The Shifting Role Of Marketing Amidst National Crises

As the impact of the pandemic continues to evolve nationwide, many companies remain concerned about how to stretch their budget dollars. With businesses looking to cut back on expenditures, marketing and advertising efforts are often the first departments to be trimmed. But, over the past few months, we’ve seen why that approach may be detrimental to brands especially in this particular moment. In today’s turbulent political and social climate, marketing is more important than ever. During times of crisis and change, engaging with your customers can help them feel heard and understood when they need it most. Whether you are sharing basic information or aligning your brand with issues your company cares about and supporting community needs, clear and thoughtful communication is essential. With an unyielding amount of change over the last few months—whether in daily habits, employment anxiety or social issues and priorities—companies need to be listening more closely to consumers and willing to adjust their marketing approach to suit the shifting needs of their customers.

During the initial phase of the pandemic, many companies were quick to pull back on their advertising efforts. At the same time, marketing has proven to be a more durable department. According to a survey of CMOs from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, marketing spends actually increased during the pandemic—rising from 11.3% of the companies’ budgets in January to 12.6% in May. These increases run counter to what has traditionally been the norm during periods of economic distress.

“The overall view is that in a typical recessionary period where these foundational elements are shaken, marketing does tend to go to the chopping block first in general, and then advertising has always been the first to go,” Christine Moorman, the T. Austin Finch, Sr., professor of business administration at Duke University, told the Wall Street Journal. “But I don’t think this is a typical time.”

The COVID-19 pandemic posed many new kinds of challenges, which have differentiated it from most other recessions in modern times. With an ever-changing list of CDC guidelines, state-by-state “stay at home” orders and fluctuating consumer spending habits, businesses have had to shift their operations and services at a rapid clip—and that has meant that marketing and communication are essential for keeping customers in the know. And for the many businesses that have had to put the majority of operations on hold, staying in touch with customers has become a way to maintain brand awareness—so that now, as the country begins to open back up, they won’t have to start from zero.

While the value of marketing has been validated during this crisis, its form and function have evolved tremendously. If nothing else, both the pandemic and the more recent wave of protests has underscored the need for your marketing efforts to be nimble and agile. As a company, you need to be ready to adapt your messaging to meet new needs and cultural conversations in a thoughtful and authentic way.   

Over the past few months, we’ve witnessed an unprecedented amount of change. People’s day-to-day habits have shifted to accommodate new information. Their finances have changed in relationship to their job situation. And, for many, their social and political priorities have been permanently altered. All in all, this has changed the ways they engage with and respond to brands. And, in turn, this shift in sentiment requires companies to rethink both their messaging and communication avenues.

"In many respects, COVID-19 has proven to be more of an accelerant than a disruptor,” explained retail consultant Greg Petro in a contributed article in Forbes. “It has brought into focus the fact that in order to adapt and succeed in the new retail market, retailers and brands must first accept and acknowledge what is happening and overcome a fundamental lack of customer understanding. We, as leaders in this industry, control our own destiny. And it is time to lead.”

More than ever before, consumers want authenticity; they are quick to call out empty statements of solidarity that are not backed by any real action or commitment. That requires brands to be listening more closely to consumers. While it is valuable to have programs and tools in place to monitor data and solicit feedback, it is also important to have a wide variety of different voices within the leadership of your organization. Bringing new people to the table gives your company a richer perspective on your consumer base.

It also means the brand needs to be ready and willing to evolve. Crises like the pandemic present very unique, all-consuming challenges for companies—but, as many are quick to point out, a lot of these trends have been in the works for a long time. For the bedding industry specifically: stay-at-home orders simply sped up an existing shift towards online purchasing. The companies that were already investing in this sector were able to more easily switch gears—and they have been seeing the benefits as their less prepared counterparts have struggled.

"Agile as a principle has been overplayed in recent years, but this year actually has been the year where it's really being tested," Ewan McIntyre, VP analyst of Gartner's marketing practice, told Marketing Dive. "I don't just think that's COVID. I think we've seen this over the last 10 days [of protests], about brands having to be super agile in the way that they think about how they position themselves and what they mean…Part of that is about what you mean as a brand, and part of this is having the agility to be able to understand quickly unfolding situations and respond to them appropriately. We need to make sure that we don't lose momentum with that.”

All of our normal cycles and schedules have been disrupted and altered. Pre-pandemic, in the bedding industry, many companies were oriented around a major product launch in January, followed by an update or ancillary launch in July. And for retailers, major marketing moments were often centered around holiday promotions. This is a time to ask ourselves: are these cycles still relevant? Were they benefitting the industry? The consumer? 

"It's been a year of unprecedented change in 2020, but there's going to be other changes ahead," McIntyre continued. "If it's not COVID and it's not the challenges we've had over the last 10 days, it's going to be the climate crisis.”

In order to be as nimble as necessary, this will require marketing departments to envision multiple possibilities at once—and have a plan in place for all of them. Of course, there is no way any person or company can be totally prepared for what life has to throw at them, but this type of brainstorming can create jumping-off points you can build on once you have more information. By thinking through all of the different hypotheticals in terms of marketing and messaging, you are further solidifying the vision of your brand and what you stand for. And even in the absence of a global crisis, that is a valuable exercise that can help illuminate new ways to engage with consumers in more authentic ways.

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This story originally appeared in eNews. Click here to get Sleep Retailer eNews delivered straight to your inbox.