Gini Dietrich

Five Guiding Principles for Marketing During a Crisis

By: Gini Dietrich | March 31, 2020 | 
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Market during a crisisThese are unprecedented times we are in.

While we’re all struggling to make ends meet, business does have to go on.

How do you know what is appropriate and what is not?

I have a friend who said the other day:

I feel so grateful to have a job right now, but when your job is marketing and no one wants to hear from you, it’s a real challenge.

Amen, sister. 

The good news is you can still market. The bad news is someone will find it offensive and light you up.

You have to get past that and know you’re helping people, even if some are offended.

There are some guiding principles by which to live as you decide what and how to market during a crisis.

I’m Only Human

As it turns out, I am human. I really, really hate it when I realize that. It’s pretty disappointing. Alas. It is what it is.

I had a very human moment last week when I told my Agency Leadership podcast co-host, Chip Griffin, that we’d lost 50% of our revenue in 12 days.

He asked me what I was doing about it. I was pretty down in the dumps, feeling sorry for myself.

I said I didn’t want to market right now because everyone is in the same boat and no one has any money. 

He said to me:

Gini, we have to get back to business or no one will make it. You’re selling hope and a dream, not snake oil. Don’t be afraid to market. Go back to the episode you and I just recorded about finding new business opportunities in all of this.

It was the kick in the butt I needed.

He had to remind me that I fully support marketing right now when I had my weak moment last week. I’m only human! OK? 

I know it feels weird to market during a crisis—and some of you may have bosses or clients who are dictating what you say and how you say it, no matter the climate.

I am going to give you five guiding principles to help you figure out what will work and what needs to stay on the shelf.

What Is the Context?

The first question you have to ask yourself before you do any marketing is, “Is this campaign/message/email/content right, given the current context?”

I know this is really challenging and things change day by day so it’s hard to say, “This is good now” and have it not be good 48 hours later, when it goes out.

It’s hard to even know what to discuss on this podcast because it takes a couple of days to produce once I’ve recorded.

Do the best that you can do.

Stay up with the news and know what is happening in your or your client’s local markets.

For instance, as of this recording, they’re trying to decide what to do if you live in New York or New Jersey when it comes to leaving the state.

So offering an isolated home away from home to people who live in those states is probably a bad idea. 

In Chicago, you wouldn’t want to market your lakefront hoverboard tours because they’ve just closed the lakefront and other areas we go for our exercise. 

Those are extreme examples, of course, but they illustrate the importance of knowing what’s going on locally and putting things in context before you market there.

Does It Still Make Sense?

Along the same lines of putting things in context, you have to ask yourself if it still makes sense, even just a day later. 

I was talking with a girlfriend this past weekend and she said:

I make a decision about my business and get ready to execute a plan when everything changes again. This is insane!

I know, girlfriend. I know. 

Just because you have a plan and messaging has been approved and you are ready to go does not mean it still makes sense in the current environment.

We’re in this crazy situation where things don’t just change daily; they often change hourly.

That makes it incredibly hard to plan and get anything done.

It also tests your crisis management skills like nothing else—which is both a blessing and a curse.

We launched the PESO Model Certification with Syracuse University right before everything blew up.

It was either the best or the worst timing—time will only tell.

But, as work from home and then shelter in place orders were issued, we knew the marketing and promotion of it no longer made sense.

Sure, we’ll be able to get to business as usual around it, but we stopped the communication around it for a few weeks.

You have to ask yourself the same thing: does it still make sense?

If the answer is no, don’t completely shelf everything you’ve done.

You’ll be able to come back to it. You may just have to take a hiatus for a little bit.

Is the Creative Appropriate?

Let’s say the context is good and the messaging still makes sense so you have a green light to keep going.

Now you need to ask yourself if the creative is appropriate.

In the Spin Sucks Community, people have been sharing creative that misses the mark.

From McDonald’s separating its Golden Arches in ads in Brazil to LadyBoss showing an image of a woman using their protein powder while hooked up to an IV, it’s a strange, strange world out there.

People are even upset over images of people together during this time of isolation.

Though social media, particularly, is meant to be fun and engaging, you must ask yourself of every piece of creative you go to publish, “Is this appropriate right now?”

We’ve stopped using images in our content for now—and are solely using graphics.

While something might seem innocuous to you is not to someone else.

While an image of a woman in bed hooked up to an IV might be appropriate to show the power of one’s protein powder in normal times, it’s definitely not right now.

You don’t have to overanalyze or overthink everything you do, but do take a step back for a second and ask yourself what is the context, does it still make sense, and is the creative appropriate in this exact moment?

Which Products or Services Do You Support Right Now?

The next guideline is to ask yourself if there are products or services that are better served with your marketing right now?

For instance, if you offer crisis communications, now is the time to call clients to see how you can help, even if it’s just an extra brain to help think through options.

One of our largest clients was so wrapped up in making minute-by-minute decisions, the CEO didn’t think to call us.

I call him every morning, first thing, to talk through any changes, what the new messaging might be, and how to discuss it internally.

Many of the auto manufacturers are using their plants to manufacture medical supplies. Craft breweries are making hand sanitizer. 

There are many ways you can shift what the marketing messages are right now, even if it’s away from your core product or service.

Sure, it takes some creativity and ingenuity—which is in short supply for many of us right now—but it can, and should, be done.

And, if your executives or clients aren’t thinking this way yet, you can certainly provide ideas.

There is a lot going on in the world that you can modify, steal, or copy for your own purposes.

Perhaps there has been an idea on the back burner that can come forward now.

Many of my agency owner clients are talking about how to provide their intellectual property and process online to clients.

This is my specialty so, while it’s not typically something I teach, I’m finding opportunity in the discussions we’re having.

You can do the same.

You know what journalists want.

Talk to people in customer service or in sales.

Figure out what customers and prospects want. You know what they’re saying in social.

Pay close attention and read between the lines.

Then talk to the powers that be about switching your marketing messages to support products or services that make sense in this moment in time.

How Can Our Brand Be Helpful?

When everything went sideways and people had to figure out how to work from home, we immediately shifted our content to helping you figure that out

Then, when isolation set in, we shifted to helping you maintain an optimistic outlook, which admittedly is NOT easy to do.

You want to do the same, particularly with your owned media.

How can your brand be helpful right now?

People will never remember what you did, but they will always remember how you made them feel. 

Do you want to be McDonald’s or Lady Boss or do you want to be the auto manufacturers or the craft brewers?

Do you want to be a brand that helped selflessly during your customers’s time of need? 

In all of this—context, whether or not it still makes sense, if the creative is appropriate, and deciding which products or services to support with marketing—how your brand can be helpful is the most important. 

Are your customers struggling with how to do their own marketing? Help them.

Are they struggling with how to work from home and homeschool kids? Help them.

Do they live somewhere where the outdoors have been closed? Help them.

(That’s a slight embellishment, but I feel like Chicago has closed the outdoors.)

Are they trying to figure out the CARE Act, the federal stimulus loan program? Help them. 

Whatever your brand can do to be helpful is the most important thing you can market during a crisis.

Yes, I know (all too well) that it doesn’t make the organization money, but it will in the long run.

There isn’t much we can do about short-term revenue or cash. It is what it is.

But we CAN be helpful and kind and generous. 

People will remember how you made them feel when this is over with.

Remember that.

Guiding Principles to Market During a Crisis

As you begin to market again—or shift what you’ve been doing to something new—ask yourself the five questions posed here today:

  1. What is the context?
  2. Does this still make sense?
  3. Is the creative appropriate?
  4. Do we shift which products or services we support?
  5. How can we be helpful?

If you can answer all five of those questions, and tweak your messaging to match, you can market in this environment.

And, if you need extra brains for brainstorming, ideas, or general venting and you’re not already part of the free Spin Sucks Community, get there now.

It is, after all, the best community for communicators on the internet. 

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She also has run, built, and grown an agency for the past 14 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.