In 2008, with the world still mired in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, a small full-service marketing company in Bethesda, Maryland, opened for business. Its flagship product was a trade journal focused on the U.S. construction sector, which had been hit especially hard by the economic downturn.
That was us.
Twelve years later, Trueline is alive and well, though COVID-19 has forced us to confront many of the same challenges faced by businesses around the world. Like us, you’re probably having to make hard decisions, but here’s one you shouldn’t make: abandoning your digital marketing strategy.
Here’s what you should do instead.
For businesses struggling to stay open, the instinct might be to simply cut spending across the board: payroll, human resources, marketing and communications—everything not directly bringing in the dollars.
But as this 2009 article from the Harvard Business Review argues, in times of economic turmoil (as was the case back then), organizations should be taking a scalpel, rather than a cleaver, to their operations.
“Surgically trimming the budget is easier to do during a downturn than in prosperous times,” the author writes. “Tough times provide an imperative to cut loose poor performers and eliminate low-yield tactics. When survival is at stake, it is easier to get companywide buy-in for revising marketing strategies and reallocating investments.”
So what might that look like in today’s (increasingly precarious) economy? As was the case in 2009, it’s imperative that companies take a hard look at their brands—and the messaging behind them. Like any thorough self-reflection, this one starts with some probing questions.
- What is the short-term market for our products or services?
- As consumer psychology shift, how do we create assets that speak to these new attitudes?
- When the economy does rebound, how much “pent-up demand” can we expect?
These are the kinds of things that should be asked—and confidently answered—before taking a more detailed inventory of your company’s marketing assets.
Once you’ve decided your strategy, the next step is addressing the COVID-crisis head on. Regardless of whether your actual products or services change, chances are your messaging will. (Unless you happen to be in the toilet paper or disinfectant wipes business, in which case, you’re probably fine.)
Noticed a huge influx of COVID-19-related emails from brands you’ve (presumably) given your email address to? A grocery chain that’s taking extra precautions to sanitize stores? A tech company outlining what it’s doing to protect workers? When you have something relevant to say regarding the situation, it’s okay to let your customers know about it. Just be aware that you need to be genuine.
Even if your only takeaway is, “Company X is doing something about this,” that’s good PR for them. The same goes for those one-or-two-paragraph COVID notices that pop up on a company’s home page. At this point, it looks weird if you *don’t* have one, and while these steps may seem inconsequential, they keep your business on people’s radar.
Promote Your Business Wisely
Now comes the hard part: staying on people radar. When recalibrating your company’s marketing assets, a good place to start is social media: what you post, how often and—most important of all—the tone in which it’s delivered.
As wisely suggested in this article, it’s important to understand where your business fits in the broader socio-economic context of the COVID-19 crisis. If you’re in the healthcare or technology space, it makes sense for your social-media platforms to include a lot of COVID-related information: specifics about what the company is doing, tips for consumers and so on.
On the other hand, if you’re a fashion retailer or automotive service provider, try to strike a balance between your regular, promotional posts and the more serious COVID content (such as what your business is doing to keep customers safe).
At the same time, if you focus *too* much on promoting your brand during a global crisis, it’s a pretty bad look. There’s a fine line between engaged and opportunistic, and you don’t want to cross that line.
In This Together
Like any business, the COVID crisis has forced Trueline to reevaluate what we do—and how we do it. It’s also given us a crash course in how to help our clients pivot.
One client, a CEO for a large professional membership organization, has used her newfound free time to create timely content to share with members, business partners and other stakeholders. She even tapped us for extra personal branding: tidying up her LinkedIn page, creating a podcast, submitting articles to national magazines and so on.
Another client asked us to help him craft compelling, COVID-related LinkedIn posts that discuss some of the under-the-radar legal issues that individuals and businesses are suddenly confronting. Just the other day, we helped one of our smaller clients craft a blog post that put the COVID crisis in historical context (the organization was around during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic).
The point is, if you’re worried about changes in your business being too much for a marketing firm to handle, don’t. They’re in the same boat as you. So figure it out together!
Plan For The Post COVID-19 Future
To summarize: Before you start slashing your marketing budget—either by laying off staff or severing ties with your agency—understand the implications. Spending less on marketing will likely have a minimal impact on your bottom line. What you lose in terms of momentum, however, could come back to haunt you.
To the contrary, there may be opportunities for growth that you didn’t even know existed. Maybe you own a yoga studio with a super-loyal following. Why not try doing classes over Zoom? Even if you charge less than you normally would, you could have 50 people in a class instead of 10. When things go back to normal, maybe you continue offering remote classes on the side. That’s growth!
Of course, not all businesses will have such simple solutions at their disposal. For many, the road forward is uncertain—even scary. That was certainly the case for us back in 2008 (and is today). But while the current crisis might require a shift in strategy and message, don’t let it change your mission, culture or values.
When all this ends—not if, but when—companies will still need strong marketing. When an athlete suffers an injury, they don’t just lie in bed and wait to recover. They work whatever muscles they can. Marketing is one muscle you can always find time to exercise. So don’t let it rest too long.