Staying Safe While Thinking Forward
The second chapter in a short series, we continue to explore life and work in the time of COVID-19. Our goal with this series is not to provide the silver bullet. Each brand, each agency, and each client is unique. And that’s the point. But we do intend for these installments to provide food for thought and a touch of inspiration as we work to emerge from the challenges that Coronavirus has introduced.
The conversation continues.
In this second installment, we at OVO continue exploring life and work in the time of COVID-19, providing context for where we are today and how some marketers are responding to the challenges we are all facing. Some of this is observation. Some are reflections. And some of what we’re thinking about may even wager a few predictions that we hope inspire your own ideas and provide clues for execution.
So in order to frame this up, let’s return to the five basic brand questions we alluded to at the conclusion of Chapter 1: What Just Happened? We’ll provide our response, along with thoughts on how to prepare and deliver on these ideas. We opened our first installment with some fairly pointed inquiries related to organizational positioning and digital readiness. We’ll build upon those two areas and will also address issues around value, response, and development of new business.
WE REALLY HOPE YOU’RE ASKING THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS IN YOUR BUSINESS
- Is our brand positioning clearly defined?
- Are our digital properties working for us (and for our clients)?
- Are we creating value at every opportunity?
- Are we responding to opportunities without losing our focus?
- How are we developing new business?
You might be asking: With everything else going on in the world, why should we be asking these questions now?
Because our histories inform each “new” challenge in ways we can’t fully articulate even as it occurs in real-time. And our responses guide us in directions that we never thought possible. Because creativity during times of adversity ultimately brings us closer together, reinvents new rules for work-life balance, and if we’re prepared to address these questions and others, will lead to stronger and smarter business strategies.
We will emerge from this. And when we do, we would like to believe it will be for the better. Let’s get ready for being better.
Where are we this week?
At once, it has been crushing to watch the businesses that historically enrich human social interactions suffer so severely. Many of those businesses simply will not survive and their workforces will not return to their previous posts. Restaurants, bars and hotels come first to mind because they assume such a critical role in our culture, our economy and our social well-being.
The same is true of other industries that serve as vital ecosystems of both employment and social enrichment. Take sports, for example. Three months ago, it would have been incomprehensible to imagine a spring without March Madness, The Masters in Augusta, The Kentucky Derby, or The French Open. For many, events like these synchronize our internal clocks. They are the doorways to summer. But moreover, they are rights of passage for fans and they provide employment for millions worldwide. To consider a season without the NBA, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, or Formula One is hard to fathom. To have staked one’s own livelihood on what once felt like an industry largely immune to traditional market forces seems unthinkable. It is crushing. Sports have gotten us through civil unrest, depressions, and war.
Yet to date, they have not beaten this opponent.
Nor have countless other industries. Brick and mortar retail, travel, real estate. Hourly employees have been the hardest hit, as they often are. None of this is good news. Worldwide economies have been shaken. Even China—long the supplier of low-cost manufacturing, saw its first decline. Ever.
This has been devastating but also informative. And there are even some bright spots.
A look ahead
None of us know exactly when this grey veil will lift because it is so difficult to understand the trajectory of this ‘supervirus’. We simply haven’t seen it before. At the moment, there is no vaccine for either the virus or the economy. Short-term recovery is anyone’s guess. There is little question that the second quarter of 2020 will likely bring more of the same. Uncertainty, trepidation, unfounded speculation, and worse. Here at home and in an election year, we are nearing a very contentious political cycle.
Long term—let’s say a year from now—feels more positive with analysts suggesting a rebound in global growth somewhere around 5 percent, due in large part to pent-up demand. Some say China’s grip on global supply chains will loosen and industry will look toward Brazil, India, Mexico and Southeast Asia to take up the slack. This compressed energy may actually boost travel in the next year as people aim to recapture, in greater quantities, what they perceive they missed during ‘lock-down’.
As a result, we believe new and fresh approaches to the landscape of hospitality will debut some exciting changes in food and America’s approach to protecting and growing local sources. Start-ups will flourish in the wake of displaced workers looking to change their futures in response to the failures of traditional models. Venture capital may finally re-focus its gaze toward innovative delivery of fulfilling basic human needs. Technology will remain a focus due to the speed and relative ease that it scales, and will likely mature in areas focused on flexibility and work-life balance. Following this period of inside “sheltering-in-place”, a reinvigorated appreciation and respect for nature and the outdoors may result. We certainly hope so. In urban areas, this may pay off in more public parks and greenspaces. This may even motivate industry to work cleaner and become more transparent, and for governments to re-align legislation around public works programs. To work and govern greener, if you will. Imagine market forces actually driving a more sustainable approach to business and government! There are silver linings here. Or at least we’d like to think so.
Again, we understand that at this point, this is mostly conjecture. A lot of it is wishful thinking. But there are some industries that have strengthened their foothold during this difficult time. Construction and manufacturing both continue despite cutbacks, supply chain issues, and shortages in trained labor. Digital has quickly filled the voids of isolation and facilitating collaboration and production. Home and personal basics are being repackaged and rediscovered as essential to personal well-being. While struggling on many levels at the moment, the critical roles of education and healthcare in this country are spawning new conversations that extend beyond the politically-charged and yet very real challenges of cost and delivery.
As consultants, designers, and strategists, we likely have at least one of these industries in our active client portfolio. As marketers, we probably are either connected to one of these sectors or have customers or partners who are part of the supply chain.
So how are you responding to these opportunities? And how are you positioning yourself now and for the immediate future?
ADDRESSING A FEW OF THE QUESTIONS MARKETERS SHOULD BE ASKING
Is our brand positioning clearly defined?
In Chapter 1, we said that Brand Positioning serves as the central idea to unify and inform teams across the organization and further defines the brand impression that exists in the customer’s mind. It answers the question: What makes us different?
Strong positioning clarifies your value relative to that of your competitors.
For marketers, this requires every effort to clearly articulate your offering and in terms that reject herd mentality. If you’re a strategist for a healthcare organization, for example, stating that you “provide the best care for patients” simply isn’t a differentiator. Are you the only homeopathic clinic in Astoria? That’s what makes you different. Are you the oldest hospital in the Willamette Valley? Your legacy defines you. Do you specialize in sports-related injuries? Even if you see other clients, this may be your only clear differentiator in a saturated market.
I recall a client I was working with prior to joining forces with OVO. They were an on-demand clinic. At the time, the model was innovative but it was simple. (Yes, if you’re in Oregon, you probably know which one I’m talking about.) It wasn’t the services that were simple, mind you. They really were providing quality urgent care to patients of all types. In their model, they could serve as the patient’s only stop or they may refer that patient to another full-service provider. Patients could pay on the spot, regardless of whether they held insurance. Yet what the founder wanted to create was something different than the core benefit to the patient. Which was, in a nutshell, care that you could schedule, immediately. Meaning, time and convenience were actually the company’s position relative to the market. Not “care” (everybody does that), not “the best care” (everybody says that), and not “innovative care” (who really wants that, if we’re being honest?). No, the unique position—and in turn, the true benefit to patient-customer—was about time and convenience. Plain and simple. They struggled to embrace what was their ‘only’ in the market. Their competition quickly seized on the concept and trumpeted the “it’s about your time” messaging that patients wanted from their healthcare services. In the end, the company was acquired and survives today. I am thrilled about that.
Now you might be asking: How do we avoid that scenario, even if the answer is right in front of us? Here are five recommendations, without flourish.
FIVE RECOMMENDATIONS FOR BETTER POSITIONING
- Keep it simple.
- Embrace your strengths and know your weaknesses.
- Know who you’re for and what you’re about.
- Clearly articulate your difference.
- Deliver on your promise every time.
Then, keep referring to the first bullet. Repeat.
Are our digital properties working for us (and for our clients)?
This ‘shelter-at-home’ economy means that our channels of communication are limited. Whether it’s staying in touch with friends and family, attending lecture and school study groups, shopping for essentials (or self-care and little bits of luxury), or doing your level best to keep the wheels of commerce churning in business, our myriad online platforms are working overtime. Google, Disney, Zoom and Amazon are all thriving because each and every one of us are glued to our screens. For digital providers, this means more than a current uptick in service. It means new audiences, new subscribers, and a chance to do the unthinkable: To (a) realize adoption and conversion of new users and viewers who previously eschewed online use and; (b) to answer a renewed call for internet infrastructure to effectively reach the underserved. Let’s save this for another post.
First off, let’s deal with a couple of basics as they relate to brand. Namely, developing real connections with your customers. And frankly, is there a better time to connect directly with those customers?
Last week, I received a note from the founder of Poly & Bark, an online furniture company, asking for a quick testimonial. Intrigued, I clicked the link and reached out to him directly. I was surprised to receive a near-immediate response and the beginning of email correspondence. As a customer, I was happy with my initial purchase. However, that first response from the founder made me a customer for life. And as I share this story, so too, has that company moved me from the position of “Happy Customer” to “Loyal Follower” and on to “Eager Referrer.” What started as a simple note from Poly & Bark turned into an extension of their sales team.
In short, there are so many ways to connect with customers, partners, employees and prospects. This is the opportunity to be human and begin a dialogue that doesn’t exist behind perfectly crafted marketing copy.
Each of the following strategies deserve their own post. They can be complex and depending on in-house skill sets and resources, they may require agency assistance. At OVO at the moment, we’re guiding many of our clients toward focusing on these areas more actively because the return on investment is greater and expectations of their customers are also demanding more from their digital properties. Beyond that, there is simply more online content competing for the finite number of hours in our day.
These approaches require focus. If we can’t assist, we know someone or an agency that can.
FIVE STRATEGIES FOR DIGITAL BETTERMENT
- Evaluate and enhance your SEO strategy. As consumers are urged to shelter-at-home, consider how their changing behavior and purchasing patterns might benefit from new key search terms and supporting content to supercharge your rankings. For four more tips, visit Search Engine Journal.
- Develop an ordering or communications portal for customers and/or partners. As retail outlets, restaurants, and bars face closures and distancing measures, dedicated channels for ordering and information, install tutorials, and user forums provide greater access for new and existing customers.
- Implement a “social commerce” model—further combining social media channels with e-commerce platforms for greater sales and deeper story-telling. With more than a third of all consumers saying they’d purchase from Pinterest, Instagram and other social channels, your shareable product or service posts and stories are only a “Buy” button away.
- Consider immersive technologies like AR and VR for product demos, concept pitches, and employee or user training. As conferences, in-person meetings and events have been curtailed by COVID, now is the time to bring full-featured immersive experiences to new audiences by way of new media.
- Double down on your online customer service strategies and digital reputation management. We’ll say it again; this is the time to reach out to customers, build or reinforce personal relationships through the brand, encourage online reviews and testimonials. Brands can’t undo negative experiences with customers, but they can work to consistently improve and incent customers to give them another try. Give those customers a reason.
Are we creating value at every opportunity?
Here’s the thing about ‘creating value’: Every marketer talks about it and few deliver on it. What’s so hard about it? First, it’s because value means different things to different people. For some, it’s about cost. For others, it’s about efficiency. It’s about asking, “can this make my dreams come true, be informed, or better, be inspired?” For some, it’s simply about how a brand makes them feel about themselves. In each case, it’s about the benefit received from purchasing or interacting with the brand.
During the time of COVID-19, customer’s values don’t necessarily change, but they do become more focused. As marketers, so should ours.
As I sat at home thinking about my next trip to the outdoors, I began organizing my piles of gear. I’d just considered the financial outlay of all this “stuff” when my phone pinged me with another email from YETI, the ridiculously expensive maker of coolers and other outdoor products. There was a time not too long ago when the idea of paying $500 for a cooler was ridiculous. It still is. But where YETI shines is performance and it’s hard to argue with paying for stuff that works. They also recognize that their customers are nearly always doing what I was just doing; that is, thinking about getting outside. As many of us are right now. That said, their emails always hit me when I need it most. Whether it’s the short films that put me in the middle of nowhere or the new product releases that seem built just for me. Or in this case, how to better pack my cooler for that trip that I imagine taking again one day.
This is how YETI creates value. So what is that your customers need that helps them better understand what it is that makes your product or service essential?
FIVE WAYS TO CREATE VALUE NOW (AND ALWAYS)
- Show how your product or service benefits or helps your customer.
- Whenever possible, inform, educate, entertain, and inspire.
- Assist customers in understanding how to get the most of their purchase.
- Offer online events that put customers closer to the brand.
- And during this time, remain particularly sensitive to personal pressures.
Are we responding to opportunities without losing our focus?
A couple of days ago I was listening to a podcast about baking artisan bread at home. Coincidentally, I was working on a particularly complex recipe for a “simple” hearth bread. Simple artisan, the recipe read. My thoughts turned to the shortage of the flour brand I usually buy. As we’ve all learned, I was not alone. Then I heard about Aaron Caddel of Mr. Holmes Bakehouse by way of another email newsletter, The Hustle.
Faced with closure of two popular bakeries and an immediate loss of $3 million in wholesale business, Caddel responded to two things he’d noticed. 1. Everyone at home (me, included) was baking their own bread. 2. Ingredients were in short supply. So he pivoted, called his suppliers for pallets of yeast and flour, and built an ecommerce site. Two weeks ago, he launched the $25 Bread Starter Kit. Then he started sharing his story.
FIVE WAYS TO RESPOND WITHOUT LOSING YOUR OWN WAY
- Strive to become agile. Then never stop evolving.
- Use the skills and materials to which you already have access.
- Tell your story in new ways.
- Retool for now. Rethink the future.
- Remember that this too, will pass.
How are we developing new business?
Business development is a forever evolving discipline. And while we don’t always relish the task of doing it, as marketers it’s an imperative. The time is now because it’s always now. When you’re too busy to fill orders, it’s time to develop new business. When people are talking about your company, it’s time to develop new business. And when the work feels like it’s just getting started or when it’s drying up? Well, you get the idea.
Many of the strategies and tactics above help set the table for your business development opportunities. If anything, they’re basic building blocks. During an economic slowdown, business development is generally about fine-tuning or pivoting, and yes, there is a lot of gray area in between those two disciplines.
As outlined in the story about Aaron Caddel of Mr. Holmes Bakehouse, marketers (be they agencies or the companies they serve) are poised to find opportunities in the spaces that are forged from chaos. Historically, some of the world’s greatest products and companies are responses to catastrophe, be it times of war or relative moments of peace without prosperity. Think Jeep, Ray-Ban, adidas (and Puma), Hugo Boss, Duct Tape, Silly Putty and even M&Ms. During times of economic unrest came innovation. Think GE, IBM, Disney and FedEx—all products born out of recession.
It’s probably appropriate to mention Netflix here, as well, which was founded in the years leading up to the dot-com bubble. Remember the company’s origins. Consider the early days following its restructuring. And look at where they sit now.
At OVO, we have pivoted. We have kept everyone working because we need to work through this together. For clients, we have suggested alternatives to their marketing plans and moved focus from in-person events and printed content to digital campaigns and content that addresses some of the key points above: Focus on brand positioning. Consider digital. Add value every day. Respond to opportunities. Think forward.
FIVE WAYS TO ABC (ALWAYS BE CLOSING)
- Remember the customers that got you here. Then get personal.
- Focus on your employees. Remember: They helped, too.
- Find ways to visit clients and customers online. Take the time THEY need.
- Retain every employee possible. Train them for future change.
- Think long-term. Brand positioning is everything.
Most importantly, don’t forget the future is just around the corner.
In Chapter 3, we will look at some companies and brands that are employing successful brand strategies and how they’re addressing these questions during this difficult period. We’ll take a deeper look at a few of the companies that we’re fortunate enough to serve and provide an inside look at some of their most informative strategy work. We’ll also look into some well-known consumer brands and assess how they’re working to weather this storm.
And if you’ve not yet read it, see: Chapter 1: What just happened?
Remember, we’re here when you need us. Stay safe and think forward. We’ll see you soon.