It might be interesting times we are living through but it provides even more interesting opportunities in the marketing and brand building space.
I was lucky enough to ask Robert Grace, Founding Partner and Head of Strategy, M&C Saatchi Abel to share a bit of wisdom to assist us through all this in one piece.
How will the lockdown and the broader COVID-19 crisis affect the advertising and marketing industry?
The industry is in for a rough ride. Brands in crisis often cut back on marketing spend, unfortunately succumbing to short-termism. Although this is nothing new, it will be more pronounced. Of course, the ability to get through this depends on one’s client mix, the services you offer and also your business model.
Business with existing cracks will see those cracks turn into gaping holes. So, ultimately, it’s about coming back to the fundamentals of your business: absolute clarity on what value your bring, being an indispensable partner, building strong teams, robust cashflow.
Where should businesses focus their marketing and advertising efforts at this stage?
As always, focus on the very real role your brand plays in people’s lives.
I see two approaches:
- Firstly there are those brands that are going to get active over this period:
My view would be that these brands need to now move beyond the inspirational and sentimental platitudes and match this with action – what are you actually doing to help your consumer through this?
And this can be done in many ways: be it through specific action, like we saw Standard Bank leading the way on payment holidays, or adapting your business to contribute to the situation like LVMH, or simply offering an escape from the anxiety – like Yuppie Chef doing free online cooking classes.
Most important is that it has to be authentic, and not seen as just a marketing opportunity.
- And secondly:
For some brands, perhaps this is a time to pause, or as a recent article described it “go into quarantine”. By that I don’t mean stop. Take this as an opportunity to spend the time on refining or developing new strategies and innovations so that, when we’re through this, you’re ready to go to market with impact.
The challenge is that many organisations cut back at a time like this. But previous data, looking at past global crises, shows that brands actually investing over this period, win in the long run.
So the adage “why waste a crises” rings true – but that certainly doesn’t mean being opportunistic.
How can we innovate how we perform these functions during the lockdown and in the aftermath?
- The first priority isn’t so much about innovation but more about adaption:
Whilst a short period of going “dark” for a brand hasn’t proven to have significant impact on brand or business metrics, longer periods of being absent in your category will weaken you brand, and allow the opportunity for competitors to attract your customers.
So adapt your plan to understand when you want to be present again in your consumers’ lives.
- The bigger context to this however is that we will be entering recessionary times:
During these times the customer experience becomes key. At a time when disposable income is under strain, consumers want to see true value when they do choose to spend.
This comes down to delivering exceptional customer experience – not a “minimum viable product” (a phrase I detest because it often means feeling ok by taking an average product or service to market).
So, the idea of the customer experience cannot and must not live in the domain of IT or technology alone. It needs technology and insight and importantly, creativity.
The big challenge for many organisations is that, getting the customer experience right, often means building cross-functional teams from different areas of the business, with separate objectives and mandates. It isn’t easy to galvanise people around singular thought, which should be all about adding value where it matters for the consumer.
- The brands and businesses that are struggling are the ones that are stuck in the product world and don’t have clarity on their customer.
- So perhaps the biggest way to innovate is to allow your organisation to be led by what will be useful, meaningful and even delight or surprise your customer.
Any advice to internal marketing and communications staff?
- There’s a statement from Angela Ahrendts when she spoke about turning around Burberry, that rings true: “before you build a connection with your customer, you build one with you employee first”.
- Organisations that have spent time and investment in building meaningful relationships with their employees will weather this far better, and in-fact see greater commitment and even performance over this period.
- Most important for me when it comes to how we engage over this period, is to distinguish between “information” and “communication”.
- COVID information is overwhelming and fear driven – there is no need to dial this up further with you employees.
- The approach we’ve taken is one that is clear, practical and empathetic – to both reassure and equip people to get through this.