Marketing in a pandemic

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I’ve been in the ‘comms’ business for quite a while now and have seen, and worked through, quite a lot of things. With a few notable exceptions, most of the time it’s been for completely unimportant things. I mean, who can’t live without that new car or chocolate bar? OK, scratch that last one, that’s definitely on the ‘essentials’ list. Especially at times like this.

Although that’s the thing isn’t it? There’s never been “times like this”. Some might say “oh, but back in 1918 blah blah blah” but shonky math aside, that was a million years ago, and for better and for worse, life was a little different back then.

Which brings us to now. As far as i know there weren’t EDMs and there was no social media in 1918. So we’re genuinely in uncharted territory. Which is weird when you’re a bit old. Because usually when someone asks you a question, you have a bit of experience to draw upon and you can pluck an answer from somewhere. This time we’re just making it all up though really, aren’t we?

Well, sort of. You see, I’ve always been a big fan of fundamentals. And they’ve come in pretty handy these past few days. Cause it turns out that even in unprecedented times, you can rely on some good old fundamentals. 

Here’s a few that I’ve used these past few days.

Authenticity

Hear me out on this one because I know it’s a cliche. And, there’s nothing worse than manufactured authenticity. People can smell it a mile away. But when you genuinely drop all the pretence and just be real, it can be pretty bloody powerful. We 100% sent out an EDM for one client this week that literally said …

“We have no idea what to say”.

It wasn’t a line. It was just the truth. And people loved it. They got it. We had more replies to that email than any email we’ve ever sent in the past 6 or 7 years. Not sales. Replies. People thanking us for the email. Replies aren’t generally one of our KPIs, but when all your usual KPIs go down the toilet, without paper, we’ll take replies. 

So decide who you really are, or who you want to be, the kind of people you want to be at a time like this, and be that. Doesn’t matter if you weren’t that before. This is your time to shine. If you didn’t have a clear brand or personality or tone, you can now. Decide. And be that. And make it real. It will make it much more sustainable if you’re just you. 

Humour

Surely it’s not just me who needs a laugh right now?

You can be professional and sincere, but find your groove and your way to bring a little light. If you’re a funeral director, that may not be quite right for you, for most of the rest of us, there’s room for light. Maybe not out and out humour as such, but you know, let’s rise above the doom and gloom. I had a client say to me at the start of the week

“We know we won’t sell much over the next few months, but let’s be remembered as a company that did our best to be there for people while this was going on.”

It’s good to have clients like that. And before you say it, I know not everyone can have that attitude when they’re scrambling just to stay afloat. But there’s always room for light. And ironically, when you least feel like delivering it, is usually when it’s most needed. Find a way.
Solve problems.

Chapter one, page one, line one of the marketing manual right?

I know it’s obvious, but that’s what we’re here for. What business are you really in? Usually it’s not the business of your product, but the business of how you make people feel. How they feel when they have that need met or that problem solved. If you’re making dunny paper or hand sanitiser right now, feel free to ignore all this advice, you’ve got this.

For the rest of us, pushing for sales at this time can be tricky, and inappropriate. But if you’re genuinely solving a problem, go for it. And I mean your customer’s problem, not your own. I know not everyone can do it, but look how quickly businesses have moved to do things remotely. Great solutions that could have always been in place to make a customer’s life easier. But instead we all stuck to the same old same old. It reminds me of the old ‘Innovate or Die’ quote. It turns out a lot of these businesses who have been doing the same thing the same way since the year dot, suddenly have a lot more innovation in them when it comes to the crunch. Go figure. So yeah, innovate. Solve problems. 

Don’t be a dick

Rethink literally every single piece of communication you have. Don’t take anything for granted. Don’t be tone deaf. Read the room. We’re rewriting buttons on EDMs to shift the emphasis from ‘BUY THIS!’ to a more moderate ‘we’re here for you’ type message. For one client, our ‘featured products’ section is now ‘stuff for when all this passes’. If you’re a ‘nice to have’ and not a ‘need to have’, now is not the time to be a dick about it and force things down people’s throats. Unless those things are vaccines I guess. Everything else becomes secondary. As is often the case, you don’t have to advertise to remind people to breathe or buy the necessities, they’ve got that covered without your help. Now’s the time to be helpful in any way you can. 

Please know, I’m not sitting here being all smug thinking I’ve got all the answers. If you’re selling stuff, no one in their right mind would buy (e.g. Holdens), now more than ever you’ve got your work cut out for you and my advice is going to be about as useful as a group hug.

Maybe you can’t pivot. Maybe there’s no obvious innovation or solution you can come up with. Maybe there’s nothing even remotely funny or light or positive about laying off staff and watching all your hard work disappear in the blink of a cough. I’ve literally had to answer a few clients with a shrug and a blank look when they’ve asked me what they can do to drum up business. In some cases, as far as I can tell, there simply isn’t an answer.

Which means the only thing we can do is shift our focus from what happens now, to what happens next. And while I’m not your life coach, I want to remind you of this …

Yes, it’s going to be shit for a while for a lot of us.

(That wasn’t my uplifting life coach advice, by the way)

But it was your idea and skills and ability that got you to where you were before this all hit. And no matter what happens, if you want, when you’re ready, when you have the energy, you can do it again. 

When you’ve finished feeling sick and your stomach finally starts to unknot, start plotting and planning and scheming and dreaming. For your current business or your next chapter. 

And remember:

Be authentic.

Positive.

Helpful.

And don’t be a dick.

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Advertising Copywriter/Strategist/Creative Director, Writer/Author, Director, Speaker, Host/MC, Ultra-runner. Copywriter and creative director for local, national and international companies working across a diverse range of retail and corporate brands. Author of 'The Swashbuckler's Guide to Becoming an Astronaut' and 'The Swashbucklers Guide to Running Away from Dinosaurs'. Author/Creator of the 'Job Hunter's Boot Camp'. Chief Swashbuckler at The Swashbucklers Club - we celebrate, create and inspire the stuff that makes life more awesome. Writer/Director/Producer of various documentaries and short films and TV series.

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