Pandemic and pending recession is a good time for small businesses to refocus marketing strategy


Amid unprecedented fear, anxiety and uncertainty, small businesses might think it’s time to pause their marketing.

Not so fast.

Marketing and branding experts say this is the time to strategically continue investing in marketing, yet the messaging needs to shift for the coronavirus recession we are entering.

Katherine Culhane, Associate Director for the Florida SBDC

Katherine Culhane’s background includes a long career in banking including roles in management, business development, commercial lending and private banking. She has a master’s degree in Organizational Learning and Leadership, is a Certified Professional Behavioral Analyst and is a SHRM Senior Certified Professional with the Society of Human Resources.

“Marketing is about meeting your customer where they are,” said Dan Grech, founder of BizHack, a Miami-based digital marketing training academy that trained more than 100 entrepreneurs last year in 12-week cohorts. But with COVID-19, “people now have completely changed their behavior overnight,” he said. “Your marketing must change with it.”

Now is not the time for the hard sell.

You need to communicate with customers in ways that are helpful.

“Businesses not able to do business right now doesn’t mean you should not be communicating with your target customers,” he said. “Think about what they need.”

“Things will come back, but not the way they were,” said Bruce Turkel, a branding expert, speaker and author who shared his thoughts about marketing in recessionary times.

“Business as usual is now business as unusual,” he said. “The new normal will become the normal. What we need to do right now is to stop worrying and start planning.”

Let’s start with a little knowledge of recession psychology.

During the Great Recession in 2009, Harvard Business Review published an article on marketing during a recession.

“Companies that put customer needs under the microscope, take a scalpel rather than a cleaver to the marketing budget, and nimbly adjust strategies, tactics, and product offerings in response to shifting demand are more likely than others to flourish both during and after a recession,” the article said.

Turkel referred to the research in his remarks. In recessionary times, you need to think of your customers among the four kinds of recessionary buyers: the slam-on-the-brakes consumers who do nothing; the pained-but-patient group that is suffering but is generally optimistic; the comfortably well-off who are selectively purchasing, in a less conspicuous way; and the live-for-today group, according to the review article.

The slam-on-the-brakes folks aren’t your customers now. The live-for-today folks will probably buy your product anyway if they are former customers. Turkel said you have to focus on your customers in the two groups in the middle, reconfiguring your marketing for them.

Small businesses should understand and assess their products and services, whether they are essentials [it’s not just the obvious things like food; it’s what is essential to your customers]; treats [justifiable indulgences]; postponables; or expendables. You don’t need to stop offering postponables or expendables if they are in your product line, but they are not worth your marketing attention now.

Then assess your opportunities. Knowing that distribution vehicles will change, can your product/service be stabilized or perhaps flourish? How can you create a message that offers essentials and justifiable treats to the people with the money and need to buy from you? At the same time, you need to be planning for the long term.

That’s a tall order when small businesses are barely holding on. However, Turkel said, “This may be the best opportunity for you to show what your brand is about.”

• A good brand makes people feel good. But a great brand makes people feel good about themselves. If you can do that through the products and services you offer, you are going to get people to pay attention.
• As you start marketing to your community, pay attention to what they are saying. Pay special attention to the folks who are not buying yet.
• Be respectful and be consistent in your messaging. People know you for something, now is not the time to change that. Now is the time to double down on who you are and why you matter — but from your customers’ points of view.
• Stop talking about until things get back to normal. Successful people understand how to pivot.
• Use this time now to figure how else to reach your customers and figure out new strategies for the short term — and the long term.

An example he used: A resort, closed by COVID-19, sent its previous visitors who have children videos with things to do with small children and classes for teens. Its fitness trainers offered online exercise programs and its chefs sent custom recipes to customers who sent in the ingredients in their pantries and refrigerators. “These things won’t fill hotel rooms now, but who isn’t going to feel really good about a company like that?” Turkel asked.

Grech suggested you can also use your time to build up your digital presence.

“Get your online system running, get an app going, redesign your website, get started with social media. Many small businesses have been slow to do this but now is time.”

Email and search engine optimization are the most profitable digital marketing methods and that hasn’t changed with COVID-19. But email open rates have spiked 5% higher. And text messaging and even direct mail are also likely good ways to reach customers while they are sheltering at home, said Grech, who is moving BizHack offerings online for the time being.

“In our partnership with Business Development Board of Martin County executive Joan Goodrich and her great team, I have seen a number of Martin County-based businesses seeking to make the best of this bad situation — turning problems into opportunities,” said Katherine Culhane, associate director, Florida SBDC at Indian River State College. “These Martin County businesses clearly understand that assisting clients through difficult times allows them to build long-term customer and client relationships that last well beyond the crisis.”

H2Ocean Blue Green Foam SoapMartin County’s H2Ocean Natural Products team [Eddie Kolos, founder, and Scott Stier, vice president] recently announced they were scaling back local manufacturing operations for its antibacterial foam soaps, which first hit the market in 2004, to help serve the needs of our community [and beyond].

With its lobby closed, Stuart Sound Animal Hospital continues to ensure pets receive the care they need via a curbside drop-off model. After gathering all pertinent information over the phone, the owner meets a tech in the parking lot to retrieve the animal. Care is administered, payment is done by phone and pet and owner are reunited. The model is a major success and limits interactions between individuals.

Waste Management recently announced several unprecedented steps designed with health and safety, as well as economic well-being, in mind. It will guarantee up to 40 hours of pay per week for employees; the development of work-from-home solutions for its call centers, sales centers, dispatch centers; the shared services team and other office employees who can reasonably complete their work from a remote location; and aggressive steps to provide safe social distancing between drivers, helpers, landfill and transfer employees, recycle workers and all others in field operations.

As these Treasure Coast small businesses show, with these challenges comes opportunity.

“Now is a moment when we are all in danger and we all have unprecedented opportunity,” Grech said. “It’s really a matter of frame of mind. If you are in a siege mentality and you are looking at erosion of your revenue and asking how will I survive, you are feeling the danger part of the crisis. But there is an opportunity part as well. There’s an opportunity to reinvent your business to service your customers, to think creatively to transform your business.

“Focus as much as you can on the opportunity.”

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