Too little? Too much, or just enough? Musings on marketing during a crisis

Published: 21 May 2020
Last reviewed: 10 Jul 2020

It feels strange to be marketing at a time like this. So how do you get the message right? Too little? Too much or just enough? Victoria Robinson, Head of Marketing & Communications at the Institute of Risk Management has some timely advice for you...

In the Army Cadets (one of my long-term hobbies) we have a saying when teaching the younger cadets how to apply cam cream for camouflage and concealment. Too little? Too much or just enough? This is something that is currently resonating with me as a PR and marketing professional. Too few communications in times of crises and you’ll stand out like a sore thumb, too much and you’ll be lost in the raft of messages bouncing around the ether.

Getting the balance of messaging right, not being lost in the noise and also hitting the right tone are all tricky at the best of times, let alone in times of crises. As the marketing adage goes, content is king and data is queen.

Push vs pull marketing is an intrinsic part of any marketing strategy (even in normal circumstances), and for every ‘salesy’ focused message you should be servicing your audience with at least double the amount of pertinent and timely messages.

Which can include: Thought leadership and practical advice and guidance, providing reassurance and keeping the information flow going. Authenticity is important, organisations have a responsibility to society to act responsibly.

The primary difference between push and pull marketing lies in how consumers are approached. In push marketing, the idea is to promote products by pushing them onto people. On the other hand, in pull marketing, the idea is to establish a loyal following and draw consumers to the products. Webinars are a key tool currently given the social distancing, giving a platform for people to debate and discuss the topic of the day.

For example, the Institute of Risk Management (IRM) recently held a webinar around pandemic planning targeted at risk managers globally who have concerns about how to manage the crises, it gave some fascinating insights into how companies should react, mitigate and what makes a good response. The discussion is useful even for those who don’t work in risk management and shows that reputation forms a key part of any response.

Reputations can be won and lost in a day, being seen to do the right thing and acting as a responsible marketer (and company) have never been more important to a brand and how customers, stakeholders and staff will view your business once the crises is over. Whether that’s from a marketing/PR or risk management response – they all fall under the same corporate communications umbrella.

We are all in uncharted territory and I’m sure, like me, you have been bombarded with a raft of communications that include words such as ‘unprecedented crises’ or the ‘new normal’ and soothsayers predicting the end of the world - we all tune out after a time.

Business as usual has been tipped on its head and people’s priorities and decision making processes when it comes to making a purchase have changed. How we pitch ourselves should be considered, both thoughtfully and to genuinely satisfy a need.

Some large FCMG companies have even halted ad spend, Marketing Week reported on Diageo halting ‘ineffective’ ad spend due to the coronavirus. The drinks giant is reallocating resources across the group “as part of mitigation measures” as the on-trade is hit by lockdowns. The way consumers are purchasing has been changing and the pandemic will no doubt affect the habits of purchases in the future.

Of course marketing cannot stop, the spend needs to be worked smarter not harder and the business proposition realigned to the current climate. Agile businesses that have switched online or diversified their portfolio are thriving. For example IRM has moved its flagship Fundamentals of Risk Management course online.

As the saying goes ‘when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade’, so, when there’s a virus pandemic and you own a distillery you make…hand sanitiser.

Many gin distilleries across the UK, from Dundee to London, are now switching their production from gin to hand sanitiser to help fight the spread of coronavirus, from a CSR point of view as well as profit this is a win-win.

Most marketers (and those who have studied social science) will understand Maslow’s Theory of Hierarchical Needs, it details human’s fundamental states of being and this has never been more apt. Maslow wanted to understand what motivates people. He believed that individuals possess a set of motivation systems unrelated to rewards or unconscious desires.

Maslow (see the image above) stated that people are motivated to achieve certain needs. When one need is fulfilled a person seeks to fulfill the next one, and so on. Currently many people are sitting at the bottom of pyramid, somewhere between:

1. Biological and physiological needs - air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sleep.

2. Safety needs - protection from elements, security, order, law, limits, stability, freedom from fear.

Prof. Malcolm McDonald leading founder of Marketing as discipline, former Marketing and Sales Director at Canada Dry, Chairman Brand Finance Plc and Emeritus Professor, Cranfield School of Management (and long-term friend) recently published a piece on how marketing plays a key role in how organisations will survive or thrive in a crises, I asked him about his views:

He said:

*Survivors will be those organisations who best look after their customers’ core interests, including those businesses with massive fixed costs and legacy cultures such as airlines.

Doing the wrong thing well in business is the height of idiocy. It's like making a stupid sales person work harder, thus doubling the chaos and offending twice as many customers, this is especially pertinent in times of crisis.

"Value" is what the customer needs, not what you try to sell to them, it’s important to identify your core segments and customers, then "delight" them.

Trying to delight everyone guarantees average service and delights no one. You could have as your mission: "The good thing about being mediocre is you are always at your best."

Finally, Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter (IRM Honorary Fellow) was on the BBC yesterday (interview here) talking about what we can and cannot know from current, imperfect, information. One comment stood out: "This is turning from an existential societal threat into risk management, so it is important that that we are aware of what the risks are." Of course it doesn't stop there - issues of varying risk perceptions, risk cultures, groupthink, complexity etc. muddy the waters further. We are not good at dealing with uncertainty, but must first recognise this, then try to get better at understanding, communicating and balancing risk.

It is important to consider that we are not all in the same boat but are in the same storm.