Running an online business and working remotely with clients meant I had the luxury of working from my home in Hamburg, even during normal times. But as the pandemic broke out in Europe and triggered border closures, lockdowns, and extraordinary emergency measures, I had to learn to navigate a quickly changing world.
My family in the US did not fare better — they went under a much more constrained lockdown than we had in Germany, and my sister joined the millions of Americans who lost their jobs. With all the riots and protests, an upcoming contentious presidential election, the wildfires destroying the air quality, and my inability to come home to be with my family, 2020 continues to be a stressful time for my family and me.
For the first few weeks in March, it was a challenge to keep up my work productivity with all the distractions and doomscrolling each day brought. But just as we had to adapt to 2020’s surprises and challenges quickly, so did businesses, including my clients’ and mine.
Massive shifts were happening in marketing departments across all industries. Crisis meetings downsized and even entirely shut down marketing projects. As it unfolded, I worried about how this would impact my small marketing agency. But soon enough, a silver lining appeared amid an awful pandemic.
Marketing went through a dizzying roller coaster ride
During the first few months of the pandemic, marketing budgets across industries were cut as businesses scrambled to stay afloat. But after a few months, company executives realized this was a terrible idea — they saw that the companies who continued marketing had the least financial and productivity losses.
Organic marketing efforts started to gain traction. With one client I was working with, QR Code Generator, we saw blog traffic continue to rise, despite having to cut down ad budget. Seeing the shift to organic traffic, we decided to double down on the blog. We used the platform to talk about how integrating QR codes into their systems helps businesses and government organizations in the fight against COVID-19.
By August, marketing gained a new level of attention unheard of in the past, especially with organic methods like SEO. A surge of demand took over.
Marketing now more than ever relies on empathy and flexibility
In terms of marketing strategies, the COVID-19 crisis revealed the importance of two things: empathy and flexibility.
We quickly realized that we had to adapt our content marketing strategy to meet our clients — and their ideal customers — where they were. We couldn’t develop creative assets in a bubble anymore — we had to craft our marketing messages with empathy and a profound understanding of local and world events.
We learned the importance of focusing on brand purpose rather than on consumption growth. We realized that every action we take during these trying times would shape our brand and reputation for years to come.
We have to strip down our strategies and go back to the basics: focus on the customer, build a good and trustworthy brand, and adapt to the changing times.
As we continue to navigate this strange new world that the COVID-19 pandemic forced on us, I want to share some of my insights on how it forced the marketing space to change and grow.
The need to digitize your entire business
Following the COVID-19 crisis, most businesses that required their workforce to operate in the same room or have their customers come to a physical store came to a standstill. Companies in manufacturing, fashion, automobile, travel, and hospitality were the hardest hit.
On the other hand, companies that operate on a fully digitized platform witnessed exponential growth. A great example is KiwiCo, a company shipping monthly subscription crates filled with science and art projects for children. It was the perfect solution for parents who suddenly had to juggle their full-time, now work-from-home, jobs with the also full-time feat of entertaining and educating children. Since the beginning of the lockdown in March, KiwiCo has shipped over 20 million products and continues to experience a dramatic uptick in sales.
This pandemic forced businesses to transition to online platforms. During the worst of the lockdowns, it was the only way to operate.
But even after the need to socially distance is long gone, I think digitization is here to stay. People have simply come to expect it. From supply-chain interactions to internal operations, customer touchpoints, and especially your marketing strategy, you must find a way to move your business operations online.
Emphasize brand purpose over consumption growth
Most brands are obsessed with driving consumption growth to increase profits and rarely focus on their purpose — the “why” of their existence. Why does your brand exist? A purpose guides all the actions you do as a brand at any time, whether during a crisis or normal times.
Responding to a crisis such as COVID-19 based on your brand purpose allows you to face your ideal audience with empathy and authenticity. How you choose to act during these moments can make or break your customers’ trust in you.
When Chef Jose Andres had to shut down his restaurants due to the lockdowns, he decided to pour his time and talent into feeding the less fortunate. Through World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit organization he founded in 2010 to bring food to people during humanitarian crises, he continued to do what he loved — sharing and celebrating good food through both good and trying times.
How you treat your customers during the worst of times says a lot about your brand. While it’s tempting to capitalize on a bad situation, people see through greed and opportunism. When in doubt about approaching a crisis of this pandemic’s proportions, always go back to your brand purpose: why do you do what you do? If it’s genuinely to help your ideal customers have a better life, double down on that. Your reward will be their lasting trust and loyalty.
Your marketing plan should be flexible
Marketers always plan strategies months in advance. We plan around seasons, holidays, and forecasts.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic began, we had to switch to reactive strategies. We couldn’t publish what we had planned before the pandemic — it would come across as tone-deaf at best.
Marketers, instead, had to adapt to the quickly evolving situation. We learned to listen more and make the best of the situation — for our clients and their customers.
Let’s look at how Visit Britain skillfully adapted to the times. While the pandemic brought a big chunk of the tourism industry to its knees, Visit Britain continued to share the United Kingdom’s beauty through more pandemic-appropriate ways. They shared Spotify playlists of iconic British songs and encouraged their audience to “sightsee” through TV shows and movies like The Crown and Harry Potter.
As you plan your marketing campaigns in the future, allow for flexibility in your marketing calendar. This was true before and it’s even truer now.
Focus on empathy when addressing your target audience
Empathy has always been a core feature of good marketing — the best marketing assets are the ones that get the audience and give them what they want.
But somehow, this essential marketing concept was put aside by many companies struggling to break through the noise. They threw clever and cute campaigns that were mostly self-serving, hoping to get a few seconds of attention from people they didn’t even attempt to understand.
But the pandemic necessitated the need to go back to this basic marketing principle. As people’s lives, jobs, and comfort were threatened, they turned inwards and took stock of what really mattered to them. And selfish, tone-deaf marketing noise? Didn’t make the cut.
What did succeed were marketing moves that put the customer’s needs and circumstances front and center. For example, restaurants who shared their recipes so people can prepare their favorite dishes at home enjoyed viral traffic. McDonald’s shared their Sausage and Egg McMuffin recipe — and set off a tweetfest of homemade McMuffins from their loyal customers.
Empathy marketing shows that you care about your customers’ lives and that your business exists to make their lives better. By starting each campaign with the question “what does my customer need from me right now?” you craft marketing messages that are useful, relevant, and human.
Keep your brand visible by providing value for free
While many companies had to shut down due to the pandemic, some were able to adapt by offering value to their customers for free.
A good example is what Chef Kyle Connaughton, the owner of Single Thread Farms, is doing in Healdsburg, California. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Chef Kyle has been feeding people in need and offering affordable takeaway meals. This keeps his staff employed and his community fed.
He distributes free meals to elderly homes, hospitals, and other people who have little access to food. In the evening, his team sells takeaway meals at affordable prices to Sonoma County residents.
When you show up for your customers when they need you, they reciprocate and show their gratitude by supporting your business. Kind gestures make people feel good and like you, which leads to trust and loyalty.
And because you are always showing up and leaving a good impression, you stay relevant and top-of-mind.
Brands have the power of resilience just like humans
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that brands have the power to survive a crisis and come out stronger than ever. In fact, many businesses have already shifted to effective online marketing strategies that are more in sync with how their customers are navigating the world right now.
I adapted by doubling down on my marketing strategies, even as everyone slashed marketing budgets around me. It was the best decision I could’ve made — it helped me quickly recoup financial losses and set me ahead of competitors as demand for digital marketing soared.
I have applied that same mindset as I work on my clients’ projects. Yes, there are significant economic risks right now, but that’s not something only COVID-19 has brought upon us. As business owners, we’ve always had to weigh risks and opportunities, find a balance, and take a leap of faith.
If you roll back your business too much, you may never come back, and that’s what we want to avoid above all. If you believe in your business, then adapt it to become as digital as possible, stay consistent with your customers, and don’t give up.
The one thing that companies thriving and surviving today amidst the global health and economic crises have in common is this: they didn’t give up.