Marketing Lessons in the Spectre of COVID-19


Don’t Stop.  But change immediately.

Want to damage your brand during a crisis?  Ghost your customer base and disappear from the market. Want to exacerbate the damage? Seize upon others’ misfortune for your gain? Sounds obvious, right? But many B2B brands are doing exactly this during these trying times. 

So, how does one market during a crisis without appearing to be callous toward people or  businesses? To be sure, it’s an extremely delicate balancing act. However, we have seen some companies who are responding successfully by delivering savvy and appropriate messages to the market. I thought I would highlight a few great examples—and compelling opportunities—that exist right now.

Lesson 1: Share your strengths

The companies that are able to showcase strength in a time when stability is paramount are yielding rewards. Conveying unflappable confidence and consistency as you weather this crisis will do more for your brand than any product feature, benefit statement, or performance claim. 

Calix, a leading networking and cloud software firm, has long embraced a work-from-home culture in their day-to-day operations and subsequently were relatively unimpacted because of their strong virtual culture. In the initial weeks, they made the decision to reach out to their customers. But they were not focused on selling. They focused on the actions they were taking to provide additional support through webinars, kits and daily office hours for these customers as they managed their way through the crisis. In short, they were able to use actions instead of claims to convey agility and continuity.

What do you do when your customers need your ingredients way more than they need your products? In a time of crisis, you find a way to meet their needs.  Panera Bread, known for their coffee, baked goods, and sandwiches recently announced that the company is introducing Panera Groceries. Instead of soup and sandwiches, they are now taking the initiative to offer key essentials like milk and bread for pickup and delivery.  They are using their robust supply chain and national distribution to serve their customers in a time of need. Their operational strength and business efficiency are supporting the brand in impactful ways and improving customer perception across the board. 

Lesson 2:  Keep marketing but be savvy

Keep in mind that great marketing doesn’t necessarily mean running a program, ad, or promotion. And, frankly, it doesn’t even have to create a financial return. Consider this: faced with the reality that parents and children are going to be in close quarters for months,  Audible just announced a global free service for families “sheltering and distancing” because of COVID-19. The free service is a godsend for anybody with kids and young ones at home. As if that was not enough, Audible partnered with JK Rowling to release the Sorcerer’s Stone for free. How much did the public love it? The free offer was rated Number 1 on Slickdeals, the top independent e-commerce community on the web. Audible received a wealth of great press, customer goodwill, and market buzz by simply putting their customers’ needs first. 

Lesson 3:  Steer into the storm

Cliches are boring and overused but often laced with truth and insight. ‘One door closes, another opens’ is a cliche for a reason—it’s true. One of the opportunities you have during a time like this is to embrace the disruption to your traditional methodologies and find a new avenue for placing your brand and offerings into the market. 

London-based Diageo, a British multinational alcoholic beverages company, created a Tips From Home campaign. Realizing that many of their affiliates’ restaurant and bar establishments were struggling to financially support their employees, they created an effort to support bartenders who are no longer receiving tips. Diageo committed to donating $1 (up to $1 million) each time people shared cocktail images on social media and attached the #TipsFromHome and #DiageoDonation hashtags to them. In addition, the brand is asking viewers to be a part of the movement by donating, or tipping, through Givz. They are effectively serving the B2B and consumer constituencies with a single program. 

Lesson 4: Pivot to digital

Crises are often an accelerant, forcing evolution and catalyzing change. We’re currently in Q2 2020 and, for B2B marketers with a 3-6 month sales cycle, time is running out to fill the 2020 pipeline. “Large-scale marketing conferences are among many business meetings being shut down worldwide, with direct economic loss reaching $666 million,” according to estimates from PredictHQ. With 30% of the US currently working from home and a vast majority of them being white collar workers, companies need to aggressively move to sales and marketing strategies that do not invoice physical interaction. 

Crises are often an accelerant, forcing evolution and catalyzing change.

Industry events are non grata until at least September and will probably return smaller and less impactful. What do you do in the meantime? 

Expand email marketing; your customers are listening

The cheapest, best way to talk to your customers is via opt-in email.  Combined with an increased number of people online, the chance to have meaningful dialogue with your customers has never been higher.  LiveIntent’s platform has seen an incremental 5% increase in email opens as people begin to spend even more of their day on email.  

Don’t compromise on your virtual events; invest heavily, invest fast

Having the agility to pivot your events from in-person to virtual requires a lot of planning, thought, and ingenuity. But if Microsoft can move their Build 2020 developer conference, you can too.

Still looking for some help? Venturebeat has a fantastic high-level playbook to approach virtual events.

Platforms like GoToWebinar and OnlineEventPro are easy-to-use avenues for those looking to keep their pipelines full and audiences engaged.

Digital advertising rates are down; it’s the savvy time to buy

Twitter, Facebook, and Netflix are all seeing increases in traffic, but with mainstay advertisers like Auto and Travel naturally pulling back spend, that has led to an overall decrease in demand and thus decreases in rates even as much as 30% with key publishers.

This kind of decrease changes the ROAS calculation for eCommerce marketers—specifically for reaching in-demand audiences.

If people are looking for your product—and your ability to fulfill is not impeded—it’s time to buy.

Lesson 5: Embrace the new tone—it’s time to reassess

Remember your upcoming planned marketing campaign? The one with everyone laughing without a care in the world? Yeah, that’s probably not the right tone anymore. To reevaluate that would serve your brand immensely. Begin with straight talk. People will respond to truth. Give it to them. Also keep in mind that people are currently pessimistic. Consider that recent Harris Polls indicate over 75% of individuals are incredibly concerned about the future of the United States. Similarly 91% of the population is growing increasingly worried about the state of the America economy. Callous is not an adjective often associated with successful companies and we encourage our colleagues to avoid it at all costs. As you create your marketing strategy, remember that everyone supports you doing your best to stay in business, keep food on your employees’ tables and weather the storm. They just expect you to do it without coming off like a self-serving mercenary.

Lesson 6: Don’t market your empty well wishes

Every business has a statement about COVID-19 on their website. Maybe it’s a link. Maybe it’s a small banner. But either way, all of them are offering their version of support during COVID-19.

Much like the new “Lebron and Anthony Davis” Lakers earlier in the season (you remember sports, right?), it’s alluringly easy to jump on the bandwagon. However, corporate well-wishing around COVID-19 support at this point rings empty. Don’t try to market well-wishing. It will appear disingenuous. Period. If you aren’t changing your business model to respond to the new economic climate, taking executive pay cuts, or communicating beneficial information for customers, then don’t send that email—because everyone already has.

Tough love for tough times 

Picture this: two of the world’s most important B2B conferences, World Mobile Congress and HIMMS, have been canceled. Nine out of ten marketers are pulling back their marketing campaigns.  

Over half of US retail space is closed and no one is planning to take a cruise for a very, very long time. 

Make no mistake, this is no time for business as usual.

I’d like to leave you with three “GPS” principles that I believe are essential for building great marketing strategies: be authentic with your messages; prioritize customers over everything else; and, most importantly, stay in the market during the crisis—it will accelerate your recovery.

I’ll let Captain Obvious close me out:

Ben Felix

Ben is our go-to guy for all go-to-market programming. From conversion optimization to infographics, he’s a buzzword wunderkind who keeps the team on trend. Overeducated at Columbia and Missouri, his Ivy League rhetoric is balanced by Midwest common sense.