Marketers have faced the biggest challenges of their careers during the COVID-19 outbreak. The pandemic, and the resulting lockdowns and economic shocks, have forced many organisations to implement months’ worth of changes in just a matter of weeks. Marketing professionals, like everyone else, have very much been caught up in those rapid changes and have to adapt to some unprecedented new realities.
Not only are marketers having to adapt to new working realities, they’re also adapting to new consumer needs and expectations. A Censuswide survey suggested that almost three in five consumers would change their purchasing habits based on how they believe companies have responded to the coronavirus pandemic.
It means that marketers are not only tasked with ensuring that the business and their marketing functions can continue operationally during the disruption that remote working has caused, but also ensuring that the business reflecting these changing consumer moods.
So how have those marketers approached these challenges, and what have they discovered during this crisis? I spoke to four senior marketers to see what they have done to guide their brands through these unusual times.
In the early stages, when many office and shop doors were closing and employees were being sent home with hastily issued company laptops, the priority was ensuring that organisations could not only support their people, but also their customers.
Lauren, a VP of Marketing & Product within the financial services sector, says that the priority was very much about ensuring that everything was in place to help people through the initial shock of lockdown.
“Our focus during these challenging and unprecedented times are our people, our customers and our business,” she said. “Once we safely transitioned all of our people to our virtual office, our next priority was helping our customers.
“We worked quickly to set up three new options to help customers who might struggle to repay their loans due to the COVID-19 outbreak and we are working hard to continue serving new and existing customers as appropriate.
“In terms of our marketing, we are focused on the channels that are most suitable for our customers in these extraordinary circumstances which includes a mix of CRM, SEO, content marketing, social media and PR.
“Without a crystal ball it is near impossible to predict what the post COVID-19 world will look like, but as a business, we are closely monitoring developments, guidance from the UK government and scenario planning for a few different eventualities".
For Neil, a Senior Content Manager within the education sector, it was a similar story. He says that his university was acutely aware of what both existing and prospective were likely to be asking and moved quickly to communicate the steps that it was taking to allay those concerns.
“The immediate focus was on promoting safety and support,” he explained. “Universities are places where huge numbers of people gather and interact.
“We quickly pulled together FAQs for a broad range of audiences to answer the most critical questions. We also cancelled on-campus events and formed a cross-team task force to plan how things such as open days and campus visits can be delivered online.”
But communicating the role that universities play, even in lockdown, was also an extremely important part of how Neil and his team responded in the early stages.
“Universities have been under a fair bit of scrutiny in the last couple of years,” he added. “Now, more than ever, we need to show their value to society. Ours is a research-intensive university, undertaking work that will help tackle the outbreak and its societal impacts. We needed to quickly find ways to highlight the most important research projects we’re undertaking with authorities and industry, and ensure that people are able to easily engage with us on these".
But as the lockdown has progressed, Neil explains that there has been an urgency to continue with the business as usual work – whilst being sympathetic to people’s concerns.
He explained: “New questions arise every day and we’re consistently updating information for our audiences. After the initial rush to collate, create and publish content, we’ve begun to finesse the promotion of our projects into a holistic campaign that integrates with student recruitment, fundraising and other priorities. We’re now taking an agile approach to planning our student recruitment and conversion activity so that we can deliver digital value at the best time for prospective students.
“In many ways, the crisis has accelerated many things on the wish-list. Virtual open days, integration of our websites and many more medium-term goals that have jumped to the front of the queue. The near future for the sector is unlikely to be a comfortable time, but for our marketing teams at least, it’s been an opportunity to sharpen focus and innovate".
That movement to become much more aware and respectful of audience concerns, fears and needs during times of crisis is something that Claire, a Marketing Director at a Professional Services company, has been the difference between those brands that have communicated well during the crisis and those that haven’t.
“We were very considered in our comms in the initial stages,” she said. “Like everyone we had no idea about the appropriate course of actions, so we were honest with our audiences about that. We told everyone that we were taking time to think about how we could be useful and relevant with the advice and content we were going to be sharing. Our strategy has always been informed by listening to our customers. We’ve probably been over-thinking every action – every tweet, every email, every piece of content - more so than normal.
“I think we’d all like to think the world will come out of this for the better. Brands will be more human, society will be more supportive to those in need and we’ll all value our freedom and nearness to family more than ever before.”
The importance of not rushing into a marketing communications campaign was echoed by Shane, the Head of Acquisition for a rapidly growing Tech Start-Up.
“The crisis has meant that we have had to take a step back to gain a good perspective of the landscape, re-evaluating rather than rushing out updated marketing campaigns,” he claimed. “There has been a certain amount of volatility in the market and it's important that we understand what that means for our product, our marketing strategy and our competitors.
“We have put focus on our product construct as well as our proposition and messaging in the last few weeks and this has resulted in a rethought product construct and updated marketing strategy. We are very excited and proud of the work we have done in the last few weeks, the team has shown pure grit and determination. We are in a great position to push things hard in the remainder of 2020.
“I feel the initial shock that consumers felt is beginning to peter out now and I'm hopeful that confidence and desire for new products from new business will be back to levels we saw before the pandemic.”
The coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly changed consumer behaviour but, according to Claire, the changes have varied wildly from sector to sector.
“User behaviour has differed massively dependant on the sector our clients are in,” she revealed.
“Some are in the midst of the biggest challenge they’ve ever faced, others are busier than ever but, it means that no one plan fits them all. Our recommendations to clients can vary quite considerably from one to the next, based on what we can see they are going through. For many brands, this crisis is genuinely an existential threat whilst for others, it has created significant opportunities.
For some brands, the crisis has created specific areas of focus for their consumers. In financial services for example, where governments have quickly introduced new legislation to help consumers with payment holidays, consumer behaviour has shifted quickly to seek information and, in most cases, self-service.
“The biggest change is actually in how our existing customers are looking for help in managing their loan repayments,” explained Lauren. “Luckily the team are well equipped to adapt and we quickly set ourselves up to help our customers through the pandemic.
The pandemic has also led to changing consumer expectations in the education sector, and Neil and his colleagues have had to respond quickly to ensure that existing and prospective students could get the information that they needed.
“We have many audiences with very different user journeys, but we are seeing changes in behaviour and have been adapting our strategy where appropriate,” he revealed.
“Some changes have been enforced upon users – for prospective undergraduate students, for example, our open days will be online, and the deadline for decision-making will be later this year.
“We have seen very high traffic to coronavirus-related content and significantly higher engagement on social media. We’d like to attribute that to us planning and creating brilliant content(!) but we’re aware that more of us are spending time online during the lockdown".
For Shane, the view is that consumers are now starting to return to the market, after the initial shock of the lockdown.
“I feel the initial shock that consumers felt is beginning to peter out now,” he claimed. “I'm hopeful that confidence and desire for new products from new business will be back to levels we saw pre-covid-19".
But what about for the rest of 2020 and beyond? How are marketers looking beyond the short-term goal of guiding their brand through the lockdown, and what are their longer-term goals?
Understandably, whilst there remains optimism for the rest of 2020 and beyond, there is caution amid the uncertainty over what the oft-touted “new normal” will look like.
For Neil, the uncertainty over how courses will be delivered in the 2020/21 year means that he needs to keep his marketing options open.
“The biggest challenges for universities in general is the uncertainty over whether the 2020/21 year will start as planned, and what form that might take. Will it be delayed? Will part of the year be delivered online? Universities will be modelling many possible scenarios.
He added: “For marketing, there are challenges around managing expectations and perceptions of prospective students. It’s going to be much trickier to give physical evidence of your offer when you can’t provide open days and other face-to-face engagement. Uncertainty is perhaps the biggest cross-cutting challenge – it’s difficult to define your offer when nobody knows exactly what that offer will be.”
The uncertainty has also forced Lauren to look at how she manages the brand’s ambitions the immediate terms, with her 2020 plans having been scaled back as a result of the crisis.
“We have a really robust 2020 plan and a highly committed team that is energised to deliver on all the great things we set out to achieve”, she revealed. “Like many other businesses, we have had to scale back our ambitions in some areas for the time being which has been disappointing. We are looking forward to ramping back up again!”
Shane shared similar sentiments, revealing that the lockdown has given him time to pause and rethink the approach for his brand’s growth plans.
“We had been on a really good trajectory in terms of sales pre lockdown and the shift in consumer behaviour has meant we had to pause certain campaigns we had books,” he revealed. “We all want to run campaigns and see sales skyrocket so that's been a challenge. On the flip side of that, our updated marketing strategy gives us a better chance than what we had previously so that's exciting for us.”
Claire revealed a similar experience when it came to marketing activity.
“We’ve definitely been challenged in our day-to-day working,” she shared. “With budgets for larger-line items been pulled (hopefully temporarily) we’ve found ourselves trying to reframe our day-to-day tasks and find a renewed purpose. Some of the team have found this easier than others but we’re slowly getting into our new COVID groove!”.
With such fundamental shifts in how consumers are behaving now, and will probably continue to behave for some time, the emphasis has invariably shifted towards strategy amongst our marketing leaders.
“We’ve always worked as an agile business, which has allowed us to be flexible in our existing strategy and adapt our plans as necessary,” revealed Lauren. “COVID-19 has certainly encouraged the team to be more creative as often major disruption does.”
The sentiment is echoed by Shane, who admitted that looking at ordinarily-reliable metrics and benchmarks can be distracting in situations such as this.
“The main focus for us has been around our marketing and product strategies,” he explained. “It's been good to re-evaluate things and move away from the tactical for a while - digging through GA day to day can be very distracting from the bigger picture.”
Neil agreed, suggesting that the marketers that focus simply on the short-term goal of guiding their brand through the crisis could be neglecting the opportunity to adapt to whatever challenges are on the horizon once lockdown ends.
“The short-term challenges could have long-term impacts,” he suggested. “For us, as our marketing goals have refocused and budgets tightened, cross-team working has become even more important, fuelled by the business imperatives and enabled by technology (thank you, Zoom!).
“Things are still moving quickly in the sector and we will need to be reactive for months to come, but we’ve moved to a much broader and more collaborative approach to planning.”
And Claire believed that the crisis had actually given marketers a unique opportunity to refocus their strategies.
“We’re taking the opportunity to step back, review our focus and refresh our tactics for the coming months – and I know many other brands are doing the same,” she revealed. “Many marketers have time that they don’t usually have, making this an ideal time to step away from the day-to-day and realign their strategic approach.”
As millions of workers were suddenly thrust into the reality of working from home, there was a sense of positivity around how people had adapted to the different working environment – despite the challenges it brings.
“Remote working has actually been a real success for our business,” claimed Lauren. “Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak we were quite adept at using a virtual workplace as many of our employees already work from home several days a week.
“We also have two offices in the UK so colleagues are already comfortable using Microsoft Teams to conduct meetings and progress projects. Moving our call centre to a remote set-up was perhaps the most challenging. However, we were able to acquire all the hardware we needed quickly and got everyone home safely.”
Claire shared similar sentiments, adding that although her employer had a positive attitude towards home working before the lockdown, there were new challenges to contend with.
“Our employer has championed flexible working and working from home for years so the opportunity to do it on a regular basis is entirely normal to us,” she explained. “The challenge has come from the fact that everyone else is working from home, including the children!
“Throwing schooling into the mix has been the hardest part, for us all but as with work, a set to do list, clear expectations and celebrating the small wins definitely helps.”
Shane’s brand was another where remote working was already part of the culture, claiming: “we are a relatively small team and remote working was already part of how we worked, so it's been really straightforward thankfully. You just have to make sure you draw the line between work and home, I find!”
So, what have we learnt so far from this lockdown?
Well, all four of our marketing leaders revealed that the initial shock of the lockdown was perhaps the biggest challenge. Adapting to new working structures, adapting consumer demands, new legislation for certain sectors and a level of uncertainty never seen before was always going to have an impact on how marketers went about their day-to-day work.
One positive is that none of the marketing leaders we spoke to saw the new remote working environment as a hindrance to what they were looking to achieve and, in many respects, found that their teams were working more effectively.
But as the initial shock of lockdown began to subside, the challenge for marketers has been to focus on developing agile strategies for an environment that, in many cases, is still something of an unknown. For those organisations that rely on face-to-face interaction in particular, strategies need to be able to adapt to a number of possible environments.
But our marketing leaders agreed that the lockdown has also given them a window of opportunity to focus on what that strategy looked like, given them time and space to plot their post-COVID roadmap.
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