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Brands focus on messaging, empathy in crisis marketing mode

There is no single way for businesses to approach marketing in a crisis, but no matter how they choose to address the situation, they must be sensitive to their customers.

Marketing has never been easy, but now companies must delicately balance the promotion of products and services with the sensibilities of customers who are trying to survive a pandemic.

Businesses question if they should make any mention of the COVID-19 crisis in marketing campaigns at all or if should they tailor a message that seeks to assuage the concerns of customers; other companies are revisiting their marketing technology budgets amid an economic downturn.

This is a time for brands to market carefully and with compassion, but it's also a time to rethink how they market in the first place. For many marketing professionals, that means being mindful of the pandemic while also keeping an eye toward the day when the public health crisis ends, or at least eases.

It's definitely hard to walk that line between good advertising and taking advantage of a bad situation.
Anastasia Iliou Head of marketing, Rain
Anastasia IliouAnastasia Iliou

"It's definitely hard to walk that line between good advertising and taking advantage of a bad situation," said Anastasia Iliou, head of marketing for Rain, a startup that offers an early wage access platform.

Choosing a marketing message during a crisis

Continuing with business as usual and pretending the world is normal would be strange amid this pandemic, said Shelly Kramer, senior analyst and partner at Futurum Research. Instead, a smart strategic move is to focus on how products and services can help with touchpoints at the top of everyone's minds -- productivity, employee wellness, customer well-being, efficiency, cost-effectiveness and doing more with less.

Shelly KramerShelly Kramer

"Making smart moves now is what is going to help businesses survive, thrive and create a foundation that I think everyone is realizing is important moving forward," Kramer said.

Decisions on how to market have not come easy, several marketing executives said. They don't want to offend or come across as unseemly, but they also recognize that they can't stay silent and wait for the pandemic to pass.

For marketing firm Zozimus, that means honest discussions with clients about the advantages of marketing during the crisis, then devising a strategy centered on messages that have a legitimate purpose.

AJ GerritsonAJ Gerritson

"We tell [customers], 'What you don't want to do is be late to this.' And you have to do it through a lens that's best for their customers," said AJ Gerritson, a senior partner at Zozimus. "They're all taking a hit like everyone else, so you have to communicate by being genuine and authentic."

While Rain does make subtle references to the pandemic and the economic slowdown in its ads and emails, the brand tries not to call it out too directly. Rain made the calculated decision that cautiously inserting itself into the framework of the pandemic wouldn't backfire because Iliou and her colleagues believe that their product can genuinely help people during this time.

"We try to make that clear by [using] phrases like, 'This is some good news you can give your employees during this time,'" Iliou said.

Advertising and media company GumGum, however, has chosen to face the pandemic head-on and not shy away from it.

Som PuangladdaSom Puangladda

"We don't plan to make a lot of hay over how we performed through the crisis, but we will definitely acknowledge the pandemic's impact, especially how it's inspired improvements to products and services," said Som Puangladda, vice president of global marketing for the brand.

Businesses show empathy

In a survey taken by Morning Consult in late March of more than 2,000 consumers, only 10% said they wanted marketers to acknowledge the pandemic or express concern. However, 44% of respondents didn't object to seeing information on companies' service adjustments and updates, including store closures or new online options. Illustrating what the company is doing to help during the pandemic ranked second, at 24%.

Insightsoftware, an enterprise resource planning software company, satisfied the expectation of the 44% by offering free access to its products for 60 days, along with training and a set of financial report templates.

Lacey FordLacey Ford

By mid-March, the reality of the COVID-19 crisis had set in, and it was obvious that marketing was entering a new phase, said Lacey Ford, senior vice president of marketing for Insightsoftware. She realized Insightsoftware's financial reporting and budgeting tools could help executives who would be pressed for time while working from home.

"We want to display empathy," Ford said. "We do try to understand what people are going through. We're all in the same boat, working from home -- so we try to be genuine and not overpromise."

Bindu CrandallBindu Crandall

Navisite, a cloud services provider, also hit the reset button on its messaging. One of its new approaches is posting photos of families and their pets as well as other social materials that engender a sense of community with employees and customers, said company CMO Bindu Crandall.

"Everyone is spending more time on their digital devices. I see LinkedIn has become the world's Facebook," Crandall said.

The company has also hosted webinars that cover IT topics that solve the challenges of companies managing remote workforces, she said.

Trevor BlessingerTrevor Blessinger

When marketing conversion rates started dropping during the onset of COVID-19 travel restrictions in the U.S., e-fashion company Art of the Gentleman decided it would be better to focus on top-of-the-line funnel awareness -- emphasizing messaging that relayed tips on staying in shape, eating healthy and how to dress once the pandemic ends, said Trevor Blessinger, co-owner and CMO of Art of the Gentleman.

"We're not pushing products as much as focusing on a positive message," he said.

Not all marketing technology investments on hold

Every part of businesses operations, including marketing, has to work better and produce better results today than ever before, Kramer said. Data that enables businesses to target and nurture more effectively and better understand customer behaviors become even more critical in times of leaner marketing teams and a business climate where every dollar matters.

"If companies aren't using martech solutions strategically, they should invest time in researching the value they could deliver," Kramer said. "Smart brands will be looking at ways that technology can help them do more with less, because that is our post-pandemic reality."

One such company that expects any marketing technology investments will aim toward improving efficiency is Delphix, a data operations platform company.

Monika SahaMonika Saha

"This is a great time for us to invest in technologies that bolster our sales, marketing education and enablement efforts so we can emerge as an even stronger team," said Monika Saha, CMO at Delphix. "The time we are gaining back by not traveling is being used to reinforce learning and best practices, which sometimes took a back seat or was difficult to coordinate when teams were constantly on the road."

But not all businesses plan to plow ahead with martech investments. Art of the Gentleman doesn't envision making major investments in marketing technology while the economy struggles, said Blessinger.

Julia SteadJulia Stead

Other marketers also intend to ride out the pandemic with the tools they have, such as Allocadia, a company that provides marketing performance management software. Over the past year, the company has invested in its marketing technology, but now it plans to focus on getting the most out of the technology it has to maximize efficiency and results, said Julia Stead, CMO at Allocadia. Predicting future spending beyond the next six months is difficult.

"As we come out of the pandemic and economic recession, we may see an opportunity to address new marketing challenges," Stead said. "At that point, we'll evaluate any additional tech we need to support new strategies we're pursuing."

Sarah Amsler contributed to this story.

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