Adapt Your Marketing Strategy for COVID-19

March 17, 2020
Contributor: Laura Starita

In a crisis situation subject to rapid change, CMOs need a proactive plan to adjust and adapt how they lead their teams, speak to their customers, and manage their brands.

Customers may never know how a company’s finance or HR department responds to a major unpredicted event, but marketing sits center stage, its moves reflected in every ad campaign, message and channel. You set the tone for how customers perceive the brand during a difficult time.

Taking the right actions and finding the right message can be challenging, especially in a fast-changing situation. All companies should operate with integrity and trust even as they come under pressure from a swiftly evolving situation. Those with a product or service well-suited for difficult times must, meanwhile, tread lightly, lest customers think they’re exploiting tragedy. 

“Long before the coronavirus emerged, consumer trust in both government and large brands had eroded.”

“Among marketing’s greatest challenges is foreseeing how customer wants, needs, expectations and purchasing decisions will evolve,” says Augie Ray, VP Analyst, Gartner. “Customers themselves won’t know until COVID-19 infections, fears and restrictions occur in their workplaces, locales and lives.”

Marketers shouldn’t wait for problems to develop or the market to point in a clear direction before making plans and taking action. Instead, follow a four-step action plan to define scenarios, monitor customers and plan for marketing changes.

Scenario Planning for Marketing

Anticipate the future and create suitable action plans to stay ahead of market disruption.

Engage in scenario planning

Define theoretical best, worst and moderate scenarios that could play out during the crisis from the perspective of the business, its customers and critical partners. Work with peers in other departments like HR and finance to develop the scenarios as they apply overall to the business. 

Learn more: Gartner Coronavirus Resource Center

Marketing must not rely simply on the high-level corporate scenarios, however, but must go further for their department and brand. Marketers must drill down to identify the specific challenges that customers, the brand and the marketing organization could experience in each scenario, and identify actions to take. For example, if the best case “business as usual” scenario involves ad purchases during the Tokyo Olympics or an industry tradeshow, a worst-case scenario in which that event is canceled should identify alternative ways to reach customers.

Listen for changes in customer sentiment and behavior

Long before the coronavirus emerged, consumer trust in both government and large brands had eroded. People now align more closely with family, friends and local businesses. The current crisis seems poised to amplify the distrust customers have of brands. Brands can push against that wave by rising to the occasion to reestablish trust through customer-centric actions. For example:

  • Listen. Now more than ever, it’s important to know what customers feel and do, and why. Set voice of the customer (VoC) programs to listen for references to COVID-19 or other shifts. Use social listening to monitor customer discussions about health concerns or information needs relevant to your brand. Ask sales and account management teams what they hear from the front lines. Monitor customer care emails, phone calls and service chats for changes in concerns or sentiment.

  • Balance your response. Marketers must support customers and protect customer relationships while staying honest about what the firm can and cannot deliver at this time. Be careful about taking actions that provide short-term stability (or gain) for the firm at the expense of customer trust.

Anticipate operational impacts

Challenges to product and service delivery abound during this crisis. Closed factories and disrupted supply chains create reduced supply on one side of the business, while customer questions create rising service demand on the other. Marketers must adapt their messages to reflect the on-the-ground realities while staying true to the brand’s values. Some steps to take include:

  • Manage your promises. Set realistic expectations about service levels, product launch dates, product availability, and so on. Consider pulling ad campaigns for products you can’t be sure you can produce and deliver. Evaluate current policies and consider rational changes — for example, allowing cancellations or extending payment terms.

  • Create capacity to address customer service volumes. Craft proactive messages to distribute via email, social media and the web to answer common questions. Also draft reactive scripts to help customer service reps handle sensitive one-on-one interactions. Train qualified team members in functions with lower volume to help manage demand from customer service channels.

  • Ramp up digital delivery. Promote apps and other mobile tools and services. Ramp up capacity for online transactions and digital interactions. Innovate ways to deliver your product or aspects of it online, like telemedicine for routine doctor visits or online learning for the millions of students who will be out of school. Yet, even as you enable digital options, understand that some people will always need to hear an empathetic human voice, especially now, and be prepared to offer it.

  • Optimize the marketing budget. All organizational functions will be called on to prioritize spending. Try to avoid across-the-board cuts. Look instead for ways to drive efficiency (for example, by looking for overlap in agency or marketing technology contracts), and to reduce or postpone obligations that won’t bring value — and may even come off as tone-deaf — in the current environment.

Adapt the marketing plan

The next three to six months will bring many societal changes that trickle down to the marketing plan. Use the best-, worst- and moderate-case scenarios to anticipate possible and likely changes and take alternative actions. Some areas of focus include:

  • Event-based programs. Restrictions on large gatherings are cutting into the businesses that serve these events and the marketers that theme their campaigns around them. Develop alternative marketing ideas now for physical events planned for spring and summer. Sports events may move to streaming delivery; conference expos may move online, and so on. Don’t wait until an event is canceled to develop a plan. Learn instead from the experience of HIMSS20, a health IT conference usually held in early March: The organization canceled and promised to hold a virtual event at some point in the future; one day later, 1upHealth announced its own virtual event for the following week.

  • Deliver compelling content. More people will be spending time at home over the coming months. Brands can provide lighthearted and uplifting or informative and encouraging content to people looking for support. This may also be a good time to relaunch or bring out escapist experiments such as VR content.

  • Secure media early. Everyone is in the same boat, and everyone is looking to secure key spots to replace lost opportunities. In the U.S. in particular, brands will have to compete with the U.S. presidential political campaigns for key media placement. Work with media planners and publishers to secure access before you’re crowded out.

    Gartner clients can access a range of coronavirus-related resources here.  Gartner for Marketers clients can read the full research report  March 2020 Update: Actions CMOs Must Take Now to Prepare for the Impact of the Coronavirus and COVID-19 Disease by Augie Ray. 

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