We are quickly approaching mid-year, and business leaders everywhere are thinking about how they move forward in an undefined new world. Whether a business has been booming, shuttered, or stalled, the second half of 2020 is going to be monumental in separating companies that will thrive from those that will merely survive.
Some companies that are retracting marketing spend, while others believe that now is the time to double-down on their marketing strategy and invest. For the companies who are taking steps forward, there has never been a time when being agile has been more important. 2020 business plans went out the window in March, and businesses now need a new, nimble approach for moving forward.
This changed world presents an opportunity to discuss the value of an agile marketing plan. We interviewed four Authentic Brand Fractional CMOs, Tracy Steeno, Greg Pomerantz, Karen Kleindl, and Kelly Klopotek, about how businesses can develop thoughtful and flexible plans to genuinely engage and support customers.
Q1: Many businesses suffered significant losses in Q1 and Q2, and will need to make substantial gains in the second half of the year to remain viable. How can marketing play a role in helping business leaders have clarity and confidence in moving forward?
KELLY: Now more than ever, leadership teams need to view marketing as a long-term investment rather than a short-term cost. Companies need to connect with their clients and customers to understand better what will help people going forward – practically and emotionally.
Using voice of customer programs uncovers current and shifting customer needs, providing insight for how companies can be of service to stakeholders now and into the future. Companies that put their customers’ needs at the center of their business goals will build customer loyalty and secure life-long customers.
Marketers also play a critical role in analyzing key performance indicators to determine how companies are reaching and interacting with their customers. Marketing teams are instrumental in knowing what tools to use to not only capture the information but also evaluate the data and feedback to determine the right strategy and methods of execution.
TRACY: Take time to really understand how COVID-19 has impacted your customers and prospects. Then clearly identify how your business helps solve their problems and articulate the value in a more compassionate way, given the new normal. Continually monitor the climate and adjust plans as needed.
GREG: The biggest issue is understanding how the market —your market —has changed due to the pandemic. Customers are reevaluating virtually every buying decision, and it’s critical to know how your customers’ decision-making process has changed. Are they looking for a better price, more flexibility in delivery or payment terms, or the ability to make returns? Once you understand if and how your customers’ needs have changed, you can develop marketing plans to better sell to your customers.
KAREN: Clarity and confidence are pretty big promises to deliver on right now. Marketing’s role in providing these should focus on understanding the rapidly changing customer mindset and behavior to build business and marketing efforts around the customer’s needs.
Q2: What signs of life do you see in the market? How are brands innovating, pivoting, and communicating to deepen trust and be in a position to capture available market share?
TRACY: Brands that convey compassion and understanding by leading with empathy, rather than pushing products and solutions, are deepening customer trust. Liza Horowitz, a member of the Forbes Communications Council, refers to this as ‘mastering the soft skills.’ From the mom-and-pop shop down the street, to international brands, companies are discovering opportunities to build deeper community and relationships with their stakeholders, and even activate charitable initiatives that help customers feel engaged in something meaningful.
GREG: Businesses are beginning to reopen, and it will be critical to get customers comfortable, especially in a retail environment. One key strategy is to continually communicate how the safety of both customers and employees is the most important focus. This message is vital as customers want to buy from businesses that show that they care.
As one example, early on in the pandemic, numerous distilleries pivoted from making hard liquor to making hand sanitizer, a product everyone wants and needs but that was, at least temporarily, difficult to find. Selling hand sanitizer may not be as profitable for these businesses as selling liquor, but their brand perception has undoubtedly improved as they invested in keeping their communities safer.
KAREN: The obvious signs are the reopening of communities and businesses. In turn, in the market, we are experiencing messaging that has shifted towards safety and trust when doing business with a brand. Some companies are promoting their efforts to hire displaced workers. And others are giving money back to consumers (like auto insurance companies refunding policyholders). This kind of messaging demonstrates a pivot from the norm to deepen trust with customers and more positively and uniquely position the brand going forward.
KELLY: The pandemic shifted people’s buying habits – not only what they’re buying but how they’re buying. COVID-19 forced companies that had put off their online business strategy to address that gap immediately, and moved even the most resistant in-store customers into online shopping. Agile businesses were able to pivot operations and invest in new technologies to adapt to these changing needs. Companies that ramped-up their e-commerce and digital marketing strategies and provided a seamless first-time user experience to new online shoppers will continue to thrive.
A great example of this is the number of restaurants that now use apps so customers can order ahead for curbside pick-up. This demonstrates they understand their customers’ needs and pain points and provides the restaurant with valuable data to enhance their service.
Q3: 2020 has reshaped our world quickly. In most cases, business plans and strategies laid out early in the year no longer fit today’s world.
Buyer engagement is returning but in new ways. How do brand leaders tune in to what the market needs and respond with relevance?
TRACY: Businesses need to place a greater emphasis on research. Too often, companies deprioritize budget for research activities and instead rely on their gut, shirt-tail research, or discussions with a handful of customers. Having a pulse on key market segments will provide deeper insights for the business, the product, and marketing so brands can be — and remain — relevant as the world changes.
GREG: Data, Data, Data. Every marketer needs to find out what people are thinking and how they may be changing their buying decision matrix. I suggest surveying your customers to try to understand what their needs and wants are now and what has changed. I would also talk to people in various parts of the distribution system (distributors, sales reps, customer service) and find out what they are hearing. Once you have this information, marketing plans can be updated to ensure the messaging and products are impactful and relevant to this new world we are all in.
KAREN: Leverage data, including market information and customer surveys. Take a look at your competitive landscape to evaluate how competitors are responding or not responding in the current environment. Competitive gaps may reveal opportunities to innovate and respond to unmet customer and category needs and may even validate your strategy. This exercise should equip you to respond in a highly relevant way.
KELLY: As stay-at-home orders are lifted, companies need a period of reassessment to understand their clients’ current needs. Everyone is now a digital seller. You need voice of customer feedback and data to understand how people’s needs, behavior, and attitudes have changed and to determine whether the products you sell or services you provide are still relevant. Reevaluate your value proposition. Focusing on the client and their individual needs means there’s no “one size fits all” solution. Brands that invest now in supporting clients will have a competitive advantage over those companies simply cutting costs to survive.
Q4: The concept of “agile” is well-adopted in areas such as product development, technology, and innovation. But this kind of business rigor and methodology is not often applied to marketing — which tends to get a bad reputation for being intangible, fuzzy, and hard to understand.
What does it look like to be agile in marketing? How will agility help brands to differentiate in our changing world?
TRACY: Everyone in the marketing organization must understand the marketing strategy. Each team member needs visibility into marketing plans, including when, how, and why plans may have changed. They must also understand the role they play and be empowered to act and make decisions that support the strategic outcomes. Getting mired down in exhaustive approval processes is counterproductive for an agile team.
GREG: Some business leaders may push back on implementing an “agile” approach in their marketing, especially if they are accustomed to a fixed 12-month plan and budget that gets lightly dusted off and touched up annually. But there is a significant opportunity in having marketing use agile strategies to improve the flexibility of marketing efforts, especially with the rapid rate of change in every market due to the pandemic.
According to Gartner, an agile approach serves marketing teams well by building a “diverse, adaptable range of team capabilities to keep brands competitive amid rapid marketplace shifts.” Agile marketing is a great way to continually develop your brand and make it more relevant to your ever-changing customer.
KAREN: Agility is about thinking, understanding, and acting quickly. Marketers must rapidly assess and understand their brand’s situation, and then creatively adjust and adapt the brand and its offering to the landscape. Rethinking, reacting, and reinvesting will be key for marketers as we move ahead, especially since we are not yet through this crisis. This continued state of agility — assessing and responding — should be practiced going forward in order to reveal opportunities, evolve, and act in a way that allows for success in the rapidly changing environment.
KELLY: Agile marketing places the focus on the customer and the buying process. Emotional intelligence has never been more important, and businesses need to continuously look for ways to be of service. Agile companies recover faster because they understand their customers’ needs and can implement the right strategy for their brand. No one knows how long the economic recovery might take, which means continuously evaluating and fine-tuning your marketing strategy is vital.
Q5: While some businesses have experienced unprecedented growth in recent weeks, most have significantly slowed down or even shut down for some time.
Many companies have had to make difficult reductions in staff and budgets, and are now facing the second half of the year with critical initiatives, and very limited resources. How can an agile approach to marketing help these businesses to move forward? What is the risk of not being agile in rebuilding?
TRACY: The world is forever changed, and it is imperative marketing departments also change to adjust quickly and remain flexible. Think about ways to reduce barriers to success. How can you make it easier for your customers to do business with you? Is a diagram easier to digest than a page full of words? What is preventing you from becoming the most trusted brand in your industry?
Simplify complexity where possible. Remove or significantly reduce gated content. Shorten approval processes. Knock down those barriers, then communicate the improved changes. There is a lot of uncertainty and complexity in the world, and simplicity is appreciated now more than ever.
GREG: To a certain extent, many small business owners will be forced to be agile as their resources are constrained. It may seem overwhelming to implement a true agile marketing approach, but there are ways to be agile without calling it “agile.” For example, bring together a team of key employees from different functional areas to brainstorm ideas on small steps to impact the business. Agree on what to activate, then track those commitments as part of the plan and measure the results of these efforts. This is agile marketing in action, even if it’s not called that. Taking these kinds of small steps can provide a great foundation as you rebuild your business.
KAREN: It’s important to engage with current and prospective customers during this time. Companies cannot go dark. If budgets have been cut, you will need to be innovative and creative in how you start or continue conversations with customers. Consider non-traditional and never-considered or done-before efforts. Brainstorm. Get inspired. Bootstrap efforts. No matter what, this is not business as usual, and you must find ways to continue with marketing and connecting with your customer — or pay the price later. This is where a digital infrastructure is key. If you don’t have it, I’d highly recommend you build it because you’re going to need it like never before.
KELLY: An agile approach to marketing will help businesses avoid random acts of marketing. When business is slow, some leaders try a little bit of everything to see what works – but with limited resources (reduced budget and staff) – that spreads things too thin with half-hearted attempts. Teams need to have accountability and need to be empowered to lead. This is an opportunity to reimagine what your company could do differently and operationally.
By tailoring solutions, customers will remember what you did to help them during this time. This requires leadership support and working in small teams who are empowered to work rapidly.
Ultimately, knowing your clients, understanding their needs, aligning your messaging and services is critical to your marketing strategy. Brands that quickly adapt their strategy to changing consumer behaviors will ultimately thrive.
Ready to update your marketing approach, but unsure how or where to start? We’d love to connect with you, learn more about your business, and discover how Authentic Brand’s services and Marketing Traction methodology could help you build agility, alignment, accountability, and revenue results.