A global B2B marketer’s take on coping with the COVID-19 crisis

Kemp's global CMO talks about the dos and don'ts he sees for B2B marketing in this time of pandemic

Tony Thompson
Tony Thompson


B2B marketers must adapt to the shifting sands the COVID-19 crisis has presented them by shifting the brand message from one of product and service capability to one of how they’re helping the community solve an immediate pain point. Unfortunately, too many are still pushing sales or self-serving messages.

That’s the view of Kemp chief marketing officer, Tony Thompson, who took the time to answer a range of questions from CMO on how the global pandemic is upending every B2B marketing leader’s strategy, and what he thinks can be done to cope.

Kemp is focused on the application delivery and security space, and provides multi-cloud application delivery and load balancing capabilities for enterprise customers managing cloud and hybrid IT infrastructure. The company boasts of 40,000 deployments globally.

Thompson joined the company 18 months ago and was tasked with accelerating business growth. He has more than 20 years’ experience in B2B marketing, sales and strategy, working across brands such as McAfee, Silverpeak and SS8 Networks.

CMO: To what extent has the coronavirus impacted brand and communications strategy to date?

Tony Thompson: While governments are attempting to stem the tide of what appears to be an impending recession over the coming quarters, most marketing leaders are tearing down, pivoting or recalibrating their marketing plans entirely to adapt to the current situation.

For B2B marketers that rely heavily on in-person interactions to generate new leads and build brand awareness, the fallout of the COVID-19 outbreak has created unchartered territory. Major trade shows and events across nearly every industry have been cancelled on a global scale, and even though some event organisers are shifting to ‘virtual’ events, the relative impact of those types of activities on a company’s brand-building and lead generation efforts is greatly diminished.

Read more: Can virtual events fill the physical conference gap?

We can’t lose sight of the bigger picture. In this case, it’s about remembering the human factor. Lives are at stake and the well-being of people must always come first. While it may seem personally disruptive and inconvenient for our businesses, we as marketers must understand the entire world is dealing with similar or worse pain, suffering, and inconvenience.

Those who adapt well are those shifting the brand message from one of ‘look what my product or service can do’ to one of ‘look how we help the community solve an immediate pain.’ It’s a fine line, but has to start with an assumption that each business prospect we communicate or market to has either been impacted directly by the virus or is closely connected to someone who has been impacted. In either case, it’s about communicating a stance of compassion and assistance, not one of self-serving marketing messages and cold sales pitches.

It seems as though many marketers are failing their brands when it comes to this. I see two to three sales pitches a day on email and LinkedIn where ‘coronavirus’ or ‘COVID-19’ is mentioned in the subject as part of some click-bait hook. This is compromising brand reputation by contributing less-than-relevant ‘noise’ as part of an already overwhelming deluge of tweets, posts, emails, and multimedia broadcasts dominating the screens of potential customers who are actually looking for helpful information.

Are you seeing increased budgets or funding for communications and advertising in light of the coronavirus outbreak?

This is a bit of a double-edged sword. It’s very dependent on the business segment and size of the business. But first it’s about preserving the health of the business during any time of crisis or uncertainty. Business preservation might come in the form of sustaining or maximizing bottom-line profitability.

For others, it’s about minimising a decline in projected top-line sales. In the end, every marketer needs to evaluate the risk-tolerance of the business when it comes to any new investments or re-allocation of budget in a time of crisis.

On the flip side, if your business sells cleaning supplies and masks, like Clorox or 3M; or if you’re a media entertainment provider like Netflix, Hulu, or Apple; or in the case of Kemp, providing essential technical infrastructure that supports a computer network during an increase in remote working; then there is an opportunity to shift the communications and advertising budget to raise awareness.

The big caution here is in how the message is delivered. Remember, this is a very human situation where lives are literally at stake, so the message must come from a stance of compassion and helpfulness, not self-serving interests to meet a sales pipeline number.

What's the core message and position brands should be endeavouring to convey to customers right now, and how are you attempting to deliver it?

Right now, it’s primarily a focus on assurance with customers so they understand they are being supported and we are here to help in this turbulent time of uncertainty. This can mean different things for different businesses.

For example, in technology it’s about assuring the customer technical support personnel are available at need. Grocery outlets and office supply companies would need to communicate the hours of operation and availability of stock.

Most importantly, customers have little patience during this time as they navigate their own business challenges, so the message needs to be about helpfulness and what the vendor is doing to make their life easier at this particular moment.

Are specific channels more reassuring than others in this climate?

It’s all about the big ‘D’. Digital marketing, while nothing new to marketing, is now more important than ever. We use a combination of email and posting to our support forum, while our technical support engineers are enabled to provide direct feedback and updates to customers. There are also tools allowing for in-product communication directly with the end user, which can be very powerful if your customer actively interacts with your product.

The partner channel is also essential if you sell through partners. Use this opportunity to work more closely with those organisations who are facing similar pain and uncertainty about their business. As a conduit directly to the customer, work with your partners to ensure solid alignment on customer messaging and promotional offers that would help target buyers and customers who are also facing tough decisions about their resourcing and expenditures.

We're seeing consumer confidence and trust in organisations, governments and institutions at record lows already, and now coronavirus has hit. How does this lack of trust play into the appropriate or necessary go-to-market approach when it comes to the current situation?

Crisis situations create an enormous opportunity to build trust with your brand. Do you respond to customers swiftly? Do you communicate often with your customers? Do you put their business interests before yours? But more importantly, are you going to delivery on what you say?

Actions speak louder than words, and when a company can surprise its customer with outstanding products and customer service, trust will emerge organically.

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, follow our regular updates via CMO Australia's Linkedin company page, or join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia. 

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