While there are marketing guidelines detailing what to do in times of crisis, there aren’t any that specify what happens when that crisis happens to be a global pandemic and marketers are left rediscovering what communication should look like. In this article, we share the best practices for building a communication strategy during these turbulent times.
Smart and responsible marketing during COVID-19 is a challenge that businesses and brands are presented with during the massive disruption that the pandemic has brought about. Consumer behavior and preferences, and how they receive and perceive messages, have all been shifted as growing caution is being practiced with regard to purchasing decisions.
We interviewed Ahmed Tolba, associate provost for strategic enrollment management and associate professor of marketing at The American University in Cairo (AUC) School of Business, about the playbook of how brands should communicate during this phase considering how customer preferences have evolved.
Do the right thing and give the right emotional response
“To start with, maintain a genuine tone and acknowledge that everyone is facing a serious challenge,” advises Tolba. At such times, a single misstep can trigger a negative perception of the brand. Taking that into account, “brands should focus their message on a solution rather than selling a product or service” he stresses, even if that means making recommendations that go against the profitability of the business, such as encouraging people to stay home even if it is the walk-ins that drive profits for the business.
In fact, he perceives the current situation as an opportunity to maximize brand equity. “This is the time to strength your brand image rather than search for business growth, unless your business is a solution”, Tolba asserts. When the communication focus is directed towards the wellbeing of society and the crisis is not taken advantage of to maximize profits, brand trustworthiness and image can be taken to a whole new level. “This is a golden opportunity to strengthen brand equity by demonstrating responsible behavior, and in return, the impact will last in the long-term.”
Respond rapidly to consumers’ challenges
The room for creativity during this situation is unlimited, whereby brands should be on the lookout for solutions that would link back to the global outbreak and the changing dynamics of the day-to-day functions, such as social distancing, remote work, and online learning. By doing so, brands stay closer to their consumers and convey a supporting message that says we’re in this together.
Harness communities and digital tools
On that note, Tolba encourages brands and businesses to direct their marketing budgets to digital tools since they’re the most blended into consumers’ lives, allowing them to establish a community around a cause, start conversations, while being able to measure the results of these efforts.
Ideally, “Businesses should focus on people’s lives in a way that is somehow close to the activities of the business and its core beliefs, but without emphasizing sales. The key message should always show that you care about your people and that you’re following your principles and values during this tough time.”
Understand and adapt to the new consumer behavior
Businesses should expect to see shifts in consumer behavior in the upcoming period, with some of them already becoming visible, such as digital platforms becoming the dominant business models, and the booming of home delivery services. The emergence of such trends can in some cases provide the optimal balance between prioritizing consumer safety while also maintaining profitability, explains Tolba.
In the face of such a global pandemic, there will inevitably be sectors that suffer and others that benefit. For instance, digital businesses, IT services, and the like will reap benefits, while movie theaters and restaurants for example, will be negatively impacted for quite some time. “However, generalizations can’t be made; it depends on the agility, overhead costs, and cash flow of the business,” he claims.
It’s safe to say that maintaining profitability in the short term, is nearly impossible in most scenarios. The real concern is about “regaining momentum afterwards and, most importantly, surviving this period without completely shutting down the business. Unfortunately, it’s clear that we are heading towards a global recession, and possibly, a depression,” Tolba states.
The short playbook
There is only so much that can be done with regard to this situation, but if executed effectively, can go a long way. As a re-cap, Tolba provides the main do’s and don’ts for brand communication.
- Reach out to customers digitally
- Emphasize the safety and well-being of your consumers
- Maintain a tone that shows sympathy and understanding of your customers
- Showcase your principles, deliver on your values, and express keenness on the welfare of society
- Offer creatively positioned tips that connect to your brand/product category
- Aggressively seek sales
- Send the same ‘messages’ you did pre-corona
- Stay silent, unless there is no possibility of delivering a genuine message or the cash position of the business doesn’t allow for spending (in this case, channel your efforts to improving your services/products or solving operational problems)
Ahmed Tolba is associate provost for Strategic Enrollment Management and associate professor of marketing at The American University in Cairo (AUC). Tolba has extensive experience and research on brand equity, innovation marketing, online marketing, and social marketing. He also co-authored the leading textbook: “Principles of Marketing: Arab World Edition” with marketing gurus Philip Kotler and Gary Armstrong.