A Marketing Discussion in a Time of Crisis

Improving their marketing game could considerably help these businesses perform better in the marketplace.

Stressful, scary, limiting and uncertain are adjectives that come in use when reflecting on our current daily life in Lebanon. The increasing fears and concerns regarding the unprecedented worldwide spread of the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19), add up to the extremely challenging status of our economic and financial systems.

People are locked at home; many have lost their jobs or have received significant cuts on their paychecks. Prices of most consumables and life necessities have gone up, laying more pressure on the dispensable income of families. Many small and medium sized businesses are striving to find their way out of (read survive) these taxing moments. Improving their marketing game could considerably help these businesses perform better in the marketplace. Thus, it is worthy for them to take a moment to review their marketing plans and reassess some of its key components. 

But first risk assessment

Before I dwell into the discussion of these marketing plan elements and offer some suggestions, I would like to start first with a general advice (I know for some this might seem quite trivial). Do a thorough risk assessment of all the aspects of your business. You already have plenty of things to worry about, so make sure to alleviate further dangers and vulnerabilities in your business operations. 

This is quite broad and varied in scope: check your insurance plan (property and personnel); do an exhaustive check on electrical, plumbing, security, sanitary installations; make sure your manpower is following strict safety and hygiene protocols to protect themselves as well as others; prepare and share with your team a basic but clear crisis response plan (in case of a fire, someone gets injured or sick, sudden compulsory shutdown of business operations, etc.). 

It is always better to be careful and prepared rather than be caught off guard. That said, it is time now to move to a more marketing-centric conversation. I will focus on three important dimensions, namely, the customer value, marketing communication, and social empathy.

Consumer/Customer Value

At the core of any marketing activity is the identification and efficient delivery of value to your customers. While this value notion is known and recognized (intentionally or intuitively) by entrepreneurs and bushiness managers (as well as the average grocery shop owner), the variability of this value is not always considered and addressed. Time and major changes in our living environment – in our case the Coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis – can have significant impact on customers’ needs and value perceptions. Taking a moment to assess potential changes in our customers’ needs, will enable us to deliver better value to them. 

Let’s give few examples: a common value delivered by a snack shop or restaurant is good-tasting sandwiches and platters at reasonable prices. Though these two values remain valid today, the sanitary measures taken by the snack/restaurant in the preparation and delivery of food are now more central than ever (actually more businesses should be sharing real videos and pictures on how they are practically pursuing these standardized health precautions and sanitary procedures). 

The same can be said about advanced online support for computers and electronics outlets (firmware/software updates, hardware troubleshooting, etc.); more forgiving exchange and return policies for fashion stores; or more flexible service hours for professionals offering services (programmers, designers, etc.). These needs and values did exist before, but now they are more imperative in the decision-making process of customers. 

The successful recognition and delivery of compelling customer value will be a core requirement for the following suggestions regarding marketing communication.

Marketing Communication

Proper communication is a key enabler for businesses to market their value proposition, build and sustain relationships with their customers, assess changes in market needs, and evaluate customer satisfaction. As social distancing and evening curfews prevail today, our customers are spending much more time fixated to various kinds of screens. This simplified customer journey (in many cases it is a mere bed-couch-fridge-couch-bed wander) is a golden opportunity for many businesses to reach for and connect with their customers. 

A well planned and executed online campaign can be a very effective and cost-efficient communication tool for us to convey our promised product or service value, strengthen our customer relationships, and listen to what our customers might like to share with us. Depending on the type of business, the options may vary. Search engine marketing, sponsored ads on YouTube and other media streaming services, sponsored ads on social media platforms, as well as ads on news/trends sites (web banner ads) are all viable options that can help us access our digital-focused customers. 

Unfortunately, the pressuring economic conditions in Lebanon are compounded by the complications of foreign currency transfers and credit card restrictions, limiting the ability to pay for these online campaigns especially those based on Google and Facebook ad services. For some business owners, even spending few hundreds or thousands of dollars on online communication seems like a far-fetched choice. 

If this road is completely blocked for you, look for alternatives like SMS marketing (which can make more sense for products and services that appeal to the general publics); better use of your business’s existing digital presence by making it more interactive, interesting and customer-relevant; and possibly leaning on the good old word-of-mouth to broadcast your messages, which of course by today’s standards refers to the prevalent WhatsApp forwarding practices. 

The crucial factor here is to formulate a compelling message – which takes us back to delivering a strong customer value – to make your message go viral.

Social Empathy

In tougher times, understanding and sympathizing with your customer can make a big difference. All of us are facing different kinds of challenges, and as humans we appreciate compassionate and supporting behaviors from individuals and businesses alike. The content and context of empathy can vary depending on the business and the customer, so following are few examples. 

Probably your customer is facing some financial challenges, so new more flexible payment terms and procedures (if and when possible) will be appreciated – e.g. payments in local currency at fixed exchange rates. 

Second, offering price discounts, complimentary gifts or free services are good gests to win your customers’ hearts by giving them more bang for their “now-fewer” bucks – e.g. a free one-month extension of a car insurance plan.

Third, offering support for your local communities is an effective way to show that your care – e.g. donating a small portion of your revenue to a social or medical institution, or providing free essentials or food for families in need). 

What is very crucial here is for you to be genuine, transparent and honest in your approach rather than exploitive and facetious. Most people can and will be able to read and interpret your true intentions. 

Marketing Strategy

Finally, I would l like to point out that it might still be too early for most businesses to change or amend their marketing strategies. The marketing strategy is the backbone of you marketing plans and activities and has a medium to long term scope. 

In essence, marketing strategy is about selecting your target market(s) and positioning your products or services to cater for these targeted customers. This is not to say that there aren’t any changes in our marketing environment; there are plenty. 

The point is that we are witnessing dramatic changes around us, and we lack the clarity on how things will eventually shape up. I believe that the best thing we can do today is to scan and track all the changes relating to our customers (needs, perceptions, lifestyles, habits, purchase and consumption patterns, etc.), our competitive environment (what and how value is being offered to our customers by other firms), as well as the probable changes in the broader business variables (financial, economical, technological, legal). 

Once we have more reliable and relatively consistent readings and interpretations of our marketing parameters, then it would be the appropriate time for us to go back to our marketing blackboard.

Hard time it surely is, nevertheless, we have to believe in our collective ability to face and endure our challenges. For that, we have to be careful, patient, resourceful, supportive, and empathetic; we will prevail. Stay safe!

About the author

Dr. Wael Nuweihed is a Marketing Strategy and Business Process Consultant with 20+ years of corporate marketing experience. He is as well as a Marketing Professor, teaching courses in innovation management, consumer behavior, marketing research, and customer service management. He is currently enrolled in Berytech’s Impact Rise Social Innovation Program as a mentor

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