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Evolving your marketing strategy for a post-pandemic world

In times of crisis, marketing communications is more important than ever. It must, however, pivot to reflect the world around us – and that means knowing what to say and how to say it, but also when to say it and through which channels.

By mid-2020, businesses across the vast majority of industries were feeling the impact of Covid-19. Some faced job losses and reduced revenue, while others – like those in the healthcare and DIY sectors – experienced a significant spike. However, all wrestled with how best to communicate in a time of global crisis. Was it insensitive to continue advertising as normal? If yes, then when should that start again? And what should that look like? What do customers want – and need – to hear? And how do they want to hear it? Questions like this – amongst many others – were no doubt being debated in boardrooms and between marketing teams across the world. 

Jump forward a year and the situation across Europe – although still troublesome – has markedly improved and brands are beginning to evaluate the pandemic era. Some, or many, aspects of brands' marketing mix will have changed temporarily – some permanently. Others will have evolved or stopped altogether.

We're in a moment of reflection, following which brands will map out their marketing strategies for the next 12-18 months in what will (hopefully) be a world without the chaos of Covid-19. But for the time being, brands need to be mindful to communicate in a way that doesn't pretend or assume the pandemic has disappeared. Tensions around restarting economies and returning to ordinary life still exist and uncertainty remains.

Let's start by looking at what brands got right from the outset and throughout the pandemic.

Managing marketing communications in a time of crisis

While in a time of crisis it's impossible for a brand to "win", certain business's succeeded in striking the right tone with their communications. And ultimately, that boiled down to doing two things well: listening and adapting.

Brands that got it right listened carefully – both to their staff and customers – and acted accordingly. For some businesses this prompted a drastic change of course and/or restructure. For others, it meant honing an existing strategy.

For example, Alessandra Bellini, Chief Customer Officer for Tesco (UK supermarket chain), explained: "We didn't have to change or pivot. We had to be really at our best to listen to our customers every day… we were going out to stores, to the pickers and the depot, talking to them [staff and customers] in real-time in order to understand what we needed to do in terms of a central perspective."

Through careful listening, Tesco identified four key priorities that would steer its marketing communications strategy: safety for all; food for all; support for colleagues; support for communities.

As for adapting, Bellini went on to say that her marketing team was gathering daily insights using YouGov's BrandIndex tool, as well as customer and colleague feedback, so it could adapt "on a very short cycle to be on top of what customers and colleagues needed most."

Listening to customers and colleagues and rapidly adapting is one thing – successful execution is another.

Last year, above all else in a time of huge uncertainty, customers wanted to be spoken/marketed to with honesty, transparency and compassion. Attentiveness, aligning with customers' concerns and to-the-point messaging all proved to be key enablers of customer trust.

Last year was also a time for brands to give back and repay the loyalty customers had shown them.

Ford, as a brand that has existed for more than a century, has weathered its share of tough times. So, to acknowledge the gravity of the situation, the company created ads to explain how it had met global-scale crises in the past – by building military equipment during World War II, for example – and to convey its commitment to fighting Covid-19 by manufacturing medical equipment in short supply.

Others promoted a spirit of togetherness, resilience and safety-first mindset.

Guinness, due to hospitality closures and social restrictions, recognised that St Patrick's Day 2020 would need to be different. So it responded with a message of resilience and assurance by piecing together existing footage in a matter of days, sharing that its own brand had endured the test of time by "sticking together."

Ikea saw an opportunity to shift perspective around stay-at-home orders by welcoming audiences back into their own homes. By doing so, Ikea sought to remind people of the stable worlds they had already created – playing with children, dancing, making music, or simply relaxing with loved ones – as the world around them shifted.

Four emerging trends

1. Virtual events

The dramatic rise and success of virtual events was probably one of the biggest things to come from the pandemic – and technology meant that businesses and event organisers could host events without having to reduce their offering too significantly. Virtual breakout rooms were available for guests to meet and network, while brands could have virtual stands and interact in a somewhat meaningful way with potential customers.

In addition to using technology to replicate larger events, smaller more intimate seminars have been substituted for webinars. Webinars aren't particularly 'new', but they've emerged as the go-to thought leadership – and lead-generation tool – for B2B brands.

The standout benefit of virtual events is, of course, that they've reduced time taken out of people's busy schedules. Virtual events can be easier to attend, less time-consuming, and less expensive.

2. Audio

Audio has arguably been the rising star of the pandemic. Podcasts, for example, were gaining huge popularity beforehand, but have since become a crucial cog in many B2B brands' marketing mix. Research found, after surveying 500 business leaders of various company sizes, that 76.2% of European consumers have consumed more audio content since the pandemic started than they did before.

Another audio platform that made waves in the B2B sphere was Clubhouse – an exclusive audio-only app launched in April 2020. Clubhouse shone a light on just how useful audio-only content can be for brands – a benefit which other social platforms have taken note of and are trying to replicate themselves. And while Clubhouse's popularity may have dipped in recent months, tech giants have taken note and are beginning to invest in their own audio platforms (like Twitter’s Clubhouse-like Spaces rooms).

We explored how B2B brands can best utilise Clubhouse in a recent blog: Should you include Clubhouse in your B2B marketing?

3. Personal experiences

The pandemic highlighted the value of creating a marketing strategy with personal experiences and gamification in mind. This challenge stemmed from the fact that audiences were restricted to their home environment, meaning brands had to find a way to stand out amongst their competitors in what is already a saturated online world.

Technologies like virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are being used by brands who are looking for new and exciting ways to engage with their audience. VR and AR continue to be popular in the gaming community and with the pandemic forcing people to stay inside, gaming and e-sports are booming.

Burger King sponsoring Stevenage FC's team shirt – more for exposure amongst FIFA 2020 gamers, rather than in-stadium matchday fans – was a great example of how brands are using the gaming community to reach their audiences.

While these are tactics that don’t necessarily result in direct sales, the experience and interaction people have with a are memorable, and that helps companies stay ahead of their competitors. With this in mind, it’s safe to assume that the role of personal experiences, gamification of strategies and utilisation of online gaming platforms is here to stay.

4. Marketing localisation

With more consumers moving out of urban areas and to the suburbs and rural regions, localised marketing will continue to become more prominent. Two-thirds of consumers, according to Accenture, are shopping primarily in local stores, and/or buying more locally-sourced products. Localised content and personalisation will be more important than ever in order for brands to strengthen the connection with their audiences.

Three things we expect to return

1. In-person events

As successful as virtual events have proved to be, for many people nothing quite beats the buzz of being a part of and/or attending an in-person event (i.e. tradeshows, exhibitions, live panel discussions, roundtables and press briefings). They have a strong sense of atmosphere that just can’t be replicated in a digital waiting room. This atmosphere is what helps people to really "feel" the products, services, businesses and people around them, thus creating an ideal networking environment.

The bottom line remains, however: virtual events can be easier for people to fit in around busy schedules and substantially cheaper to attend. Brands attending in-person events will therefore need to up their game. The event itself, in combination with the experiences brands offer, will need to be interesting and exciting enough to lure people back. Smart social media engagement, live on-stand events, and guerilla marketing are just some of the tactics that could be utilised.

The reality is, though, that some people and businesses won't return to in-person events – and that's OK. We expect the events industry to adapt accordingly and offer more hybrid events. After all, a huge 97% of event marketers believe hybrid events are the future and that going forward, the most rewarding events will have a virtual component.

2. Attention-grabbing public stunts/guerilla marketing

With footfall returning to public spaces, we expect attention-grabbing stunts to return. They can be versatile and high impact while often requiring only low investment.

Pre-pandemic, big companies with big budgets mounted impressive – and memorable – guerilla marketing campaigns. Red Bull, for example, organised a Nascar pit stop in New York's Times Square and White Walkers swarmed London as part of Sky's promotion of a new series of Game of Thrones. Companies with smaller budgets but big imaginations also succeeded, like Folgers Coffee, who utilised New York's famous steaming manholes by placing images of a coffee mug on top.

3. Experiential marketing

Sometimes referred to as engagement, live, immersive or event marketing, this strategy relies on engaging with users face-to-face – something that's been largely impossible these last 15 or so months. What's more, experiential marketing is often executed in association with an event, such as a grand opening or product launch, which have also moved to the virtual world.

Similar to guerilla marketing, experiential marketing leaves a memorable impact on the customer – one that will inspire them to share with their friends, both online and offline. As in-person events – such as tradeshows and exhibitions – return, so too will experiential marketing. They go hand-in-hand and complement each other well, combining to create a general buzz and added intrigue around an event and/or occasion.

Three learnings the marketing world will take forward

1. Your brand should stand behind great values

It's not enough to only stand behind great products. The pandemic truly challenged brand loyalty – and that dynamic, coupled with growing consumer awareness and activism precipitated during the social unrest of 2020, should make brands very focused on the values they express.

In fact, key themes from EY research show that while quality, convenience, and price still very much matter to consumer choice, factors like sustainability, trust, ethical sourcing, and social responsibility are increasingly important to how consumers select their products and services. 

We explore how to successfully implement social cause marketing in a recent blog: Social cause marketing: best practice for B2B brands.

2. Agility is a modern marketing must

Covid-19 created an irreversible trend for marketing to embrace a nimble mentality. As the crisis unfolded, a company could quickly find its message was wrong and/or outdated or its supply chain not in a position to deliver, immediately creating a potential PR crisis.

The outcome was to embrace a mindset of marketing agility that is likely to continue. This includes continuous customer listening and demand sensing, not only for the benefit of marketing but for the company to capture customer sentiment.

3. Relationships are everything

It is vital to build relationships with customers based on trust. Advertising, for example, makes a brand promise, and it then falls to the product, service, and customer experience to deliver on that promise.

Covid-19 has placed a new emphasis on relationships, particularly in B2B sales. Faced with a virtual sales environment, brands with strong pre-existing relationships and online presence, including social media, CRM, and quality UX, have been able to maintain momentum.

In both cases, trust and integrity are fundamental to driving market momentum – and trust will be built by and rewarded to those that listen to customer needs and then craft solutions to meet those needs.

If you need help developing a marketing strategy for a changing world, get in touch with Principal Director, Rachel / 01285 626000.

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