Marketing in the pandemic

How do businesses grow with fewer resources?

It’s a dilemma that marketing leaders were acquainted with long before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, doing even more with less has become an immediate necessity for many businesses. 

At the same time, businesses are facing a diverse array of marketing challenges. Some may have lingered on the ‘to do’ list for months or even years. What the pandemic has done has brought them out of the shadows and into the spotlight. The importance of customer experience and understanding what customers want and how to engage them with the right marketing mix has never been more critical to business survival and prosperity.

 

Below are 5 marketing means by which businesses leaders can survive and thrive in the ‘new normal’:

 

1. Discovering new ways to identify customer demand and behaviour

For some companies, past performance data may no longer hold the same value. Customer pre-purchase and buyer behaviour has changed considerably. The role of the internet in the buyer’s research process and ‘Zero Moment of Truth’ (ZMOT) has never been more prevalent. The crucial stage in fighting for customer attention and efforts to ensure that customers contact you are fought on an online battleground. More customers are using the internet than ever before and shopping online for a wider range of products. 

Companies not embracing digital technologies or ‘doing what they’ve always done’ to solve pressing problems, holding out for a return to the ‘old ways’ once lockdowns are lifted do so at their peril. Digital advancements or new approaches adopted by competing providers may have been welcomed by their customers and are now irreversible. Businesses should therefore invest time in understanding their customers and how their habits and preferences may have changed.

As well as evaluating sales data, web traffic and footfall – reaching out to customers and asking them open questions is imperative. When faced with tough times and critical marketing decisions, we find that too many companies become insular, acting upon assumptions or just data. Data is vitally important but often little or no input is invited from the customers upon which their business has been built. 

The insight gained from direct customer dialogue and customer-facing functions is invaluable. The landscape may have changed a lot since the pre-pandemic days. The aim here would be to translate these new customer insights, needs and wants into SMART marketing objectives with supporting marketing actions across the seven P’s. New product or service enhancements may be identified as well as new promotional methods and channels to reach out to prospective customers.

2. Revisit your Seven P’s

The seven P’s provide a simple framework to breakdown the complexities of the marketing mix for review and potential change. For example, considerations may include:

  • Product – when marketing your product or service, you need to think about the key features and benefits your customers want or need and whether these may have shifted in light of the pandemic. This goes beyond the core product and its function. It also includes aspects such as styling, packaging, repairs, and accessories.
  • Pricing – can you maintain your pricing structure in light of shifts in customer demand, competitor activity and material costs?
  • Place – restrictions may prevent face to face selling, forcing increased use of teleconferencing and phone based approaches. Expectantly, many companies have taken to ecommerce too. Ecommerce has provided a lifeline for many bricks and mortar retailers forced to close due to lockdown restrictions.
  • Promotion – it’s crucial that any changes to the preceding Ps are communicated to your customers. How else will they know you have listened and responded to their needs as identified by your research? Messages to your target customers must resonate with their needs and their situation. In support of virtual sales meetings product ‘explainer’ videos, online demos and slide decks may facilitate a scale-up of sale efforts and higher conversion rates. 
  • People – for companies making the transition from on-site to remote working – the need for technological investment and adaptations should not overshadow the needs of your teams. Leaders face new challenges in ensuring their people remain connected, motivated, incentivised and appreciated. Greater attention to people management and cross functional co-ordination is required. Extra emphasis on a strong workplace culture is key. Leaders should conduct regular check-ins with their teams in terms of work progression, their needs and their well-being. A positive attitude and high morale to accomplish tasks is contagious. Toxicity can be contagious too and as a leader, you must tackle it but in doing so first check your own conduct. It  may be that your own action or inaction may have nurtured the problem.
  • Processes – refers to those processes which deliver your offering to your customers. These may be both internal and external including product development, delivery, installation, training, customer support, complaints handling and quality assurance. Whether you’re maintaining or working towards accreditation or not, ISO9001 provides a great framework in which to evaluate these areas.
  • Physical Evidence – refers to everything your customers see or touch when they interact with your business. Typically, most management here is concerned with the physical environments in which you provide your product or service. It covers interior design, how your staff dress and their presentation. Staff conducting Zoom calls in PJs with last night’s left-over Prosecco bottle unwittingly left in view may provide an amusing ice breaker or more likely be a deal breaker in pre-sale customer relationships.

3. Driving growth through innovation

Innovation can often be a catalyst for growth but it is also becoming a means by which businesses can adapt and grow during the pandemic. Lockdowns have forced companies in all industries to introduce new means of delivering their product or service. 

Digital transformation has been the core enabler of organisational change for the last decade. In such a short period, we have witnessed widescale adoption of internet-based marketing, a shift from legacy IT to cloud computing, an increase in smart automation and the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT). It should therefore come as no surprise that these same technologies have enabled all types and size of organisation to adapt, survive and even thrive throughout the pandemic.

Manchester (UK) based, SanCloud help organisations boost efficiency, reduce costs and improve customer experience by leveraging the IoT. With the help of a re-brand and sustained marketing strategy, this remit has resonated well with businesses from around the globe. In the last 12 months alone, new business enquiries have soared, exports have opened to 45 countries and rising. Additionally, customer-driven product developments in the pipeline include a revolutionary new smart manufacturing solution that will provide critical aid to an industry that has been hit hard by the pandemic. 

4. Identifying and enhancing brand touchpoints

Brand is how a business, product or service is perceived in the customer’s mind. Customers judge companies by the quality, effectiveness and efficiency of their brand touchpoints. Brand touchpoints range from the customer’s experience of a company’s website, call centre, in-store experience to supply chain partners like third-party resellers and delivery companies. Has the late or non-delivery of goods affected your perception of a company? 

A customer’s perception will change with each exposure to a brand touchpoint. That perception may improve or deteriorate upon each individual interaction. That perception change can be marginal or a seismic shift in either direction. Customers are won and lost based on perceptions so brand management is an important marketing role often requiring frequent and close collaboration across multiple departments that “own” affected touchpoints.

In the beer production market, COVID-19 has impacted on-trade sales significantly due to forced closures of pubs and bars. Breweries fastest to capitalise upon off-trade sales channels have fared best. Online beer sales have increased by 55%, while 70% of UK independent breweries now offer delivery or takeaway services. Breweries have also introduced new and innovate ways to reach customers and share brand experiences. For example, Salford-based Seven Bro7hers Brewing Co. offers virtual brewery tours with “tutored tasting” of their varieties of beer. Tasting kits are delivered in advance of the scheduled virtual tour taking place – attracting new buyers whilst also making for a great evening in! 

Similarly, in the tourism sector, heritage site and tour operators are offering virtual tours of famous landmarks to recoup lost revenues from visiting tourists whilst priming their virtual visitors for a physical ‘return trip’ as and when lockdowns are lifted.

Once more, physical interactions will gradually regain their essential role in the customer journey. However, many companies will continue to nurture the ‘digital twins’ they created during lockdown given the role that virtual tour experiences can continue to play  in reaching geographically distant customers or those favouring an online experience. 

5. Optimising marketing investment

Pre-pandemic high ROI generating marketing activities may no longer deliver the same results. Companies must account for the variable impacts of COVID-19 and acquire the necessary data and customer insight to review the ROI on all expenditure items including those incurred through COVID related communications.

In conducting this assessment, clear distinctions must be made between marketing and advertising with separate cost breakdowns. Marketing is the processes for creating, communicating, delivering and exchanging offerings that have value for customers. More simplistically – Putting the right product in the right place, at the right price, at the right time with the right promotion. In other words, any organisation fails to function without marketing (whether they are consciously marketing or not). Advertising is one amongst many methods of marketing communication. Marketing communication forms part of ‘Promotion’ in the context of the 7 Ps. Advertising is distinguished as openly sponsored (paid-for) messages to promote or sell a product, service or idea.

It’s astonishing to find how many companies lump their marketing and advertising costs into a single headline accounting entry! Scrutinise every penny – maybe streamline your advertising spend. However, if you’re tempted to cut your marketing, consider that you may, in fact, be hurting your business far more than you are helping it. Marketing is a critical business function. Many studies reveal how increased marketing during an economic downturn can lead to growth. Obvious to those business leaders that understand the true meaning of marketing.

At this time, it’s good to go back to marketing basics. For example, revisiting customer segmentation in light of the new business landscape may help refine messaging. It may also reveal unserved segments to which product development efforts and media spend could be redirected.

A common and often effective tactic employed throughout the pandemic has been to maintain or increase investment on brand building activities whilst reducing advertising expenditure on campaigns that drive short-term sales. It may also be wise to ring-fence those campaign budgets ready for the post-pandemic world.

Conclusion

There is no sugar coating it. The business challenges of adapting to the pandemic and preparation for a post-pandemic landscape are significant. However, with new challenges come new opportunities too and by re-focusing your marketing efforts, they are there for the taking.

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