Marketers that Thrive in Uncertain Times
Don't sit on the sidelines. Be the catalyst for innovation, we’ve seen great examples of companies taking the challenges head-on. But what frameworks can we use to thrive in uncertain times?
Episode 030 TOPICS:
A seven stage framework to deal with a crisis (It starts with employees)
Harsh business realities and how to deal with them responsibly
Customer Policies that work (from refunds to communications )
Pivoting in a crisis with creativity
The difficulty of trust in an imperfect world.
What we can learn from the company Contagious and Karl and Paul
Across the Pond- Marketing Transformed
30. Marketers That Thrive in Uncertain Times
I think my first thought about this week’s show topic, its about marketing in uncertain times, and thriving in uncertain times. The key message is the great foundation to start with is what we left you with last week.
Firstly, to retain radical transparency and that was all about leaders leading with empathy and transparency and simplicity and being clear. The second one was about applying a growth mindset by asking who something that I can provide? Whether that’s professionally or personally, really having that attitude. One of the examples I can think of quickly is PWC the consultancy, they’re sharing a digital fitness app at no cost, it's been a crucial part of their upscaling and digital journey and they’ve just made it available to everyone. And then thirdly, I’d say, listen to the feedback you’re getting and be ready to course correct, especially when there’s been a misstep.
Yeah, that’s a good one about listening to feedback. It was really interesting listening to feedback from last week’s show and one really struck true which was, there’s so much to learn at the moment, so much advice out there and so much information that can feel like overload as well, and I do absolutely get that.
You can’t move on LinkedIn for another article on how to cope and we need to be careful we don’t add to that as well, so it is very much about taking what you can out of something. You’re not going to take everything, take what works for you and leave the rest behind.
Absolutely, and that’s what we’re going to do today. We’re going to help, thinking through and helping you think through, how should marketers and business leaders run their business. How to make decisions, and most importantly managing the short term, the midterm, and the long term.
Different Reactions to Disaster
If you’re in the food business right now, demand’s up and your main focus is probably about keeping the supply chain up and running and making sure your communication and advertising is hitting the right tone. But actually, the argument we’re making is, the most important thing we’re seeing is the ability to keep your workforce safe and motivated. Marketing has been rightly criticised for some of the superficial impact of things they’ve done, for example changing the brand logos and distancing them.
McDonalds got some heat when they simply just moved the arches of the ‘M’ apart, and it gave people the opportunity to sneer at marketing and say, here we go again, all you can do is change the logo. We’ve seen reports of cruise lines really acting in their own short-term interest by having sales agents tell customers that the coronavirus couldn’t survive in tropical destinations. There’s quite a few sources reporting that, so I’d like to believe it’s not true, and maybe it was ignorance driving that versus anything more nefarious. Marketing can absolutely be a force for good, in terms of helping to reposition, for example, the term of social distancing. More accurately, we should be calling that physical distancing. It’s much about younger people running errands for elderly people, neighbours, for practicing social connectedness with physical distance, and that’s what we should be actually applying. Times like this we need to connect and engage more, we need to better communicate, and communicate more and not less, we need to stay in touch with family and friends and people who are perhaps alone or isolated or infirmed, or perhaps older and doing what we can to support them.
So, rather than brands changing their logos there’s an opportunity that brands can actually have an impact. Marketers actually have a skillset, and their agency has skill sets that could be turned towards supporting internal efforts, for example. So, from an employer’s perspective, your employees are under more stress and more pressure, so, getting communication right to them and from them and including them, is even more powerful. Social media’s even more amplified, there’s stories of good deeds, kindness, going over and above and that’s the kind of tonic we need right now from employees. So, companies which have empowered their employees will come to the fore, so I think that, that’s really great.
Yeah, one of the things I was reading during the week was from McKinsey, and actually quite often you read something from Mckinsey or PWC and you think it’s all about the bottom line, but it talked about seven stages to respond to Covid 19. And number one was to protect your employees, because without your employees, you’re nothing. Make sure you set up a team, ensure that you’ve got liquidities, so you’ve got cash, make sure you stabilise your supply chain, staying close to customers, practice the plan and then demonstrate purpose in whatever you can do. Now, clearly for us, in relation to marketing the most important thing is to stay close to those customers. Think about how you can update them with information, so they feel in the loop and part of the community, rather than a distance between yourself and your company and the employees. I thought that was really interesting because you’re in a situation that, without your core group of employees that are working through your plan, you haven’t really got anything.
Absolutely, people first, a no brainer really. But Chris, I’ve seen other responses. There’s some evidence that some of the brands are putting up their prices. Yet, we’ve got so many studies saying that consumers will see that as unfair and probably punish those brands who take advantage, and in some cases, it’s actually against the law, in terms of price gouging, to raise the prices on some of these essential goods, especially worse when people are losing their income. What options do you see for companies and businesses out there right now?
Alternative Business Strategies
It’s a difficult one. I get the sentiment, Sam, but for some it’s the reality of staying in business. We’ve said many a time, cash flow is the biggest killer and its tough choices, it really is a rock and a hard place for businesses or consumers and not all will make it through it from a business perspective.
I’m working with a couple of organisations at the moment that are thinking ‘well, we were due to put a price raise on our product, what do we do now?’ Now, clearly, now is not the right time but when is the right time? When it’s already baked into your plans it’s very difficult.
So, as an organisation you’ve got to estimate your runway and that can be very difficult to do when there’s so many unknowns, so you’ve got to think about those different scenarios, looking at if your revenues stay at the level they’re at now for three, six or twelve months, what does that mean? If you can’t raise any more money, or you can’t access your funds or drive it through product sales for six, twelve, eighteen months what does it mean? And the same in terms of if you have to reduce costs by twenty five percent, fifty perfect or hopefully not, but seventy percent, what do you do? And it’s a real challenge.
I think there’s probably an eight-step plan, if not more than that, but I think the first thing you need to do is make decisions based on your own specific situation. And like I say, there’s a huge amount of noise out there at the moment, and you’ve got to look at your own business and work out what you have to do. But, you do have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Forecast what happens in that worst-case scenario, try to reduce cost where it’s not necessary, and that may be about which hiring decisions you put off. I will come back to that in a second because there is an interesting position on that. And work out how to effectively cut your staff if you need to. And that might well be, as we talked about last week, working with them to actually say, can we take a pay cut, or could we work four days a week at this point in time.
So, there’s different options and redundancy or furloughing them. And of course, you’ve got to motivate the team that does stay, the ones that are responsible for driving you forward through this time, but making sure you have got support set up for employees as everyone is going through their own crisis at the moment, as well as it being a global pandemic. It’s affecting everyone in an individual, personal way as well. Retrain your company values. Again, sticking to the core messages to your employees and your customers. Making sure that everyone knows what you stand for. Understanding and remembering that you’re not the only company struggling so, even majors are doing that right now. But, the point I was going to come back to, some organisations will be able to use this to their advantage.
There’s some studies being done, after the last financial crash that organisations that are able to keep their foot to the pedal and accelerate through the crisis end up winning big time.
Now, clearly, you’ve got to manage the cash flow but it's an important point there, you don’t just retreat and act defensively, if you can see an opportunity then you’ve got to take it and seize it, just like you would any other time.
Yeah, I absolutely agree with that. There’s been so many studies and data points showing that brands that invest, companies that invest and retain their marketing, yes, they may have to retrench a bit but really do not see marketing as an afterthought, continue to invest in that as a forethought and stay front of mind for consumers. Those are all fundamental practices that stand the test of time.
Yeah, but also, the point there is that your company is your employees, it's vital to keep them happy and to check on them and make sure that they are doing well, with people staying in it can be quite a strain on people individually, I think. There’s lots of people getting used to Zoom, there’s lots of people getting used to having their kids in the background, there’s lots of people getting stuck in houses where they thought it was a bit of a safe haven and now suddenly those four walls look very, very enclosing.
It’s interesting looking at the organisations that keep front and centre. My niece works at Nando’s and they completely shut their restaurants, even for takeaways before they were told to do so, because they wanted to be seen to be doing the right thing. They wanted to encourage people to stay at home. Since then they’ve been considerate of mental health, lots of Instagram lives with influencers to talk about how to cope from home, going pretty much beyond what they need to do from an organisation perspective, and also posting recipes to keep people eating well during this time. So, as we’ve said before, it is possible to combine doing good with doing good business as well.
Yeah, I agree with that. Let’s be real. The reality, the everyday experience now for a lot of marketers is that the PR folks leading the social efforts and then the finance teams have completely locked down the budgets. Budgets are cut, money’s gone, what can they do? There’s so much marketing information and resources and industry bodies, so, like WARC, Gartner another organisation and the ANA, association of national advertisers in the US have published a report on Covid and what to do and how to manage your legal contract.
There’s so many topics on the minds of Marketers and CMOS right now, they’ve got disruption to the sponsorships and events they had planned and all that investment that’s basically been wasted or not going to be paid back, you’ve got promotions that have gone wrong or had to go away and the ability to even fulfil them, you’ve got new product launch delays and innovation that can’t come to market, you’ve got to change your creative and advertising and now you’ve even got to get your Covid specific communications which actually are being prioritised. So, so many Marketers are having their emails and newsletters hijacked by Covid messaging. And, on top of that, you’ve got to manage and cancel and change your agency commitments and budgets, so, amongst all that chaos of disruption we’re going to provide some inspiration. We’re going to provide some solutions and some examples that can move you forward. I’ll go first.
How to Move Forward From This
The first one I’ll add is, think about policies, what customer, consumer policies do you have in place now? What can be changed and are those changes for the better? We’ve seen Zoom, Microsoft, Google and other video conferencing platforms offer free access, we’ve seen the same from e-learning organisations offering their tools and resources for free. Now, we’ve gotten used to schools, for example using that, what will happen afterwards? Will they continue to offer that for free or will they put it at competitive pricing? Will they offer a Covid recovery pricing? Or perhaps upgrade or enhance the paid products subscribing to a lot of these platforms, so that the customers actually paying now get some loyalty, some reward for supporting them through the difficult times. Travel companies for example are wavering their cancelation fees or their change fees, and they’ve extended their loyalty program deadline. So, I mentioned Marriott as a company that was going through some challenges with ninety percent of their revenue going away, but they’ve come out and they’ve stated that the status earned in 2019 will be extended to February 2022. So, they’ve just looked ahead, made that commitment, made that stance in a very proactive way. Another example, companies like Facebook, they’re introducing new tools for small businesses in their social media platforms. For example, digital gift cards, expanding fundraising ports, they’re making it easier for businesses to communicate service changes such as pick up and delivery to their customers, so those are things to take advantage of right now.
Yeah, good one there, I like that one, especially about the fact that actually a lot of people might be thinking about postponing the products and services, but again, it’s how you can do that in an innovative fashion as well. So, that’s a good example there about Marriott. Incidentally, one that springs to mind practically is don’t overextend yourself, as well. In times like this, you need to be simple. A theme that we’ve talked about before and actually I respect a lot, it’s entertainment brands, just recognise that their job is to make our lives easier during the crisis, it’s straight forward entertainment, whether that’s Apple Music giving you a three month free subscription, Sky Sports allowing you to postpone your subscription, UberEats offering free delivery, Nike offering it’s NTC subscription for free to encourage physical and mental fitness.
And I was really pleased to see that my old company, Inspired Entertainment, provided the technology to put on a virtual Grand National with all proceeds from a maximum ten-pound bet going to the NHS. They’ve raised over two million pounds with widespread praise around the quality of the animations, and again, it's great to see technology being put to use, clearly there’s no horse racing at the moment and to have something you can focus on is a great thing.
Yeah, absolutely. Another example I would love to share with the audience is if you’ve cancelled or postponed a customer facing market event- how about you pivot or evolve them yourself or perhaps partnering with others, an example is needed right now and I think if you look at the data, BBC from the UK have reports like there’s a five billion dollar industry which is often coming from touring and physical and live events and so, there’s some major innovation needed in that sector. There’s a company called Stage It, which is an online venue where artists can perform live and in an interactive way, they can monetize their shows with fans directly, from a laptop or mobile device and they are giving unique experiences that essentially never archive, so you can always access them. You’ve got acts like Common, Bon Jovi, you’ve got a multitude of different entertainers and the drag queens and George Clinton and body rates, all sorts of musicians and entertainers and magicians and all sorts of performers out there.
My wife was telling me about Erykah Badu the RnB singer and an online concert that she actually put on in the last few weeks or so, and you could register and sign up and pay a small fee and you had a wonderful experience where there was lots of interactivity and there were mystery rooms where fans got to vote where the next location in the studio, she was actually at home, would be and each room had a different theme and a different vibe and a different décor and design, there’s so much theatre and drama which is different to a live show and often respects, better than a live show. which is a great way and a new way to engage. So, those are examples of innovation that you can actually try and put into practice on your brand.
Trust is Key
So, one of the issues I think all marketers are facing, Sam is about trust. How do I deal with this lack of trust in the environment? Clearly it’s a moving beast at the moment in terms of what’s happening? But even if you think about products and services you’re there thinking, well, you tell me I can buy that product online but is it going to be delivered? You tell me that I am going to get my money back but will it? And it's compounded in a way by the media's role at the moment and communications.
Again, looking at the macro picture, there was a Pew Research Centre election survey that said, America not surprisingly was immersed in Coronavirus news, but half of them, although half are following closely, at least half of them actually reported that they’ve seen the least some news and information about virus that seemed completely and utterly made up. Influencers seem to be quite a core source of this as well, there was a scare story in the UK about 5G masts having something to do with the virus, and actually 5G masts being burnt down as a result of it and again, naming no names, a couple of household influencers, a movie star and a musician, were sharing this fake news as potentially being true. Their followers listen to them more than they listen to the news and as a result you get that compounded impact. At the same time, we get YouTube warning us that there’s going to be less moderation or more moderation is going to be automated due to some of their employees being under lockdown or sick.
So, how do we get that balance right? Is it regulation in itself? That doesn’t feel very trustworthy at the moment. It’s probably about dialogue. There is no perfect answer at the moment, we’re just making the best out of the bad situation. But again, I’ve received an email from pretty much every CEO of a brand that I have a relationship with over the last few weeks, and it sort of comes back to your earlier point, Sam, however genuine your intentions may be, you have to back it up with actions, and it may not be enough if you haven’t acted honourably in the past. However, that doesn’t mean you should give up, it means that you should always start.
Sky is one of those establishments in the UK which is seen as a necessary evil in a way, a great source of entertainment, a great source of sport, but consistently put their prices up, customer service not necessarily seen as great. I came to cancel my Sky Sports due to nothing being on at the moment, I was so incredibly impressed. It literally took me fifteen seconds on a keypad. It said, if you want to pause your Sky Sports then press here, we’ll do that automatically and we’ll let you know when we’re going to install it again. I was gearing myself up for a fight, Sam. I thought this is going to take hours, I’m going to have to justify it, and it was done in fifteen seconds. And that is the right thing for them to do, and it’s left a really good feeling.
So, you’ve got to act authentically, you’ve got to act with a good purpose, and you’ve also got to think about your tone within this crisis, or any crisis really. Normally, the recede wisdom is to dial it down, check any communications you have, see if they’re incentive, draw them back a bit, see if the dust settles. But these aren’t normal times in a way, because this is affecting absolutely everyone, these aren’t isolated events, so that tone is important. You need to keep consistent; you need to understand that businesses and customers understand that this is something that they’re going to have to get through together, there’s not straight forward answer and it’s going to take both of them to work out what’s right and what isn’t, what’s appropriate and what isn’t. So, I’m liking the honest dialogue that I’m seeing at the moment.
Yeah, that’s a great one, the honesty and stepping up and responding and taking action. The seamless cancelation experience versus the expectation of painful fight is an interesting pivot and enhancement, can they carry that forward? You talked about purpose, that’s another one. Do brands who weren’t, perhaps, so purpose centric embrace that and really mean it, and it’s all about what you do not what you say in this day and age, and that takes me to the final point I want to make.
Not sitting on the side-lines, stepping into the arena, stepping into the crucible, be the catalyst for innovation. I’ve seen reports for organisations establishing a creativity fund. And that’s open to all stakeholders and external partners such as agencies that can scale ideas across the company. It could be as simple as just checking your data, and Pinterest for example has seen an increase in searches relating to emotional and mental health and compassionate search related interest. Now, that’s not a traditional theme you’d expect to see or be searching for on Pinterest, but actually it gives an opportunity to make that content more prominent and provide that utility and that service. They’re seeing searches for self-care at home rise over three hundred percent and meditation tips for beginners rising over one hundred percent.
So, people in these platforms, in these forums looking for things to support their mental health, how can you be part of that and amplify solutions to that? In fact, the CEO, Ben Silbermann, he’s partnered with some health and education institutions to develop an app that allows people to self-report their symptoms. And so, the point here is that even though Pinterest isn’t a destination for that type of content, that’s the type of leadership we’re looking for. It's about driving that culture and that mindset and spirit and transformation and making something happen, even if you don’t have all the resources and all the budget that you used to.
Now, that’s a great example, Sam. And look, to finish off, I saw this something that summed up a sentiment that we’re trying to convey here. There’s a guy I know called Karl Marsden, he used to run Shortlist which is a weekly free newspaper in the UK, and he now runs a marketing insight publisher called Contagious. Difficult branding conundrum at this point in time, you can imagine, Sam. But I thought his response was excellent. He called it out and said this is a strange time for us as being called Contagious, and I’m just going to quote him because I think it’s so good. “As Covid-19 rampages its way across the globe we’ve seen brands step up to serve as educators, inventors, benefactors and community builders. At Contagious we will continue our quest to inspire them to seize the opportunity, and we’d say obligation, to help the world adapt to this crisis. We will focus on charting the new map that the industry needs to draw.” And I thought that absolutely summed it up. It’s not something that we now just need to find time to do, this is what we should be doing, and I do feel we’re going to see a bit of a shift after this. Some of the stuff we’ve talked about, about brands with purpose and they’re increasing role in society, I think if anything this is just going to speed that on, which is a good thing.
Yes. That’s an excellent example, and the word contagious has a multitude of meaning and for this brand to actually have that as what they are called and having a brand stance and a point of view, I’m proud of what they’re doing here and my plea to the audience here is to go and check out their work. The content for me is really, really strong there, their publications live on my bookshelf because of the design, the photography, the story telling of the brands and the case studies are truly remarkable. I’m a huge fan of contagious, so, definitely an opportunity now to give a shout out to co-founder Paul Kemp-Robertson who I know quite well, and the team in the UK and the US like you did. I think for them to take a stance, take a point of view and share it with the world and really explain the purpose is inspiring to see and hopefully it works out for them.
Well, I like the fact that we both know someone there from either side of the pond, that’s really interesting. So, look Sam, we’re rapidly at the end of the show, they go very fast.
Today’s Three Key Takeaways
Sure. The three-key takeout’s for this week’s show,
Firstly, protect your employees, they are number one.
Secondly, be proactive and actively build a plan. Don’t wait for the decisions to come to you, don’t wait for the impact to hit you. Be proactive, take a stance, make the plan.
Thirdly, don’t over engineer it. Keep it simple, keep it honest, act with authenticity and integrity and that will hopefully steer you in the right path.
Good stuff, excellent Sam. Well look, next week we’re going to talk about human first, digital second. The fact that actually we’ve got a real unique competitive advantage at the fact that we feel, and CMOs continue to spend more on the stuff i.e. tech versus the people and is that right? So, we’re also looking at whether AI can teach us to be more compassionate and how some Marketers lead with empathy as well. So, a really interesting show I think we’ve got lined up.