Marketing in a Pandemic – Part of Our New Reality

Since late 2019, we have all watched the spread of COVID-19 with fear and a morbid fascination – in some way knowing that it would eventually touch us all. Quickly spreading from nation to nation, the pandemic has become truly global. To contain the threat, governments have taken progressively drastic measures and most recently, we have seen Canada and the U.S. essentially closing their borders to all but essential traffic. What was once a problem overseas is now a pandemic at home.

Though initial warnings of the COVID-19 outbreak were ignored, most governments and businesses are now looking to healthcare authorities for direction. In many ways, amplifying the recommendations of healthcare authorities has become the number one priority of organizations and the professional communicators and marketers who support them. Businesses are working hard to ensure that employees, customers, business partners and stakeholders appreciate the severity of the situation and take the appropriate action. The more that we all sing from the same songbook with respect to social distancing, the better our ability to contain the spread of the contagion.

Yet as the world unites in the war against COVID-19, marketing professionals are caught in a world of uniformity. It’s unfamiliar territory when their job is normally dedicated to the creation of a unique and distinct voice for their organizations. There is also the question of what is appropriate beyond the healthcare message – leaving some marketers to think that now is the time to go quiet. Beyond echoing pandemic control messaging, marketers are wondering “what to say” – if anything. That is the issue. Businesses and marketers should not be thinking about what to say. Rather, they should be thinking about what to do. It is those actions that will then dictate what to say.

During times such as this, people want companies to act in ways that are appropriate. Even more, people need help and inspiration. Given that we are all concerned about the crisis, people want companies to do something that will actually help – not just closing their doors and telling people to self-quarantine until further notice. With time on their hands and fear in their hearts, people are also looking more closely at companies than ever before – evaluating them through the lens of the “say / do gap.” Companies can’t simply say the right thing – they must do it.

The most visible and directly relevant examples of companies in action would be those that changed their production processes to help deal with COVID-19. Some distilleries are now making hand sanitizers and some manufacturing firms are now making ventilators. This is great. But what about other organizations? How can they help in this time of need?

To solve this, businesses and marketing professionals, need to remember their roots. Most people, even many in the industry equate marketing with promotion. They’ve forgotten the “4Ps” of marketing – product, price, placement (or distribution) and promotion. It is across those four categories that actions appropriate for today can be found. People need help coping and it is doubtless that most companies can do something to alleviate the anxiety of an economy that seems to be shutting down. Companies have assets in each of the 4Ps and many can be leveraged to either directly assist in the containment of the pandemic or help people who are coping with the new reality of working from home, self-quarantines and social distancing.

Companies need to re-evaluate and prioritize their products within the current context – leading with products that might help people within our “new normal.” Even small innovations that are directly relevant to the crisis will be appreciated. Pricing needs to account for the fact that many people will be laid off or out of a job – those who are trying to stretch every penny until we get past the crisis. Distribution capacity can be used in non-traditional ways, providing shipping or home delivery while many need to stay confined at home. Promotion needs to be appropriate. Internally, companies must also show that they are operating within recommended parameters – respecting if not enforcing social distancing. On an even larger scale, operations, research and development, finance, sales and marketing must come together and come up with innovative solutions. Any organization attempting to take advantage of the situation without providing a true empathetic response and a public service, will pay the price and provoke a public backlash.

Marketers must also develop plans for the three predictable phases of the pandemic – acute outbreak, recovery and the new normal. The priorities and buying behaviors of people and companies will forever change due to COVID-19 – many of which can be predicted. Working from home will become more widely accepted (a trend that overlays with a move towards sustainable communities), people will focus upon saving money and reduce non-essential spending, social distancing will drive increased online shopping, the virtual delivery of services will be even more prominent and supply chains will become less reliant on any one jurisdiction.

For marketers, going quiet during the pandemic is not the answer. Rather, it is finding your company’s new purpose – one that can actually help all of us cope. Due to COVID-19 (and standing on the shoulders of environmental concerns), we all now have an elevated social responsibility to actually make the world a better place. Finding a new purpose allows you to stay relevant, and even gain new supporters. Additionally, maintaining marketing efforts throughout the difficult times generally puts you in a better standing or more solid footing once the storm subsides. Organizations that go quiet will be at a distinct disadvantage and will have trouble re-establishing relationships with customers once we adjust to our new normal in a post-pandemic world.

A company’s true and relevant purpose can frequently be found within marketing’s “4 Ps.” While doing so, remember to mind the say/do gap. Everyone is watching. Now is the time for action, not complacency, or sitting on the sidelines.

Sector: Financial + Professional Services, Government + Public Sector, Health + Wellness
Specialist Expertise: Issues + Crisis

by Rob Ireland, Senior Vice President


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