Jon Bacon is the VP of Marketing for SureCall, a U.S.-based cell phone signal booster manufacturer, selling in North & South America.
We were two weeks away from one of our biggest events of the year when we got the crushing news: canceled. The annual Mobile World Congress, the world’s largest trade show for the mobile industry, was scrapped in February because of Covid-19.
This was a big deal because trade shows are important to us. If the Barcelona show was canceled, surely exhibitions in the U.S. would follow suit. Not good.
In an instant, we needed to adjust our marketing strategy, and the pandemic taught us to see our marketing plan from a whole new angle. The lessons learned are universal and can help your company make a similar pivot, regardless of the disaster.
Wait And See
We had many of the same experiences as other businesses across the U.S. In March, we needed to adjust quickly so that everyone could keep working in the new virtual environment. We were one of the fortunate ones deemed “essential” due to our work in communications, but the entire country was moving to shutdown mode, which meant that consumer spending might implode along with it. How would this affect sales?
Like many, we took a conservative approach at first. We held off on new initiatives and chose to pause for a short time to wait and see what was next. This bought us some time to reorganize budgets, brainstorm new ideas and rethink our assets.
We gave ourselves time to think, and that’s the first lesson to take away from the experience: When disaster strikes, don’t panic. Jumping into a new scheme while a crisis is unfolding risks setting off in a direction that is misguided, crass or tone-deaf — or all three. Get a lay of the land before you embark on a new initiative, especially if you’re testing something new with a reallocated budget.
Same Product, New Angle
In April and May, remote work emerged as a new norm. Suddenly, millions of Americans found themselves dispersed and attempting to do their jobs using new technology from home (and all that came with the territory: kids, roommates, loneliness, distractions, bedrooms-turned-offices, etc.).
As the economy and traditional ways of working were upended, we saw an opportunity to act quickly and adjust to meet the market’s needs. The termination of trade shows resulted in cost savings, which we put toward marketing our products that best help those who are working from home. Along with shifting some advertising dollars, we also adjusted messaging to sincerely reflect our efforts to help the economy and employees stay working in a time of crisis.
Other companies saw a similar opportunity and reacted quickly to market their products in new ways. Remember when toilet paper was scarce? Bidet makers captured the moment, and sales reportedly skyrocketed (my wife even bought me one for Father’s Day!). Tiny home companies started marketing their getaway houses as small offices you could set up in your backyard to escape barking dogs and rambunctious kids adjusting to home schooling. The RV and bicycle industries zeroed in on Americans who were suffering from cabin fever.
Here’s the second lesson: Find a new angle to stay relevant and keep selling. When your primary work is completely disrupted, like what happened with employees being forced to work from home, redefine your main audience. It would have been a waste of time, money and effort for us to market the way we did before the pandemic. Instead, we zeroed in on a new audience and tweaked our message to appeal to that audience and its needs.
When Covid-19 hit, every company seemed to want to say something. Consumers were overwhelmed with emails, Instagram posts and radio ads of companies acknowledging the severity of the situation and letting them know their brand was there for them.
It seemed that everyone was saying the same thing. One video on YouTube shows a compilation of television commercials from dozens of companies using the same types of music, verbiage and imagery to show their compassion. I’m not saying these efforts aren’t valuable, but when everyone starts to look and sound the same, what makes you memorable?
While we took (and still take) the pandemic seriously, we didn’t pander to emotional uncertainty. We took a slightly different approach. We were all worried about plummeting into a terrible recession, so we wanted to be loud and clear that our products could enable corporate productivity (and thus, do our part to keep the economy moving). I’m not saying we tried to position our company as heroic, like front-line emergency workers and hospital staff, but we did what we could to keep people working when everything else seemed to be falling apart.
And that’s the third lesson learned: Sound different but remain authentic. When business (or society) is no longer “usual,” there is an overwhelming urge to say something — anything — to remain relevant and in front of your customers. The urge is manufactured, coming from a fear of missing out (FOMO). But if your company is compelled to act, say something that is actionable, relevant and different from everyone else. Also, make sure it’s real; customers can see right through a thinly veiled attempt at boosting sales or propping up an image.
A Masterclass In Marketing
For much of 2020, Covid-19 has given us a master class in marketing: Develop a plan; execute; evaluate; pivot. Do it again and again — and again!
The three lessons I learned:
1. When disaster strikes, don’t panic.
2. Find a new angle to stay relevant and keep selling.
3. Sound different, but remain authentic.
The good news — and I say that lightly knowing that we’re not out of the woods yet — is that hopefully we’re all now better prepared to act when the next disaster strikes. We should now be more agile. We discovered new ways to generate income for our company. We took some risks that paid off. The experience applies to anyone in any industry, regardless of the calamity.
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