Marketing Lessons Learned During the COVID-19 Pandemic (or, how to market yourself during a global crisis)

For many small businesses, it feels like 2020 pulled the rug out from underneath them. For others, 2020 has been a banner year with sales soaring beyond their expectations. For most of us, 2020 has been an uphill struggle with major hits and slow – but hopefully steady – wins as we’ve all had to learn what operating a business during a pandemic means. For us as marketers, we’ve not only had to adjust our own strategies but also “change the tires mid-race” (so it seems) for dozens of businesses that rely on us to help support their marketing and business growth. Especially when everything seems upside down.

So, what have we learned? A lot… and a little; I’ll explain.

Marketing during a pandemic has taught us a lot about what it means to shift an entire marketing strategy (and business model) overnight, what it takes to grow your business despite constant market and social upheaval, and the type of response that will either help build or weaken your brand presence. But we’ve also learned that the “marketing” game hasn’t really changed.

As in: At all.

Now, before you go get your torches and pitchforks, hear me out. We have learned several lessons that I will outline below. But marketing – as in, the practice of promoting the buying or selling of a product or service – hasn’t really changed during the pandemic. Despite what dozens of unschooled “I have a Twitter account so that makes me an expert” marketers will try to convince you of. Which brings me to my first major lesson:

Get back to the basics

Any first-year marketing student will happily walk in and tell you about the 4-Ps of marketing. Everyone knows about them, right? Well, for those who may have forgotten, the 4-Ps of the marketing mix are Product, Price, Place, and Promotion. Let me put my professor hat on for a moment.

  • Product – This should be obvious, it’s what you sell. But, it also needs to be something that people have a need for. If there is no need, or desire, for what you are selling you are going to have an uphill battle. Ever wonder why IKEA sets the umbrellas next to the cash registers the night before bad weather? They know that there will be a need for their product the next day, so they make sure they’re readily available right before you run out to your car. Genius, right? Nope, they listened to the three other P’s.
  • Price – This variable is more than just the return you want to make once you’ve applied a profit margin to your finished product. Price itself can even be the marketing angle that sets your brand apart. Case in point, in 1995 when Sony was aiming to take market share from other major video game console makers, former President of Sony Playstation Group North America Steve Race walked out on stage at E3 in Chicago and said just one thing: “$299”. The crowd erupted in a standing ovation. Why? Because all of the other manufacturers had already stated their price weeks before. The SEGA Saturn had even announced a retail price of $399 just minutes before Steve took the stage. Race’s best marketing angle? If you can’t beat them on the distribution (Place), the Product itself, or his competitors’ huge Promotional budgets, beat them on Price. Now, who has a SEGA Saturn still taking up shelf space in their home today?
  • Place – This is more than simply where your product is sold. You need to know whether your product(s) are accessible to your core market. If I could create a “golden rule” of marketing in 2020 it would be this: Make sure your customers can access your products. Master this and you’ll have achieved 2020 business nirvana. Ignore this? Risk the fires of 2020 business hell. This year I have seen more businesses struggle to change their Place paradigm than anything else. Run a local fashion store? You already have the stock and shipping systems sorted, so why not create an e-commerce store and go online! Have a cafe or restaurant? Drop the costly retail space (overhead) for now, shift to digital sales, and kill it with Door Dash or Uber Eats. There is no reason to close up shop for good because you couldn’t adjust from a “feet through the door” model. Not sure how to adapt your Place? Ask us, we’re pretty good at that kind of thing.
  • Promotion – Ok, so NOW he’s going to talk about marketing, right? It’s true, a lot of people think that marketing is just the Promotional end of things. The ads that you buy online or the posters you put up around town. If that’s you, I’m glad you’ve read this far. Promotion is the process of identifying the most effective mix of messages, times, Places (again with Place! This guy, I tell ya), marketing budget, and competitive positioning to engage with your core market and encourage sales. Promotional trends change constantly, and it’s the part you literally see all the time, so you’re not in the wrong for thinking this is the most important piece. But it’s just that: one piece of the mix. Without the other 3 Ps, you’re just, well, one P on a big empty marketing plate. Not very tasty. Ok, I’ll stop.

Now that you understand the 4-Ps, your job – and ours – is to regularly review and adjust all four variables of your business’ marketing mix in order to keep step with the changing market tides.

Do you have a Product that people typically want but can’t access due to COVID? If you’re in the tourism business, for example, your Product may not resonate with your traditional customer base, but by simply adjusting your Place and Promotional tactics to encourage local travellers to book local staycations you may just weather the storm.

Or, your product may have to change altogether. One of our amazing clients, Axiom Group, couldn’t simply stop making plastic products but they could shift to producing PPE face shields. Six months and multiple global contracts later, they are not only alive and well but thriving with a new product line and a stronger knowledge base should the worst happen yet again.

So, the first lesson is this: Getting back to the basics of your 4-Ps is job #1 for businesses trying to market themselves during COVID. Is your Product one that the market is looking for or in need of? Is your Price set at a level that the market won’t only bear, but will be excited about? Are you selling in the right Place? Or, looking at it from another angle, has your audience shifted their Place to somewhere else? If so, follow! Finally, does your Promotion need an overhaul?

If your business is struggling with 2020, get back to the basics and analyze not only your Promotional tactics, but your Product, Price, and Place in the market. There might be more opportunities than you think.

Pivot if you need to, double down if you don’t

Permit me a moment to brag about a couple of our incredible clients. Not to celebrate our own work – although I’ll probably do that at some point – but to give credit where credit is due.

Axiom Group tackles global PPE shortages

I’ve already mentioned Axiom Group, but what I didn’t tell you is that their primary business was the production of thermoplastic injection molded car parts (say that five times fast) for major vehicle manufacturers like GM and Tesla. So, as a just-in-time manufacturer, what do you do when the world stops buying cars? Take stock of your strengths and pivot to enter a new market.

Much has been said online about the ability to pivot as being a major differentiator between those businesses that have struggled this year and those that have thrived. But what does that mean? To us, a pivot doesn’t mean changing your business entirely. It means looking at what resources and skills you have at hand to produce what the market has a need for. For many breweries, that meant producing alcohol hand sanitizer. For Axiom, it meant developing another plastic product that a LOT of people were willing to spend money on. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Side-bar, if you want to buy your own they are available here.

The second lesson is this: If you are still struggling to stay afloat, have you considered making a pivot? If you need help ideating, we’re here to support you. Or, here are several ideas to get you going:

  • Sell houses? Skip the open house and offer your clients exclusive virtual ZOOM walk-throughs of potential new properties.
  • Bakery or restaurant owner? How about producing ready-to-cook/bake meal kits for busy families to buy and make at home?
  • Music or video producer? Take a cue from our good buddy Jef Gibbons and start teaching people on YouTube how to do what you do and then monetize it to develop a new revenue stream.
  • International event speaker? Offer companies an exclusive innovation and creativity training session via online video conference.

For those who already have a solid Product, Place, and Price to work with, focusing on Promotion may be the key.

The DVBA goes old-school

This summer, the Downtown Victoria Business Association (DVBA) wasn’t lacking in the first three P’s, with one of the most popular local tourist destinations in BC, but businesses were still struggling as customers were wary of shopping downtown. So, they doubled down on their local marketing, launching an incredible original 80’s themed marketing campaign (ok, maybe a little bragging) that encouraged locals to shop in Downtown Victoria as a way of “pledging” towards an old-school virtual telethon with a chance for customers to win their purchases each week.

The campaign has garnered (so far) over a quarter-million dollars in “pledges” for purchases at Downtown Victoria businesses, along with the support of major local celebrities such as composer and producer David Foster, Olympian Silken Laumann, comedian Ivan Decker and many more. Lesson learned?

Lesson three: If you take a look at your business and everything looks strong but you’re still struggling, consider upping your marketing efforts to remind your customers that you are there and why they love you.

Read the room

If I never hear another car commercial saying “We’ve been there for you, now be there for us” it will be too soon.

Yes, we understand that this year was hard, but leaning into all the negativity just makes it that much harder, and your message can get lost. In a recent article from Drum Magazine, Mars researcher and neuroscientist Sorin Patilinet says “studies show that leaning into negativity often leads to bad results.” In short, you can risk associating the negative emotions and experiences tied to COVID-19 with your brand. It’s called mental flagging and it’s something that – when attempted – needs to be done very carefully. You don’t want your customers to think of fear, anxiety, and stress if your brand is typically known for a positive experience.

Case in point, when Walt Disney World launched their re-opening campaign, the ads received mixed reviews as it started by highlighting the emptiness of the parks, echoing the feelings of millions of people who felt lonely and scared throughout the pandemic. Take a look for yourself, the latest Disney ads were… weird to watch. Mixing negative emotions with a typically positive brand just doesn’t sit well. Side lesson? If Disney, the consummate story-telling masters, struggle to get it right, don’t try it yourself.

Patilinet’s advice? “If there is a negative emotion, it has to be resolved very quickly or be a set up for something to laugh at.. “If not, you’re going to lose a lot of people along the way.”

Our fourth lesson: read the room, please. I’m looking at you, BMW.


So what’s next for 2020?

What do these changes during COVID mean for the future of business and marketing? How will it impact the upcoming fall season and holidays?

We don’t have all the answers, but as a marketing agency, we’re uniquely positioned to help you analyze your Product, Price, Place, and Promotional tactics and design a marketing strategy that will properly leverage your marketing mix and dollars. Book a 30-minute consultation so that we can learn more about you and your business and determine how we can best help you.

So what are you waiting for? Contact us today!

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