April 23, 2020

For Crisis’s Sake

“Panic,” Seth Godin wrote a few weeks ago, “loves company.” Calm, on the other, hand, is often all by itself.

If you are wondering how marketers behave when panicked, look no further than your email inbox and social media feeds a month or so ago. A sock company was organizing local volunteers; airlines insisted that we’re in this together. Whatever the intent, it felt forced, like a big collective Uh-Oh just hit everyone all at once.

Not all panic is irrational. Indeed, from an evolutionary perspective, panic comes in handy: it undoubtedly saved more than a few of our ancestors from being eaten by packs of hyenas. Panicked marketers, therefore, are not necessarily irrational: smart early action may save their businesses.

Grief has seven well-documented stages. Panic appears to be less studied. But here are a few observations about how marketers are reacting, and some strategies to consider in moments of calm.

Stage One: We're Human, Too

As the term "pandemic" entered daily conversation, most brands reached out to customers with heartfelt messaging that emphasized human connection in the face of enormous crisis.

Some of them also tried to move inventory as fast as possible. In emails to customers, Everlane stated “We’re in this together” and offered “meaningful value” in the form of a week of $50 denim.

Responsibility to one’s neighbors ultimately shone through. Many brands, like RTR and Patagonia, conveyed news of shuttered stores or entire operations, all in service of social distancing. And some, like probiotic-maker Seed, made huge gestures. “Our ads are staying the f*ck home,” the brand announced in a breathless Instagram post, while also addressing some of the unsubstantiated claptrap about supplements making the rounds.

Stage One Messaging Recap: Let's Freak Out Together

Stage Two: You Still Need Us

Stage Two was a frenzy of outreach, as brands sought relevance as home hunkering became the norm. Notable messaging fell into four categories:
1. Virtual workouts & other solo activities. Whew, are we ever going to be in good shape when we return to the world, having completed workouts from Outdoor Voices (“virtual recess”), ba&sh (“la distraction”), and British Vogue.
2. Zoom everything. Especially drinks.
3. Supplies. Those lucky enough to sell products related to the home office, comfy apparel, pets, useful hobbies like sewing, and anything that makes people look better on Zoom began taking gentle advantage of their relative good fortune.
4. Humor. Or possibly just nervous laughter. Brands jumped on social media trends, including "choose your quarantine house," ad nauseum. And brands themselves became the butt of social distancing jokes, as in this visual send-up of logos.
Beneath the waves upon waves of content: fear. High levels of activity were really just a sign of marketing adrenaline as the horror of the pandemic's impact on consumer spending hit home.

Stage Two Messaging Recap: Don't Forget About Us!

Stage Three: House On Fire
We have entered the next stage, where brands are responding to the long-term reality of what’s taking place across the country, both in terms of health and economy.

Many are still focused on social responsibility. “Earth Day, every day” reads the subject line of an email from Pottery Barn. But inside the email, the code EARTHDAY will get you 20-25% off everything PB sells.

Indeed, impending economic doom is spelling almost universal discounts. Virtually every apparel company is offering 25% off everything as news of 50% declines in apparel spending dawns. With almost every category of non-essential products reporting double-digit declines, clearing inventory is Job One.

Some brands are trying to see around the corner with surveys about spending priorities and mood. We have yet to see any results that surprise us, although we admire the urge to capture data.

This is, we hope, the final stage of panic. Next up is a grim process of business "demolition"—closure—or "renovation"—taking the house down to the studs before selectively rebuilding.

During that process, we predict marketers will enter a weird calm as they navigate marketing wreckage. It will be the moment to
-Reflect on brand definition. Does my brand still align with what customers care about?
-Look for advantage. Packs of ecommerce-savvy brands are already circling wounded brick-and-mortar stalwarts.
-Manage risk. Smart brands will test consumer appetites before committing to inventory or other investments.
More on staying calm in our next episode.

Stage Three Messaging Recap: Fire Sale!
Finally, consider content as a way to bring your hustle to life. Can you map content to trends to draw interest to your reshaped offering?

Having a marketing crisis?

Spark biz-therapy is here. Hit reply and hit us up for a free consult.
We will rally the online whiteboard and help you find a path forward.

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