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Marketing strategies to steer your business through the coronavirus downturn

Marketing strategies to steer your business through the coronavirus downturn
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Marketing strategies to steer your business through the coronavirus downturn
Siobhan Stirling - Sharp Minds Communications for Capital Space by Siobhan Stirling - Sharp Minds Communications for Capital Space
Owner/Director - Sharp Minds Communications Ltd

With the unprecedented economic situation created by the coronavirus pandemic, your instinct may be to cut all spending, but research suggests that businesses that emerge most successfully when the economy picks up again balance both defensive and offensive strategies, including maintaining or increasing their marketing spend. But the current situation is unique, so it’s going to require creative, empathetic strategies and messages to resonate with consumers who are stuck at home. We’ve pulled together seven marketing strategies to help you steer your business through the coronavirus downturn.

Technically, we’re not in a recession until GDP has fallen for two successive quarters, however it’s the word that is already on everyone’s lips. The necessary abrupt curtailment of social interaction has led the Chancellor to acknowledge that COVID-19 has already created an ‘economic emergency’, and the scale of the government’s rescue packages make it very clear how damaging they believe the impact could be.

All of which means that whatever business strategies you were pursuing need rethinking to address recession mode, even if we are still some months away from reaching the economic definition. Research shows that companies that emerge strongest from a downturn are those that combine a mixture of defensive (cost-cutting) and offensive strategies, including investment in R&D, plant and assets and marketing.

While it may seem counterintuitive to continue marketing in a downturn, engagement with your customers has never been more important. In How To Market in a Downturn1  published in The Harvard Business Review, recognised worldwide for its strategic business analysis, the authors conclude:

“On average, increases in marketing spending during a recession have boosted financial

performance throughout the year following the recession.”

But the marketing that was working for you before social distancing and working from home became the norm won’t necessarily still be valid, especially if your opportunities for meeting and interacting with your customers have been eliminated. So, we’ve pulled together seven marketing strategies you could employ to engage with your customers and help maintain cashflow during these challenging times.

Marketing strategy No 1: Find fresh opportunities and get your message across

Even in the most challenging of circumstances, new opportunities are always out there, waiting to be explored. Chat with your team (or brainstorm on your own with a sheet of paper) to work out your key customers’ likely response to the current situation. What sort of changes and challenges will it bring to how they work – and how they live? They will need solutions; is your business able to offer them?  

For example:

  • Financial services: The latest government rules on social distancing has seen many of us confined to home with only our immediate family for company and time on our hands. This could mean there’s an ideal opportunity for financial service companies to be encouraging us to look at our financial situations and how we could improve them in the future, with expert financial advice possibly required.
  • Business coaches: According to other research2 published in the Harvard Business Review, the businesses set to succeed and keep succeeding will make carefully chosen investments. Pitch this information at the right level and you may persuade new clients to use this enforced down time to turn their attentions to devising plans for the long term.

Marketing strategy No 2: Review how you approach your customer relationships

All the usual ways in which we normally touch base with our customers – both existing and prospective – are now on hold, with social distancing meaning that networking as we know it simply isn’t an option now. You can still reach them, though: you just have to come up with new ways of doing so. This is where ‘thinking outside the box’ and technology come into their own in devising new solutions.

Face-to-face meetings could be replaced with video or phone calls, and social media offers an ideal way in which to build on warm leads (see more below). Are there presentations you can offer remotely via video links or screen-sharing software? The fact that we’re all feeling more isolated could work in your favour: arguably people are more likely to make contact with those who reach out to them – and 21st-century technology makes it easier for you to do so.

Marketing strategy No 3: Get social

There’s a new community out there and it’s on social media. Those who already belong are going to be utilising it even more while we are in lockdown, and those who haven’t yet joined are more likely to do so. Social media is thus going to be an indispensable platform for keeping in touch with your customers – even getting to know them and their needs better. Realistically, not every potential customer is going to be in a position to do work with you in the current climate, but engage them, build up relationships via social media and the relationships you nurture may well turn to you when they are in a position to do business once again.

Turn to singer L Devine for inspiration. Following the cancellation of her European tour due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she announced: “Coronavirus delayed my tour so I’m touring on social instead”; her virtual tour involves using the different social channels as different venues.

Other musicians such as Chris Martin and Robbie Williams have been streaming informal gigs via Instagram. YungBlud streamed a gig on YouTube and encouraged  over 200,000 viewers to send pictures of themselves during the set – an imaginative way of delivering the product (a live music event) in a different way, yet still managing to create a shared experience.

Social media could help you and your business generate this sort of engagement, albeit on a different scale. While the hospitality sector has been badly bruised by the current restrictions and there are no easy ways to reengage diners while social distancing remains essential, it’s still possible to keep engaging with customers, so that when they have their first post-coronavirus meal out, they chose to have it at your restaurant. Chefs could post their favourite recipes on line for people to cook at home, encouraging them to share photos of the results and perhaps offering a free post-pandemic meal at the restaurant for the best effort, or points per entry as part of an online loyalty scheme that they can ‘cash in’ once we’re free to dine out again.  

Marketing strategy No 4: Modify what you’re offering and how you offer it

There are products that can be sold without face-to-face interaction; others require the sort of hands-on delivery that simply isn’t possible at the moment. Think outside the box, though, and there could be things related to your job that you’re still able to sell, helping ensure cashflow. For example:

  •  Beauty therapists: No, you can’t offer facials or massages at the moment, but you could put out a series of ‘how to’ videos via social media, giving you a chance to promote any beauty products that you can sell to your customers online, helping them to pamper themselves at home and cheer themselves up at the same time.
  • Photographers: With wedding and parties off for the foreseeable future, you won’t be photographing key events for a while, but you’ve still got your creative and picture-editing skills. How about offering to assemble photo albums from people’s digital archives, using your expert eye.

Of course, you may need to rethink your processes to deliver to your customers. For instance, beauty therapists who haven’t explored the world of mail-order and home delivery will need to consider them now.

Marketing strategy No 5: Spend now, not later

Having something to look forward to is something we all need now. Can your clients be persuaded to buy gift vouchers today that they can spend when normality has returned again? It’s a good idea for face-to-face companies and those in the leisure and hospitality sectors (who wouldn’t love an energy-busting paintball party after weeks or even months in isolation?!). Note, though, that you might need to extend the timescale in which customers can redeem their vouchers to give them confidence to purchase.

Marketing strategy No 6: Understand just how tough this is for your customers

Harvard Business Review1 stresses the following:

“Reassuring messages that reinforce an emotional connection with the brand and demonstrate empathy (for example, by conveying a sense that “we’re going to get through this together”) are vital.”

Also emphasising that:

“Empathetic messages must be backed up by actions demonstrating that the company is on the

customer’s side.”

In other words, hollow promises don’t count. The businesses that will come out strongest will be those that understand their customers’ pain – and develop solutions to meet or mitigate it. For example, this may offering more flexible terms than usual or extending credit.

Marketing strategy No 7: People power!

If there’s any upside to this crisis it’s seeing people band together, with new community initiatives to look after older and vulnerable neighbours springing up all the time. Sector leaders will be refining their businesses’ Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies to identify how to support local communities. Get this right, and the bonus for everybody is that the community you are supporting will share your messaging for you.

Iceland led the way in this by offering early opening for older shoppers to enable them to buy essentials at quieter times to reduce their risk of coronavirus infection, while Tesco’s were quick off the mark in supporting NHS workers. But such initiatives aren’t the preserve of big brands; a grocer’s in Cornwall won BBC coverage for a similar solution.

Getting your marketing right during these challenging times will help maintain cashflow where possible while people have to say at home, as well as putting your business in the best possible position to move forwards when things begin to get back to normal. 

MEET THE EXPERT

Siobhan Stirling is the director of award-winning marketing and PR agency Sharp Minds Communications. She is currently partnering with a business coach and accountants to offer up to 90 minutes’ free business strategy advice to companies in Kent and Sussex and to Capital Space clients. Read more about this offer here.

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