Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

The world is seemingly immersed in crises, with companies having to deal with various market shocks as the new norm. While companies need to be flexible and agile to respond appropriately to these shocks, marketing could be the invaluable asset that steers the company through a crisis.  

Perhaps a vital question to ask is just how crisis-ready businesses are in general. In a PwC global crisis survey two years ago, 95% of respondents said they expected a crisis to hit within the next two years. Yet when the pandemic struck, more than 30% of respondents to this year’s survey (including 73 countries and 29 industries) admitted to not having a designated core crisis response team in place.

That companies institute a core crisis team with immediate effect is an imperative, given the relentless crises – environmental, socioeconomic and political – that engulf the world today. What is also becoming clear is that marketing has a place within this core crisis team. According to Deloitte’s 2021 Global Marketing Trends Report, in times of uncertainty people look to brands for help. Companies that can meet their needs in the moment will be rewarded with their business. 

Organisations that appear to flounder in their response to a crisis, or which fail to quickly reassure their numerous stakeholders in a crisis situation, may suffer serious damage to their reputation, key relationships and ongoing business. Companies must therefore prepare to engage proactively with their stakeholders to ensure they respond swiftly and appropriately. Marketing provides scope to persevere through and bounce back from a crisis.

In practical terms, however, most marketers are working to a well-defined marketing plan, driven by a budget that was locked down months ago, says customer experience specialist Anita Brearton in CMS Newswire. While small shifts may be easy, when big things happen like a major product failure or a supply chain disruption due to civil unrest, a course correction is required.

For marketers, it’s critical to understand what is at stake when a crisis hits, and to adapt accordingly. In the anxiety and confusion that a crisis will bring, customers are going to adopt – either by choice or through necessity – different behaviours and buying patterns. Depending on the crisis, some may curb or postpone buying, while others could resort to panic purchasing. Some may simply no longer have access to certain products. This means that when communicating with customers during a crisis, often the usual best practices, customer “personas” and established processes cannot be relied upon.

As a first step, it’s crucial for marketers operating in a crisis situation to initially pause all scheduled content. This allows for concerted information gathering and a swift assessment of the situation. Following this, a review of all scheduled messaging should be undertaken to ascertain what amendments might be required in light of the current circumstances. Should new messaging be necessary, message outlines should be compiled along with a definition of how progress will be measured.

Hitting pause on messaging (albeit briefly) is especially important across the company’s social media accounts, given that as the crisis unfolds, customers will turn to social media to learn more. A Forbes article suggests that globally, 36% of Facebook consumers look to the platform for information, followed by YouTube (21%), WhatsApp (16%) and Twitter (12%). According to World Wide Worx there are about 27-million South African Facebook users. How a brand appears to respond and support its communities via social media should remain top of mind for marketers during a crisis.

Importantly, messaging must answer the immediate concerns and fears that the customer may have. Be aware that, as global consulting firm McKinsey highlights, a crisis has a life cycle with different phases (resolve, resilience, return, reimagination and reform) which are accompanied by various emotional states and needs. Marketers should anticipate a fluidity of messaging that reflects the customer’s varying needs throughout the crisis. Messaging must be tactful, honest and sympathetic, refraining from exploiting the crisis for self-promotion. While gentle humour has successfully been used in some crisis management campaigns, marketers would need to apply extreme caution when considering doing so.

Further to messaging, marketers should interrogate whether their existing channels remain optimal for sharing information with the customer. As security expert Joshua Skule says, in times of violent protest, for example, there is a need for a formalised plan that accommodates alternative communication methods should various digital and mobile systems be disrupted. As dire as this may sound, crisis marketing should include all eventualities.

Companies cannot predict when a crisis will occur. But having a core crisis team in place along with a clearly defined communications strategy and crisis plan will inform the actions that must urgently follow. Marketing as a crucial link between the company and its clients can be one the company’s most valuable assets in a time of crisis.

Dale Hefer, author and award-winning entrepreneur, is CEO of the Nedbank IMC, Africa’s foremost integrated marketing conference aimed at local and African marketers.

This year’s event will be held on July 29 and will feature 18 top local and international speakers delivering hard-hitting and practical insights for anyone involved in any discipline of marketing. For more information on the Nedbank IMC go to Nedbank IMC Conference.

The big take-out:

Marketing can act as a crucial link between the company and its clients in a time of crisis.

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