The 10 commandments of marketing in COVID times

Duncan Wakes-Miller

Duncan is general manager of marketing at Audika for Australia and New Zealand, a specialist hearing healthcare retailer with over 400 hearing clinics and a large omni-channel contact centre of client care specialists. A pioneer of marketing strategy and digital innovation, Duncan has successfully managed some of Australia’s iconic brands through transformational change. His experience includes senior marketing and sales strategy roles at Dell Computer, Monster.com, 3 Mobile and the Australian Rugby Union. Prior to his current role, Duncan was founder and managing partner of one of Australia’s most progressive strategy and creative agencies.

Developing new effective strategies as we navigate these uncertain times provides a good test for marketers and business leaders. It’s a challenge, I would suggest, that not only requires innovation but importantly, a good dollop of old-fashioned common sense and the ability to keep your feet firmly on the deck.

Reflecting on our current situation in the clutches of the global coronavirus pandemic, I have been wrestling with what key things leaders need to be cognisant of when marketing in COVID-19 times.

Without any religious parallels, but with the aim to elevate them in importance, I have called my list ‘the 10 commandments of marketing in COVID times’. I’ve revisited my original thinking on these principles on marketing in tough times from a previous article I wrote a few years ago to see if these ideas still hold up to the market conditions we find ourselves in today. I’m glad I did because it made me feel enthused about the opportunities the future offers and helped me with a fresh frame of reference for decision-making.

Commandment 1: Remain steadfastly loyal to core values, without exception  

There’s an old saying, ‘A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something’. This is not the time to waver. A brand’s core values should be closely embraced during tough times, despite the obvious commercial pressures for compromise.

Whether it’s communicating your hygiene protocols, customer safety, how you manage employees or personal protective equipment standards, all can reflect your brand’s DNA, and everything must be done to uphold its integrity. Do not compromise quality, transparency, service or whatever it is that sets you apart. Get the tone of voice right, too. Transgressions will be remembered, but the context will not. Rigid adherence to the principles that define you will see them become even more entrenched, not only internally but externally.

There are many brands making neat moves in COVID-19 times. One that caught my eye was Audible, Amazon’s audio book company, which has made a range of titles in its library free so parents might have another way to keep kids occupied while working from home.

Brands such as Coca-Cola, Audi and McDonalds have also used owned media channels to add weight to the advice of governments on social distancing. Guinness created a lovely St. Patrick’s Day message about unity and hope.

The counter to this is when companies or individuals act outside the realms of integrity, thereby exposing themselves to a high degree of collateral brand damage. This can be polarising. The President of the United States’ behaviour in COVID is perhaps the most notable example. Perhaps the less said about that the better.

Commandment 2: Embrace external relationships – customers, suppliers and innovators  

It is true retaining existing customers will always be easier than acquiring new ones. Get this wrong at your peril. Get it right and advocacy will flow.

It’s a truth applying in equal measure to both suppliers and distributors. All too often, relationships are sacrificed in the face of economic hardship. But this is an opportunity to create advocates for any brand, business, or company. Great relationships make for brand champions and being in the COVID trenches is the time to be building great relationships.

A great example is Ford Motor Company, which on its path to become the ‘word’s most trusted company’ has put competition aside. It’s joined with GE Healthcare and 3M to assist in production of health equipment including respirators for those struggling to breathe with coronavirus. Where will that collaboration take these businesses? We don’t yet know. Most likely, it’ll be a positive place.

Genuine trust and the emergence and importance of partnership initiatives in business today represent a tangible economic advantage and a win-win for all. A core principle of mine that has served me well is to maintain a close relationship with our partners through thick and thin.

Going above and beyond for customers in tough times will not be forgotten. But when customers help business, that is rather special. I love the idea created by a couple of Australian innovators called Local Rain Check. It is a not-for-profit initiative helping connect businesses to their customers in these strange times. By paying it forward and purchasing a Rain Check, you support local businesses and in turn, have something to look forward to. It’s a wonderful idea of the community supporting local. What could commercial entities learn from this type of grass roots innovation?


Commandment 3: Understand value perceptions have changed

This simple value equation is a wonderful reminder of what is really important. Value is not the same as price (despite what many would have us believe). Instead, ‘value’ is a function of ‘perceived benefit’ and ‘price’.

Of course, a raising or lowering of price can directly influence value, but far more effective, and indeed more economically sustainable, is the manipulation of perceived benefit. While high-priced status brands are the most obvious manifestation of this, the underlying principle holds true for any consumer transaction.

With all the data and insights we have at our disposal, there is no excuse for not understanding the value customers want, and importantly, what they don’t want. A subtle adjustment in the perception of value a brand provides can reap huge rewards in terms of commercial gain if clearly and consistently communicated. In the same way Australian bushfires create new growth, COVID times are creating a fertile ground for new robust value propositions.

Commandment 4: Make price a strategy, not a tactic  

In boardrooms across the world, debates are being had about how to accelerate a return to some form of normalcy. Price is an easy and obvious lever to pull to stimulate sales revenue. I would suggest one would be wise to make price a strategy, not a tactic.

Discounting is not only defensive, but also self-defeating. Unless you ‘own’ the category, it is a battle that can’t be won. It might prop up the value equation in the short term, but will compromise long-term margins.

Consider price in the context of the value equation, never in isolation. Price can be deployed strategically. Is there an opportunity to create a new market segment? Does an unmet need exist? Or how else might the value equation be reframed?

If you want a tomorrow, I strongly advocate today is the time to add value into the equation and consider carefully how to hold price position for sustainable business. Move carefully, strategically and be prepared to be bold.

The fast-food restaurant marketers of ‘golden arches’ fame are masters of using price as a strategy, and one we are all perhaps too frequently made aware of. For example, the restaurant’s traffic strategy in summer months and weight of media spend behind the $0.99 ice cream suggests this price tactic supports an overall commercial strategic imperative in a simple and effective way.  Can this example (and there are others) of strategic pricing from the past inspire us to reframe our thinking on price at a time when we need to drive sales and importantly, maintain margins?  

Commandment 5: Use creativity and brand as weapons  

Building the brand and generating sales revenue are not mutually exclusive objectives. The combination of creative excellence and commercial relevance can’t be rivalled. In fact, brand equity and emotional engagement can powerfully defend higher prices in the context of the value equation previously discussed. Creativity, after all, remains the last and most enduring competitive advantage.

Timing is everything right now and will be tomorrow, too. Some ads can be cringeworthy at the wrong time. Too strong a sales pitch can also be off-putting.

A nice example of how creative and brand can provide cut-through is Ikea’s ad campaign, which encouraged people to reconnect with their homes. The ad is right on brand, relevant to the target audience and the mission of Ikea without being too straight forward. It neatly encouraged people to stay at home. The core idea was beautifully executed and perfectly fitting the mood of the time it went to air. Social media ensued with among other things ideas on how to rearrange your home for kids in IKEA stylised drawings. Big ideas like this will never go out of fashion.

Harnessing the zeitgeist is another opportunity for marketers. The Couch Choir concept originating in Australia is a lovely example of how COVID times have drawn people together. Marketers take note.


Commandment 6: Market first, share second, volume third  

Conventional wisdom suggests defending market share in tough times will result in volume increases when the market upturn arrives. This is sound in theory, but very outmoded thinking in today’s climate.

The current downturn sees more data available than ever before, greater and increasing media fragmentation, the relentless rise of new social channels and growing question marks over traditional segmentation models. Never has there been a better time to not only redefine target markets, but also the nature and number of market segments that comprise them.

McKinsey and Company was correct in its assertion that, ‘the use of big data will become a key basis of competition and growth for individual firms. From the standpoint of competitiveness and the potential capture of value, all companies need to take big data seriously’.

Data can fill in the colours of the page and help explain segments and models. However, the impact of the COVID pandemic has been seismic in fragmenting these models with wide reaching socioeconomic impact.

Sex toy sales are up, especially in countries in lockdown, recreational bicycle sales are trending up (beyond what you’d expect even at Christmas) in markets under partial lockdown as people get out and about. Standing desks and desktop monitors became in high demand as people started to build out their home offices to work from home. None of this could have been predicted with data.

These are not necessarily problems, but rather disruptions that require a healthy amount of fresh thinking, new ideas and the requirement for innovations as yet unknown to flourish and fulfil unmet need. Out of crisis emerges new opportunity.

Commandment 7: Elevate employee initiatives  

In turbulent times, our internal emphasis needs to be as important as our external one. Employees will typically be feeling unsure, unsettled and in many cases, relocated. Morale and motivation might be down, with the corresponding impact on output. Employee engagement initiatives have now been transcended by employee wellness initiatives and quite rightly so.

Mental health impacts are not insignificant. According to the KFF Health Tracking Poll, more than seven in 10 Americans say their lives have been disrupted ‘a lot’ or ‘some’ by the coronavirus outbreak. Breaking that down further, women appear to be suffering more than men. Women were 16 per cent more likely to say that coronavirus-related worry or stress had had a negative impact on their mental health, compared to men (53 per cent vs. 37 per cent). 

The pandemic has reached in on almost all aspects of life and is taking its toll on mental health on a massive scale. In Forbes Magazine it is reported the mental health burden is increasing for just about everyone. How this will affect us all for years to come is something we need to be conscious of and without doubt, act with greater awareness of than before.

In our business, due to social distancing requirements, we temporarily relocated a large number of employees in our customer service contact centre from working in a single location to a tightly knit remote group of individuals. The transformation was not easy and would have been harder without purposeful leadership focus and one-on-one coaching support to manage this rapid change. Each daily team meeting via video call had an elevated importance in terms of employee wellness ensuring we moved as a purposeful collective.

Our teams utilise Workplace by Facebook to connect our whole business, which greatly helped make collaboration faster and easier. Utilisation of live video, groups and chat brought people together and strengthened our culture. Initiatives were rapidly deployed and fast feedback helped shape programs and improve performance.

A number of employee- led initiatives have now become standard business practice, most notably celebrating success as it happens, shout outs to on-brand activity and reinforcing doing all the right things. This, in combination with clear and consistent communication from the top down, has proven invaluable.

I believe a positive outcome from COVID times is not just the changing perceptions and recognition of the importance of mental health in the workplace, but also the support and acknowledgement of employee initiatives in that regard.

Commandment 8: Redefine ROI  

Never will marketing budgets be under greater scrutiny than in COVID times. How we model and plan our budgets will require greater scrutiny.

The inevitable pressure will be to reduce costs wherever possible and justify any investment decision. But beware of ‘top-down’ or ‘blanket budgeting’, such as an across-the-board percentage cut. This might result in certain projects, initiatives or even media channels no longer being viable options at all. Better to plan from scratch with an understanding of the funds available, than to attempt delivery of an earlier plan without the required budget to do so effectively.

Furthermore, while it follows that a revised plan and reviewed investment strategy will demand a redefining of the expected returns, I would argue this environment of budget austerity also presents the potential for unconventional solutions and strategic innovation.

A great advantage of Australia’s generally strong economy is the safety it represents. However, some would argue that the downside is that it has merely created a more conservative and risk-averse environment that is stifling innovation. The good news is that it is now both an expectation and the responsibility of marketers to lead in digging us out of this hole and building for the future. In a good way, creativity has new licence. It is our jobs as marketers to think differently, be bolder and challenge the norms with unconventional wisdom to deliver better outcomes.

Commandment 9: Panic slowly  

Panic can create tunnel vision, encourage poor decision-making and ultimately create more harm than good. All too often, the rally cry is to ‘focus on the issue,’ at the expense of all else.

In our war against Coronavirus, I’m drawn to a military analogy an old friend of mine told me. No environment is more likely to induce panic than the battlefield. But it is for the soldier to ‘focus’ and the officer to consider all available options. The officer never carries a rifle, as it is not for him to be ‘focused’ on only one target.

Tough times demand a need for a heightened sense of awareness, as a conscious marketer is a more effective one. Ask yourself whether you react or respond to sticky situations. The marketing battlefield requires you to be an officer, not a soldier. An officer that deploys all the latest technology, data and competitive intelligence to win.

Commandment 10: Act today, but plan for tomorrow  

It is true the future is not what it used to be, nor is it some distant idea or notion. In fact, so exponential is the rate of change, tomorrow will arrive very quickly indeed. You will need to be prepared.

A few years ago, when I was working at Dell Computer, we had a phrase, ‘Don’t drive using the rear-view mirror.’ It couldn’t be truer today.  

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater though. To be an effective strategic leader, I believe we need to both harness the past and embrace the future. The social media and data revolution represent an irresistible opportunity. If you don’t relish the unfamiliarity and seize upon the uncertainty of this moment in time to make a difference, then be prepared for your business to find someone else who does. This new ship doesn’t sail on yesterday’s wind.

In summary, here are the 10 commandments of marketing in COVID times:

  1. Remain steadfastly loyal to core values, without exception
  2. Embrace external relationships – customers, suppliers and distributors
  3.  Understand value perceptions have changed
  4. Make price a strategy, not a tactic
  5. Use creativity and brand as weapons
  6. Market first, share second, volume third
  7. Elevate the importance of employee initiatives
  8. Redefine ROI
  9. Panic slowly
  10. Act today, plan for tomorrow.

Tags: brand strategy, CMO role, marketing strategy, marketing leadership, COVID-19 coronavirus

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