What to Do When There’s No Playbook for Marketing During Turbulent Times

May 7, 2020

By Janelle Brannock, Senior Director of Strategy


It was as if a rug was pulled out from under us.

One day we were immersed in our usual routines: making breakfast for our families, plowing through deliverables at work or having dinner with friends at our favorite restaurant.

The next day, though, looked very different. The news stories took on a darker tone. Bleak.

And then the crescendo.

Schools shuttered their doors. Businesses, too. Hard-working people lost their jobs. And medical workers—our superheroes—bravely tightened their masks and attended to the sick in droves.

The whole world looked different. A little scary, even. Unnerving.

Maybe—no, probably—yours was one of those businesses that had to make the hard decision to cease operations for the time being. Until “it” ended. Whenever that would be.

And you worked tirelessly on ways to stay alive in the most turbulent of times.

The thing is, there’s no playbook for this sort of thing. There’s no 1-2-3 on what to do when a pandemic shakes the world to its very core.

Because these types of catastrophic events don’t happen often, and they all look different. The last pandemic—H1N1 in 2009—claimed approximately 12,500 American lives in the course of a year, between April 2009 and April 2010, according to the CDC.

At the time of this writing, COVID-19 had claimed five times as many Americans in the course of about six weeks.

There was nothing gradual or expected about this. There was no time to prepare.

There was no time to develop a plan for all the things that needed to happen should your business have to close down the next day.

So instead, we found ourselves glued to the computer looking for ideas. Looking for answers.

What do I say to my customers? My employees?

What on earth should I do?

You can go down a rabbit hole of potential right answers if you ask Google. And it’s likely your inbox is flooded with invitations to webinars titled “Dos and Don’ts for Communicating during COVID” and “COVID Before and After: How do eCommerce Behaviors Change.” Articles are being published to news and industry sites hourly, geared toward helping marketers find their next move.

You’ll find that if you read all those articles and attend all those webinars, you will pick up on the same words and phrases that seem like they’re used in every single piece of content out there right now.

They’re important—yes. Some might even say overused.

But these four themes have actually helped companies like yours forge a path forward in these uncertain times.

“…stay connected even when apart…”

When disaster strikes, it may be tempting to go dark. To shut off the marketing spigot and stay quiet until things stabilize.

But don’t give in to the temptation.

Because what people actually want is to hear from you. They’ve let you into their lives before—they buy your products and services, subscribe to your emails, follow you on social media—so why would they turn their back on you now?

In fact, a recent Kantar survey on global consumer sentiment showed that only 8 percent of people wanted brands to stop advertising altogether.

There are ways to stay connected with your customers even when you’re apart from them. Even if you had to make significant cuts to your marketing budget, there are free and low-cost tactics to stay top-of-mind with your customers, like email, social media and your Google Business Profile Manager listing.

Keep in touch with those who want to hear from you. Because right now, they want to be reassured.

“…need to pivot…”

It’s a new day. And a new day calls for a new way to do business.

As I mentioned above, this isn’t the time to scrap your whole media plan, wait it out and hope for the best.

No. It’s time to pivot.

There are ways to stay open even when your door sign says “We’re Closed.”

It may mean adopting new “socially distant” ways of doing business as other companies have embraced, like delivery and take-out for restaurants, e-commerce for retail brands and virtual appointments for scores of companies.

This is the time to get creative and have the patience to remain agile for an uncomfortably long time.

Lean on creative minds, like your advertising agency, to help brainstorm what that might look like for you. Invite them to the (virtual) table to discuss options and develop a plan to get you there.

Because there are ways to pivot and stay active while you weather this storm.

Say you have to cut your media spend by half. Or even more. Experienced marketers can effectively reallocate available dollars on platforms and channels that are targeted and conversion-centric (like digital) and not as costly as other channels, like TV. That requires evaluating consumer media consumption trends on the daily to see which platforms and channels are performing universally, and then aligning budgets accordingly.

“…don’t be tone-deaf…”

In an instant—almost overnight—many brands had to rework their messaging to be appropriate with the times. Comedic and lighthearted ads hawking everyday essentials like burgers, trucks and beer were paused to make room for more thoughtful messaging speaking to our fears of the unknown and a collective desire for comfort and safety.

Auto brands, as an example, are now using their TV air time to promote generous financing options instead of fussing about their vehicles’ fancy features and selling points. Fast-food favorites like McDonald’s and Burger King promoted free meals to healthcare workers and kids, Miller Lite passed around the #VirtualTipJar to support struggling bartenders and even Hotels.com’s Captain Obvious advised travelers to stay home for the time being.

Across the world, we’re hurting. We’re scared. Our lives have been affected in more ways than we’re aware of at this moment. People are suffering—physically, mentally, financially—and brands are rising to the occasion to not only acknowledge this new reality but respond to it thoughtfully. With heart.

The words you use matter. Your tone matters.

The messages you crafted a month ago—a week ago, even—for social posts and emails and digital ads and radio spots? They may not matter right now.

Take an inventory of those messages you’re sending out today, next week, next month. Do they matter?

“…we’re in this together…”

Despite the chaos—or maybe because of it—people are extending a helping hand to each other. Strangers helping strangers.

The idea of everyone being in this together is comforting. Even while our situations and outcomes may be different, we’re all experiencing this crisis together.

That’s why people want to hear that their favorite brands—you—are here for them. They want to know what you’re doing in response to this crisis, from how you’re helping your employees and customers stay safe to the things you’re doing for the community at large.

Show your customers that you’re here for them. Demonstrate your appreciation for your customers just by checking in with them. Ask how they’re doing. Ask how you can help.

It’s these moments—these simple actions—that they will remember when this is all over.

Take heed in what the very wise Maya Angelou once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

With no such “Marketing Playbook for Turbulent Times,” it’s up to brands to write their own rules and pave their own way forward.

There will undoubtedly be times we stumble through this experience, grasping for what we think might be the right move. And that’s OK.

What everyone needs right now is for the brands we know and love to give us something to be hopeful about.

Now. More than ever.