy theory about the situation we find ourselves in.

However, just because others are spreading fear does NOT mean that your business or organization has to participate. Much of what we’re coaching clients to do right now is to NOT work to hype fear for any reason. What we’re encouraging clients to do is to drive HOPE. There is a place for fear in communications – however going against the grain of society can help you stand out in a crowded marketplace where others are drumming fear.

In a 2014 study following the Great Recession, 40% of millennials believed that US corporations sold on fear, not hope. However, we know that millennials and their soon to be Generation Z counterparts, want to know what your organization does to benefit society and culture. If that answer is to buy in to the fear and anxiety of the day, that may eventually be the downfall for your business.

Don’t Give Up.
There are many studies that show that businesses who stop marketing in a recession are the hardest hit. Those studies also show that businesses who do – strategically – market through a recession also tend to have higher valuations when the recession is over.

One of those studies shared in the Harvard Business Review in 2009 that companies should simply learn to shift their marketing dollars to the need at the time. Now, we know that the second quarter of 2020 will be difficult for many organizations. However, it’s also anticipated that the third and fourth quarters of 2020 will be very good. But, that’s assuming we all get back to work and we move past the COVID-19 pandemic.

When sales or fundraising efforts do decline, even if it is a sharp decline, organizations shouldn’t panic and fundamentally alter who they are. The best course of action is always is to work toward stabilization and create enduring value for your consumers. Marketing has always been a game of how much value can you provide your customers – not the other way around. If you can lean into value creation for your consumers, not only will they continue to spend with you – but, when things do turn around, they’ll spend more with you in the future – creating higher customer lifetime value, longer customer durations and hopefully, doing better than your competition. For one of our healthcare clients, we’ve shifted almost all of their marketing efforts to focus on telehealth and video visits. This allows them to continue to create value for their patients and not entirely alter their organization or their patient’s needs.

Support Your Community.
We as marketers KNOW that millennials and younger generations care greatly about the societal value your business creates. That’s been a focus of marketing for a number of years and it continues to be more important now than ever.

And as a reminder, now is not the time to pull away from your support of the community – but to do even more. For some, that may mean turning their distilleries into hand sanitizer plants or 3D printing masks. For others, that may mean helping to start a fundraising effort to support healthcare workers – or maybe just sending them lunch. If your organization is not supporting a local effort to combat COVID-19, we’d encourage you to do so. The sooner we can win this battle, the sooner we can all get back to some semblance of normalcy.

All of us at Forum wish blessings to you, your families and your organizations. We’re still hard at work for our clients – so feel free to contact us if we can help you.