Coronavirus CMO Checklist

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As we’ve turned the calendar to another month of dealing with the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of brands and agencies are wondering what’s next.  While many brands have pivoted to pandemic-related messaging (see a regularly updated list here,) most are taking a breath, and working hard to plan their next move(s.)

Believe it or not, this forced time-out can be an incredibly useful opportunity on many levels.  Whether you’re the CMO of a global brand that spends millions or an owner/manager of a small to medium-sized business that’s trying to edge out your competition on a regional level, this may be the best time to evaluate your brand and make structural moves to re-position it for success when the world wakes from its medically-induced commercial slumber.

Here’s a quick dos and don’ts checklist of items to consider while we’re all waiting for the refs to say it’s time to get back in the game:

ON POSITIONING

DO reinforce your strategic position, whatever it might be. If you’re the low-cost leader, then now is the time to forage for ways to maintain and even strengthen that position, perhaps by having new discussions with suppliers and distribution agents.  More importantly, if you don’t have a strategic position (or perhaps don’t know exactly what yours is,) you’ve now been given the gift of several weeks and even months to figure one out.  Huddle with your team – or better yet, a consultant or agency – and learn how to articulate who you really are in ways maybe you haven’t before.

DON’T waver.  If you do have a position and it helps the consumer/customer understand what makes you different, do not veer from your course.  You might hear of brands trying to “strategically pivot” into new areas and try to replicate what competitors do in an effort to grab short-term revenue gains or “narrow their gap.”  We’ll probably see a LOT of price manipulation once the markets begin to wake as competition for consumer attention will spike – but don’t be tempted.  If your position is built on quality, or prestige, or speed, or technology, or safety, or any other attribute that you can effectively “own” in the mind of the market, stay the course.  The consumer segment that desires your position will be more motivated than ever to seek it out when this is all over.

ON STAYING IN TOUCH

DO stay in touch with consumers/customers and stakeholders of all kinds. Be a friend in some way.  Be a lifeline if you can.  One of the most compelling aspects of this pandemic is the psychological toll it’s taking on people from all walks of life.  Routines are disrupted.  Rituals interrupted.  And we cannot forget that brands represent constancy and normalcy for so many Americans – perhaps the only two commodities that are in shorter supply than toilet paper. As long as your brand is reminding consumers that you’re still there, and will continue to be there to support them with what they expect of you, you should come out of this national hibernation in pretty good shape.

DON’T brag.  Even if you’re doing the most amazing things right now in your community or in your industry, no one wants to hear how great you are.  Do what you can to serve in this crucial time, but do those things quietly and let the results speak for themselves. Grandstanding is not a good look in a crisis.

ON ADVERTISING AND STAYING VISIBLE

DO advertise if it makes sense and you have something valuable to say. In my last post, I advocated strongly for advertising, and provided several reasons why it’s more important than ever.  I continue to recommend that you stay visible and adjust your messaging to take the current consumer environment into account.

DON’T disappear.  Find ways to stay relevant, even if you’re conserving major expenditures (like media costs.) This is a great time to get more social, expand or enhance your app, send timely email updates and so on.  AND DEFINITELY DO NOT use your advertising presence to take shots at competitors.  You should notice that there’s no “feuding” going on now, even among the largest brands.  No cola wars.  No chicken sandwich smackdowns.  Competitive advertising in the current climate is not only a waste of valuable ad dollars, it’s in poor taste. Consumers are paying rapt attention right now, so behave with your brand as though momma was watching you.  ‘Cause she kinda is.

ON PLAYING THE LONG GAME

DO be prepared (financially and otherwise,) to ride this situation out well into 2021.  It’s clear that some brands will falter during this time as consumers are also re-evaluating their priorities and allegiances.  Staying true to your brand ethos (and reinforcing/refining your position, see above,) can a.) cement the relationships you’ve already worked so hard to forge and b.) make you look darn attractive to those defecting from other brands.

DON’T rush your expectations.  Although confidence is virtually nonexistent at the moment, consumer motivation will be high and will likely surge for many months as the commercial rebound begins.  Expect a tentative but large wave of consumers re-entering the market with fresh perspectives and open minds.  Rushing to grab profits and short-term gains (in an attempt to recoup some recent losses) may preclude your brand from the much more substantial rewards of sustained success and new fans.

The brand cure for coronavirus: advertising.

The weeks and months leading up to and following March 2020 will go down in history as an incredibly important and impactful time period in the history of the United States. Between the COVID-19 pandemic itself, the economic ramifications of a roller coaster stock market, and the drastic measures being taken at the federal, state, and local levels, nothing seems normal. Virtually all major sports shut down. All major gatherings shut down. Schools closed for mandatory periods of time. Bars and restaurants closing. Social distancing. Self-quarantining. And of course, the dreaded toilet paper shortage. (Ugh.)

The citizenry of the United States is in a near-total lockdown. Without engaging in the regular retail experience – one of America’s favorite social and commercial pastimes – except out of pure necessity, what is the appropriate path for brands during this time? What should brands be doing? What should brands be saying?

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At the risk of sounding insensitive, I say advertise. There are a million reasons to be doing it right now, and to be doing it well. Here are my top five.

Advertise. Because American consumers are concerned and confused, and there’s no precedent for anything like this in recent history. (Zika, Ebola and some of the other outbreaks never reached this level of penetration or panic.) There’s never been a time when we’ve been virtually forced back into our homes to sit and wonder what will happen next. Brands have the unique opportunity to reassure consumers (of course that depends on your brand, and the category in which you compete,) or at the very least, entertain them. If your brand can be a voice of reason, or a voice of compassion, or better still, a voice of comfort through generous offers, then that voice will get valuable attention when Americans have more of it to give.

Advertise. Because with Americans huddled at home for weeks (and potentially months) at a time, there will be record HUT/PUT numbers. National brands can leverage near Super Bowl-sized audiences at what would be considered regular airtime rates. Every advertising dollar will go twice, thrice its normal distance, especially during this time in the broadcast programming calendar, which is typically a lull bridge between the large audience events of Jan/Feb and the scripted series finale season to arrive in April/May. Ratings will be unusually high for the foreseeable future, simply because more people are home with more time – and more opportunity – to consume television.

Advertise. Because programming diversity will actually be an ally during this time. Sure, people will be binging on streaming services. But after three or four hours of catching up on the hottest shows, people will turn to both local and national news. My guess is that media buyers are in a feeding frenzy right now with MSOs to snap up relatively low-cost cable buys, and especially around news programming.

Advertise. Because your competitors are sitting on the sidelines right now, and this gives you a greater potential share of mind. Every brand is thinking about the opportunities they currently have, and what to do with them. But while most of them contemplate, they’ve probably held off on filming anything new, or producing any spots with context to the national psychology. And yes, while you can suffer a great deal for a misstep at this time, the potential also exists for exponentially greater gains if you can connect. Take a look at this spot Guinness released online regarding their brand (with high context to both the pandemic and the upcoming St. Patrick’s day,) and a message that is just wonderfully articulated and perfectly timed:

Advertise. Because we will get through this at some point. Although it’s hard to imagine it today, life will return to normal. Concerts will be staged. Stadiums will be filled with 80,000 fans screaming their heads off for their favorite teams. Schools will be open. Bars and restaurants will be flooded with people who no longer want so much social distance. And most notably, shopping malls and supermarkets will be flush with consumers looking for their favorite foods, clothes, drinks, sneakers, cars, electronics, beers, and so much more. And if you were smart enough to advertise to those consumers during this time, and your message was a strategic one, (or at least a kind one,) you just might have made a valuable impression (while making valuable impressions) to new fans for years to come.