How Marketers Can
Cross the Channel
During Crisis

Where do we even begin as marketers staring into the murky depths of the COVID-19 crisis? How can we protect our brands and guide them across the dark waters between Before and After—safely— to the other side?

Based on the collective input from clients and colleagues over the past several weeks, here’s what we believe is necessary for marketers to consider as they guide their team, communicate with customers and lead their brand forward through isolation and recovery phases.

Guiding Your Team

Protecting the Safety of Employees. This is well underway across industries and companies in terms of implementing new ways of working, communicating, and getting the job done. When employees feel safe, cared for, and heard, they will be better able to focus, create and keep things moving. Remember, be flexible and supportive. Recognize that your team will do their best, but that their best may vary day to day as they try to process the many personal, professional, community and global implications of COVID-19.

Your Employees Are Your Brand. Make no mistake, your employees are your brand—strong, resilient brands are not built by marketing or promotions, but by engaged employees. An engaged employee is aware of “business context and works with colleagues to improve performance within the job for the benefit of the organization, and the strongest driver of engagement is a sense of feeling valued and involved (Engaged Employees, 2004).”

Now is the time to listen and let employees voice their ideas about what is on their minds and how they can help, as well as sharing your concern for their health and well-being. Protect employee engagement at all costs—more than ever you need a team that rallies behind a common purpose, espouses shared values, and demonstrates a willingness to go beyond basic job requirements.

“Best marketing strategy ever: care”
-Gary Vaynerchuk

Transparency. Now is the time to listen, respond, and share honestly, openly and frequently with your team. Hard choices will need to be made, expediency will be necessary—often with imperfect information, uncertainty will prevail. You will need to share tough things and it won’t be easy. Be known for your candour and make sharing the truth a habit. It will deepen the quality of your relationships and help you and your team endure the challenges today and beyond.

Your Need to be Real. Just as you are transparent and communicate directly, remember directness without empathy in a crisis is heartless. A pillar of strength is not a pillar of stone. Leadership expert Brené Brown in “Dare to Lead” tells us that leadership is about “choosing hearts over armour and building a culture of bravery and vulnerability. Vulnerability is the emotion we experience during times of uncertainty, failure, risk, and emotional exposure and it’s ok to share it.

“Courage is contagious. A critical mass of brave leaders is the foundation of an intentionally courageous culture. Every time we are brave with our lives, we  make the people around us a little braver and our organizations bolder and stronger.”
-Brené Brown

Leading Your Customers

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In a crisis, people’s physiological (food, water, shelter, sleep), safety (security, health, employment), and belonging (family, connections) needs dominate, and it’s important for marketers to be sensitive to this reality. Building on this idea, Bain and Company reports that in crisis, there is an opportunity to create moments of truth in relationships.

Consumers are looking for Elements of Value* that enhance their sense of well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic; these mainly include:

Affiliation and Belonging
Reduces Anxiety
Reduces Risk

Pyramid Chart:


Affiliation and Belonging: Provides Hope, Self-Actualization, Motivation, Heirloom

Reduces Anxiety: Rewards Me, Nostalgia, Design Aesthetics, Wellness Badge Value Therapeutic Value Fun Entertainment Attractiveness Provided Access

Reduces Risk: Saves Time, Simplifies, Makes Money, Organizes, Integrates, Connects, Reduces Effort, Avoids Hassles, Reduces Cost, Quality, Variety, Sensory Appeal, Informs

*2020 Bain & Company, Inc.

 Social-impact elements

What is the impact to society?

Life-changing elements

How does it change my life?

Emotional elements

How does it feel?

Functional elements

What does it do?

“During this crisis, consumers globally are valuing services, products, people, and institutions that reduce their anxiety, reduce their risks, or provide some sense of safety and belonging. Businesses should consider whether their actions and communications deliver these three types of value. If not, don’t take that action or release a communication, as it will be ignored or, worse, make consumers even more anxious.”
-Bain & Company

Facts Matter. Let your customers know what’s happened with your business, what you are doing about it, what you can or can’t control, and what they can expect. They will appreciate your directness; they will want you to get to the other side, and they will be more forgiving regarding uncontrollable inconveniences along the way—which unfortunately may be many for some brands.

Consistency and Frequency. It goes with without saying—be sure to share your main messages consistently across all marketing channels and as frequently as required to keep your customer up to speed. Clear, concrete information is needed and valued. Proactively anticipate questions and answer them: Do you have new operating hours? A change in delivery policy? Are you closing? Each day will bring more questions—answer them honestly. It’s just not possible for you—or your customers—to cross that dark channel, without real-time updates on conditions whenever possible.

Marketing and Crossing the Channel

Stop, Look, Listen. Your first task is to briefly pause your marketing so you can determine how it fits, or doesn’t fit, within the new reality. You will want to think about your brand, how it helps and adds value, and your audience’s mindset—which could be very different from a just a few weeks ago. You’ll need to be agile, open-minded and listen more than ever to what consumers and your target are saying—and even not saying—but feeling.

Actions Speak Loudly. Your marketing will set the tone for how prospects perceive your brand in the months—and years ahead. Operate with integrity—actions will speak louder than ads or opportunistic plays.

Short-term gain at the expense of brand trust is a losing proposition. Instead of selling, strive to be of service and help people to be safe, fed, and protected. Your values and assets will help you find ways to fulfill unmet needs, reduce anxiety, and increase a sense of belonging pro-actively and without recognition.

Marketing is OK. That’s right, marketing is still ok. We agree with Mark Ritson that while it “may seem superficially mercantile to discuss brands, pricing and customer behaviour as we stare down the barrel of a pandemic, research and history prove that even during a crisis there is an important role for marketing.” It may take on a different shape—context is everything—but for many brands, it will be crucial to long-term success. Last year, in “When a Recession Comes, Don’t Stop Advertising,” Forbes magazine reminds us that there are many reasons to advertise during a downtime:

  • The “noise level” in a brand’s product category drops and opens an opportunity to re-position a brand.
  • Brands can project an image of stability and support.
  • When marketers cut back on their ad spending, the brand loses its “share of mind” and holding onto “share of mind” is key to holding onto “share of market.”

Unless your budgets are slashed to bare bone, and we appreciate that this is the case in certain industries, look at your brand and its role—or potential new role—in your target’s life and find a way to help. Go back to Bain and Company’s model outlined earlier and look at ways your brand can help reduce anxiety, reduce risks, and or provide some sense of safety and belonging.

Medium as Message. So much of communication is non-verbal—consider the human nuances that are lost in emails and texts and the misunderstandings that result. Deloitte reminds us that voice intonation, eye contact, and body language are simply essential to trust building among staff, clients and prospects.

As a result, video can be an invaluable tool to creating powerful emotional connections and should be considered when communicating with a large and or dispersed staff, stakeholders and your customers.

A long-form video can be quickly created with today’s technology, sliced into smaller units and repurposed across channels to communicate important messages.

54% of consumers want to see more video content from a brand or business they support

“As a result, video can be an invaluable tool to creating powerful emotional connections and should be considered when communicating with a large and or dispersed staff, stakeholders and your customers.”
-Hubspot, 2018

Brand Leadership. You may be thinking that you can see using video to communicate with staff, but is it right for clients in today’s shaken world? Depending on the category, brand and the target audiences, the answer is yes. A brand video communicating your purpose and values as it relates to the crisis can help deepen trust, build share of heart, accelerate your brand’s recovery on the other side, and increase consumer empathy for employees who are doing their best in challenging circumstances.

The 4As recently reported (March 20, 2020) that 43% of people find it reassuring to hear from brands they know and trust; and 56% report that they like hearing about brands taking actions to donate goods and services.”

Q: Which of the following media carries video advertising that you believe to be most trustworthy?

Most Trustworthy

Adults 18+ Adults 18-34
TV 70% 60%
Online Video 12% 20%
Social Media 8% 12%
Don’t know/Refused 11% 9%
“43% of people find it reassuring to hear from brands they know and trust; and 56% report that they like hearing about brands taking actions to donate goods and services.”
-4As, March 2020

Digital Explosion. If site traffic, time on site and conversions have been at the heart of your digital strategy, now is the time to look at digital in new ways. Millions more people will be at home online in the coming months—how can you meet their needs and or be there with a brand message that will deepen their connection to you?

Social media will be the channel of choice as the world connects and shares; mobile and video games will go through the roof—ask any working parent with kids at home; Nielsen is predicting a 60% increase in the amount of video content watched—Universal Pictures has even announced that it will soon start sending new movies directly to the home streaming market; increases of 22% and more are predicted for television as witnessed by the Seattle television market recently during its COVID outbreak; live streaming will increase significantly across YouTube and Facebook; streaming audio will grow, as will podcasts and downloads of audio books; and finally, Amazon is planning to hire an additional 100,000 employees in the US to support e-commerce.

Building on this, Centro reports the following media consumption trends:

22% Increase in week-over-week web traffic – Verizon, March 12, 2020 – March 19,2020

250K New Netflix subscribers in one weekend (Mintel) Mintel, March 2020

12% Uptick in video streams, Verizon, March 12, 2020 – March 19, 2020

61.5% sports superfans who subscribe to at least one streaming service, 2019 MRI Doublebase

Traffic to trusted digital publishers increases

Broadcast news remains the preferred way to get breaking news

Video streaming subscriptions and usage surge

Connected TV inventory increases

Print publications experience even more hardship

Pay walls come down and premium content is offered for free

In-person interaction needs are partially replaced by social media

Live sports viewing shifts to streaming video service and gaming

2020 Centro

The Elusive Balance. In “Power Out of the Recession,” Harvard Business Review assessed the corporate performance of 4,700 firms during the past three recessions and found those that cut costs fastest and deepest had the lowest probability of outperforming competitors after the economy recovered; investing boldly during a recession is also not the way to create post-recession competitive advantage.

However, “those companies that focus simultaneously on increasing operational efficiency (versus mainly reducing employees)), developing new markets via research and marketing and investing in new assets emerged ahead in terms of sales and EBITDA growth.” The increase in research and marketing may produce only modest benefits during the recession but sets the foundation for later success.

We appreciate that COVID-19 is comparatively unique and believe moving forward is not necessarily an “either or” situation but will involve a careful balance of interest.

“In turbulent times, it’s tough for companies to know where to place their bets for both the immediate term and the long run. Progressive companies stay closely connected to customer needs –a powerful filter through which to make investment decisions.”
-The Harvard Business Review

Start Planning Now. Look up from the water to the horizon, the distant shore—now—and start planning for your recovery. Objects in the side-view mirror are always closer than they appear. Based on your industry, what might the future look like and what steps will you take short-term and longer-term as a marketer? Ask yourself:

  • With finite resources, are you strategically positioned for a competitive advantage?
  • Is your point of differentiation still relevant?
  • How can you strengthen your proof points based on how the world has changed?
  • How can you express your main message in a more relevant and compelling manner based on the new world?
  • Will you target the same audiences in the same ways, or look at new ways to communicate with established and emerging audiences?
  • How will you leverage the explosion in video and digital marketing to your benefit?

These are just some of the questions you need to ask to prepare to move forward.

And you will go forward. Marketers have survived the dotcom implosion, SARS, the 2008 financial crisis, and more. If you’ve read this far, chances are you’re a swimmer: inherently resilient and adaptable to changing conditions.

You’ve had time to burn fat, build muscle. In the days ahead, you’ll lengthen your stroke, sharpen your focus, increase your endurance. You’ll move steadily through the water, across the channel, and safely to the other side. You’ll arrive stronger, more flexible, resilient, and compassionate. You’ll have a new perspective on business, your team, working, and most important—that amazing thing that takes place in every breath: life.

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