What do we do now? Don't follow the pandemic playbook

By Apr 14, 2020

Most people would agree that these are unprecedented times. Horribly scary times. But why are so many brands fumbling the ball right now with their marketing? It seems the general pandemic playbook companies are following is:

  1. Pull all current ads and rethink future ones.
  2. Send gratuitous “We’re in this together” email to everyone.
  3. Cut marketing spend to save cash and preserve earnings.
  4. Wait it out.

Understandably, there’s a lot of confusion right now about what marketers should be doing as bleak headlines are scaring people into economic submission. But as we enter a period of near-certain recession, instead of asking what you should be doing, perhaps you can ask what you shouldn’t you be doing.

Dare to Spend More, Right Now

When Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, was once asked, “What do you think about a recession?” he responded, “I thought about it, and decided not to participate.”

Yet, according to a survey from Advertiser Perceptions, nearly 40% of advertisers have paused all new advertising efforts until later in the year.

Mr. Walton was a smart guy. It’s natural for businesses to cut back on budgets during a crisis or recession, but statistics and history reward those that don’t. It may seem counterintuitive, but now is the time to consider spending more on marketing, not less. It’s been proven over time and through many downturns: firms that maintain their marketing spend or add to it actually fare much better during a recession.

Perhaps the good news for you is most brands ignore this fact and do exactly the wrong thing by cutting back. But what they’re not seeing is that when the playing field is less crowded, there’s less competition. Those who dare to spend more will not only reap the rewards now, but also be in a stronger market position later when the economy turns around.

If Not When, Then Where?

So, the question isn’t whether you should spend marketing dollars. Instead, it’s “Where?” That’s what makes this particular crisis so unique. Right now, brands not only have to be relevant, but also sensitive to the moment. They must avoid the temptation to send the usual self-promotion cloaked in a robe of “togetherness.”

Yes, it’s absolutely true we are in unprecedented times. That’s exactly why it’s time to take some chances. Waiting for perfect isn’t an option anymore in a world where once-perfect news anchors are now doing their own hair and makeup, out of makeshift home studios on laptops, while interviewing world leaders from their own homes.

So, don’t worry if you can’t find all the data to support your decisions. Brands need to be bold and create the data that doesn’t exist yet. There’s never been a better time for brands to be more human and authentic. Right now, people are home, craving content that will help them get through the day.

One client of ours, a financial brand, has doubled down on their daily content and in just one month has experienced a 500% increase in traffic to their investing hub as a result. There’s no plug for their services, just good information about stock market volatility and a reassuring voice for the investing public. There’s no other time in history where this kind of growth would’ve been possible, no matter how good your SEO is.

I’m not suggesting you should be opportunistic. But you should use this moment to share your philosophy about why you’re here. Don’t just say “We’re in this together.” Show us. If you make toilet paper, tell us how you plan to “wipe away” our fears that we’ll run out of your product in a crisis, so we don’t maul each other in grocery store aisles like linebackers gunning for a Super Bowl victory. It’s a compelling, relevant, and timely human story.

People want to connect to the world they once loved in any way their screens will allow. So make ’em laugh, cry, wince, or delight them. Right now, it’s all we have. The world has changed, and your audience expects more from you today. We need to continue on with the business of selling, but going forward, it just looks a little different.

If you need some help figuring out what to say, read a book on it. Yes, it’s mine, but if you made it this far, you can read more articles on the subject, or go deeper with me. All profits from the book will be donated to charities contributing to those impacted by COVID-19.