Marketing in the Time of Coronavirus

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Words can’t adequately describe what many of us are feeling right now. In the U.S. and around the world, the events of the past few weeks have been alarming, shocking, frustrating, and frightening.

The relentless march of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic is causing panic and fear worldwide. Many people are getting sick, and some are dying. Events and gatherings of all types and sizes are being canceled. It may seem like our cultural fabric is coming undone at the seams.

On the economic front, the scene is not pretty. Equity markets have fallen deep into bear market territory. The Dow’s 2,300-point plunge on Thursday, March 12, 2020 was the steepest one-day percentage decline since 1987. The travel, tourism, sports, and entertainment sectors, in particular, are facing a seemingly existential crisis.

Meanwhile, economists are anticipating a steep, but perhaps short-lived recession. Experts agree that the fundamentals of the U.S. financial markets and economy are generally sound. If prudent measures are taken and the outbreak is managed with care, businesses and the overall economy are expected to recover in the second half of 2020.

Scary times, indeed. As a marketer, how should you respond?

The natural inclination during trying times is to “circle the wagons,” “batten down the hatches,” and prepare for the coming storm. In practical (read: non-cliched) terms, this often translates into indiscriminate, across-the-board cost-cutting. Emotionally, this makes sense. But marketing is one area where dramatic cuts during a financial downturn can do more harm than good.

Firms that were already struggling during the good times of the economic expansion will undoubtedly do worse during a downturn. Many will continue to flounder, and some will lay off workers, close facilities, declare bankruptcy, and even cease operations. But other firms that have sound balance sheets, offer category-leading products and provide outstanding customer service can thrive even during challenging times.

In order to succeed, these brands must project an image of stability and strength, which requires continued investment in both earned and paid media. Those firms that are able to maintain or even increase their share of voice while others reduce their exposure will be heard clearly above the fray. A consistent and confident messaging strategy says to your customers, partners, and the market that you are still here, still innovating, and still performing in spite of worsening external market conditions.

The data supports the notion that continuing to market your brand during a recession will pay dividends. Following the Great Recession a decade ago, U.S. firms reduced their advertising spend on average by 13 percent. Yet, studies have shown that companies that cut their marketing budget to zero during a recession take 5 years to recover to pre-recession sales levels. Those that only cut their budget in half still take three years to recover.

Of course, no two economic downturns are exactly alike. The current crisis differs from the recessions that followed the 9/11 attacks and the housing crisis, both in the level of uncertainty and the global scope. When we look back, this moment may indeed turn out to be a challenge of historic proportions, on par with the Great Depression or World War II.

As a B2B marketer, it is easy to forget that your clients and prospects are not faceless corporations, but real people, with real families, real fears, and real-world concerns. Effective marketing during times of crisis means showing empathy toward and an understanding of both the personal and business stresses your audience is facing. The mark of a great company isn’t the ability to rack up amazing sales growth numbers during the good times. Great companies rise to the occasion and serve the needs of their constituents—their customers, employees, owners, and communities— always.

To my clients, colleagues, and friends: Please reach out if I can help you in any way. I wish you and your family continued health and safety as we navigate these difficult times, together.