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Assessing your brand’s opportunity to serve [SERVE•ival – Part One]

SERVE•ival - Part 1

When crises hit that disrupt life for businesses and communities, marketing and communication teams must react quickly and strategically to determine the best path forward for the brand. If marketing teams choose the wrong path, they risk coming off as careless, disingenuous, and opportunistic. Customers and employees have increasingly high expectations of brands, and failing to navigate a crisis the right way could be all it takes to lose once-loyal stakeholders.

At Authentic Brand, we strongly believe that brands must show up in times of crisis to serve their customers, employees, and communities. The ones that do are the ones that will be most likely to survive, and be in the best position to thrive as they come out of the crisis. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be gathering and sharing insights from our team of experienced marketing leaders on how to approach, navigate, and survive crises by putting service at the heart of everything you do. 

SERVE•iving times of crisis

The three-part SERVE•ival series will guide you through how to successfully 1) assess your brand’s opportunity to serve, 2) allocate marketing resources, and 3) activate programs that effectively and genuinely serve your stakeholders in times of crisis.

In part one of our SERVE•ival series, Assessing your brand’s opportunity to serve, we interviewed three Authentic Brand Fractional CMOs, Jim Arnost, Steve Grady, and Kate Simek

Read their answers below and let us know in the comments what advice resonated with you most. If you have a specific question for our team as your business navigates the COVID-19 crisis, send us your question through our Ask a CMO form, and we’ll reach out to you with help. 

Q1. How do marketing and communication teams determine the best way for their business to show up during a crisis?

Jim: 
During a crisis, you need to show up day-to-day. Every day is a little bit different. Some days there’s a little bit of progress, and then things regress a little bit. From a marketing standpoint, during a difficult crisis that’s felt widely across communities, you have to be aware of what’s going on and understand the moroseness everyone is feeling. If you happen to be in an industry that’s thriving from the crisis — and some are — you cannot beat your chest about it. Provide information that’s helpful and relevant to your customers, taking into consideration how they’re feeling and what they’re going through. 

Kate:
A crisis is a time for marketing and communication teams to step up and lead the organization. It’s an opportunity for them to take a leading role in supporting the organization’s response. 

The best way to do this is by creating flexible response plans and continuously monitoring the situation, whether that’s hourly, daily, or every other day. The challenge is that many organizations do annual marketing planning. They create plans, and the organization approves their budgets. When those plans are all of a sudden turned upside down, they need to consider how to develop flexible response plans that meet day-to-day needs, but that are still forward-looking. 

The knee-jerk reaction during a crisis is often to say something right away. You want to make it better. You want to help. Before you do, take some time to look back at who you are as a business. For example, if you’re a local business known for its boots-on-the-ground service approach, sending out a mass email isn’t going to work. Showing up authentically and in the true spirit of and in service of helping your customers, you might realize you need to touch base with your customers on a more 1:1 personal basis, like by making phone calls. It’s so important to dig back to who you are as an organization and your organization’s values before you respond. That helps you determine how to show up during a crisis.

Steve:
Marketing during crises is all about flexibility and sensitivity. All of a sudden, the campaigns you produced three weeks before the crisis are ready to come out, but they might now be entirely off-message for the time. You need to be able to move on a dime. You can’t use communication modalities that aren’t flexible and up to date with the changing situation. If it takes several weeks to get your commercial through production, don’t do it. It’s going to come off badly. Think about how you can be the most flexible and responsive, and use the channels that make the most sense for the audience. 

Also, the communication should be about maintaining or adding value to the relationships you have with customers. In times of crisis, the best way to show up is as directly and intimately as you can. If you have 10,000 customers, it’s much harder to show up on a one-to-one basis, but you have to figure out how to communicate on as personal a level as possible with your customers.

Q2. How important is it to keep employees engaged and informed about how the organization is handling the crisis? What’s the best way to engage employees?

Kate:
Over-communicating internally during a crisis is a good thing, as long as you’re delivering consistent and credible information. It’s also important to have two-way conversations with employees so that messages aren’t only coming from leadership. Create a feedback loop with employees to keep a pulse on how employees feel and to solicit ideas for how to help customers during the crisis. Organizations should consider sending out regular pulse surveys and/or having an open comment form on the Intranet. Keeping communication as a two-way street is crucial during crises.

Steve: 
Using direct and honest communication with employees is critical during crises. Be honest with employees about the situation, including by sharing what you know to be true, what you don’t know, and what the company is working toward. Communicating unrealistic expectations, even when couched in optimism, isn’t helpful. Employees know when they receive information that’s not true. Be honest — even admitting when a situation is difficult — and describe how the company plans to work through the crisis. Explain that there are unknowns, but describe what steps the company is taking to overcome or navigate them.

Jim: 
Like what Steve said, you have to be as honest and transparent as you can be. Employees can read through dishonest responses or ones that lack transparency. If you don’t have an answer to an employee question, be honest that you don’t know what the future holds. Communicate what the business is doing to try to navigate the situation.

It’s also helpful to think about ways to communicate the importance of everyone’s role in taking care of the organization’s customers. Focusing on the customer unites employees on a shared goal. You can also invite employees from all parts of the business to submit ideas for how to better serve customers during the crisis. 

Q3. How do businesses ensure they’re perceived as genuine and authentic and avoid coming across as opportunistic? 

Steve: 
The adage that “actions speak louder than words” is especially true during crises. How you help and what you do is spoken through your actions. You don’t want to promote or tout these actions, you just want to do them. There’s communication that’s essential to be effective with this action. But self-aggrandizing or messages that say “hey, look how we’re responding” are trite and antithetical to what you’re trying to do.

When it comes to communication style, your intent has to be serving your customers, employees, and communities. Your tone also has to be appropriate. The key is to take the self-serving part out completely. Humor also doesn’t work during crises. Just don’t go there. 

Jim: 
It feels disingenuous when brands put messages out that say things, like “we’re all in this together” or “we’re here to help” without demonstrating what they’re doing to help. What can your brand do to help in the face of the crisis? Go do that. It’s better to say nothing than just to put a message out an “us, too” message that doesn’t have substance behind it.

Kate:
It’s important to listen to consumer sentiment to ensure your messages are genuine and authentic. If you don’t know what people are feeling during the crisis, ask them. If you don’t know how your customers are feeling, it’s better to say nothing at all than to appear tone-deaf. 

This is also where organizational values come in. Great brands build their equity during crises. They lean on who they are as an organization, which they show through a demonstration of their values. These organizations treat their employees and customers as their guiding North Star through the crisis.

Taking action that aligns with who you are as a business and offering help is essential here. But brands should be mindful of striking a balance between what they put forward in their marketing and advertising, and what they decide just to let be action. People will notice if you promote every good action your organization takes. It’s important to act, but you can’t advertise it all. 

There’s an interesting article from Fast Company about what Ford is doing to balance their action and their advertising during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ford had a significant amount of advertising ready to go for sporting events, like March Madness. They quickly pivoted the messaging in their ads to be less about selling cars to being about helping people with their car payments as unemployment rates increased rapidly. Their sales-heavy ads would’ve been tone-deaf considering the economic impacts of the crisis. But beyond what Ford showed in their new ads, they are also taking action behind-the-scenes to help even more people. They were wise not to tout it all in their marketing.

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To effectively show up in a time of crisis, marketing and communication teams need to be flexible, evaluate the situation frequently, and think deeply about what the brand should (or shouldn’t) say and how it should say it. Communicating regularly, transparently, and honestly with employees is crucial during times of crisis. It’s also important to allow employees to share their feedback and contribute ideas for how the organization can move forward and navigate challenges. 

In part two of the SERVE•ival series, we’ll explore how organizations can allocate their resources in the right direction during times of crisis. We’ll discuss how to deal with significant budget changes, how to continue investing in your brand, and how to ensure your team is set up for success when the crisis is over. Check back next week for a new set of insights from our team.

Are you looking for advice on how to approach marketing during the COVID-19 pandemic? Submit a question through our Ask a CMO form, and we’ll reach out to you with help.

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Jennifer Zick

Founder and CEO at Authentic Brand
Jennifer Zick is the Founder and CEO of Authentic Brand, a Minneapolis-based marketing consultancy that helps great businesses attain next-level growth through Marketing Traction™.
Jennifer Zick
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