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Marketing During a Crisis: What to Do and Why (2022)

Times get tough for businesses even without the threat of a crisis, read on to explore why it’s important to continue your marketing efforts in the face of crises, how to develop your own strategy and examples of different brand responses to one.


While it may seem better to ask ‘which specific crisis?’ than deal with hypotheticals, there are lessons that can be learned from past and present crises that can help brands navigate the yet to be confirmed recession and other potential crises on the horizon. This article is an in-depth exploration into crisis marketing, from definition to development of your own crisis marketing plan and everything in between.

What is crisis marketing?

In your business experience, you may have come across the etymology that the word ‘crisis’ in Chinese is formed with the characters for danger and opportunity. However, the second component is more akin to “change point” due to having multiple meanings both within ‘crisis’ and in isolation.

Take the Covid-19 pandemic for instance, a global crisis that we still feel the effects of two and a half years (give or take) later. How has your life, both personal and professional, changed?

A business should proactively explore their options during a crisis instead of thinking a solution will suddenly appear, or that things will just blow over. One thing is for sure, freezing your marketing budgets is the wrong way to go.

As the name suggests, crisis marketing leads a business out of a difficult period or situation by using marketing tactics to secure the future growth of the company.

With crises comes fluctuations that become more apparent in consumer behaviours and the market becomes increasingly volatile. Marketing in a crisis landscape is hard, we’re not here to sugar coat it. By developing your marketing strategy, and being open to changes, you set yourself up for success rather than the worst-case scenario.

While organisations may feel uncomfortable having a voice during periods of uncertainty, with these times comes the potential to evolve your marketing strategy and provide content and advertising that consumers can relate to, and engage with.

While it is understandable that an initial gut-reaction to any social or economic crisis is to often pause marketing; we’re here to tell you why this is not a sensible idea.

Why is crisis marketing important?

The top level answer to this question is that your business needs to stand out from the crowd.

This is the case for any business, at any time. However, crises amplify this need. Continuing to invest in your digital marketing efforts while your competitors are not, means that your recovery period can be substantially shorter, putting you in a stronger position post-crisis.

A global survey of 317 board members represented companies from five major industries (Financial Services, Consumer and Industrial Products, Technology/Media/ Telecommunications, Life Science and Healthcare, and Energy and Resources) was conducted by Deloitte “A Crisis of Confidence” stated that 30% of board members that experienced a past reputational crisis through rumours and bad PR, said their brands recovered from one in less than a year with the help of a communications strategy, and through internal and external marketing.

Should I have a plan in place already?

Most definitely.

Aside from being able to maintain your brand’s reputation, crisis marketing plans give companies the opportunity to adapt and change their strategies to suit the different priorities of their consumers.

What type of crisis should I plan for?

It would be unrealistic to expect a business to plan for every emergency that could rear its ugly head. However, you could plan for more common disruptions to your business. Maybe ones you have experienced in the past, or by doing some market research, you could find out what can specifically affect your business and how it operates.

This doesn’t mean that you only plan for one crisis, we do recommend taking the time to plan your crisis marketing. Do your research, and really dig deep so you stand the best chance of coming out on the other side victorious.

What types of crises are there?

We’ve given a somewhat brief overview of what a crisis is, but there are many varieties – which is probably impossible to list them all. Following our research for this article, the two examples below are what we feel would be the most likely crises to happen that would affect any business.

  1. Economical
  2. In the face of economic downturn companies look for ways to cut costs, one of the immediate considerations is the marketing budget. However companies who curtail their marketing efforts during an event like recession will actually end up jeopardising their long-term market share. Instead of focusing all of your efforts on adding new prospects to the funnel, think about your loyal consumers.

    The image below shows that repeat customers have a 65% chance of converting, compared to new prospects. Being able to show appreciation to repeat customers through targeted techniques such as personalised email marketing, means that your business will be at the forefront of their minds.


    statistics of repeat customers graphic


  3. Social media
  4. The rise in popularity of social media means a different platform to expose bad behaviour from a business or employee of that business.


    A social media crisis is when there’s a major change in the online conversation about your brand


    One minute your engagement is at an all time high, a minute later your engagement rate is higher, but for all the wrong reasons. Online trolls can make matters worse, but being able to correctly manage a social media crisis can make you come out the other side victorious and respected.

    As social media can be a fickle arena where hate can spread like wildfire, you need to react promptly and ideally within 24 hours. It’s a good idea to practice social listening in order to find out what people are talking about, and what issues are fleeting or here to stay.

Is there a process I should follow?

Being faced with a crisis, or several, is sure to make any business owner worried. While this is a perfectly valid reaction, what comes next will define you. Humans have an intrinsic fight or flight instinct, where a perception of threat activates the sympathetic nervous system and triggers an acute stress response that prepares the body to fight or flee.

Before we get to the meaty “how to develop a crisis marketing strategy” section of this article, we want to make you aware of a simple process that can act as a starting point for any crisis marketing strategy.


crisis marketing process graphic

Step 1: Analysis

Analysing is a big part of many marketing strategies, so why would it be any different for crisis marketing?

When conducting your analysis, take advantage of tools such as Hootsuite insights where you can find out what your target audience want and look for through social listening.

It’s not enough to see what people are searching for, but getting your brand’s tone right is just as important – you don’t want your message to fall flat. Audit your own brand to understand your USPs, assess your core audience demographic and existing consumer perceptions, and (of course) find out what your competitors are doing.

Don’t neglect your usual analysis techniques, as the fundamentals still apply here. Develop workable estimates of total potential market, potential market value, reachable market, most important market segments, and the target market segments and distribution channels you would usually use under more ‘normal’ circumstances.


Marketing analysis process graphic

Step 2: Preparation

Possibly the most time consuming part of the process, the cliché “preparation is key” is very true here. This stage brings together all of the information you and your employees will have collected from “analysis”. It sets up all of the planned actions, and creates the governance your company would need to use during a crisis.

The digital world is extremely fast-paced, and customer expectations are higher than pre-digital marketing due to the demand for immediate answers, and the expectation that brands should have full transparency and open communications.

Step 3: Response

  1. Be quick
  2. By quickly responding to the crisis, your marketing activity enables you to control the narrative. If there’s lack of clarity with the messaging, your organisation can come across insincere and dishonest.

  3. Be accurate
  4. Try to avoid personal opinions on the matter at hand, use indisputable facts when the opportunity comes. Remember that due to the time pressure a crisis presents, there is risk of inaccurate information that can circulate the web.

  5. Be consistent
  6. Broadcasting a consistent message is instrumental to delivering the right story. An inconsistent message can be downright confusing for consumers, and reflects badly on your business. Make sure your marketing policies are known by all employees, and reiterate its importance to the marketing team and those who share content online.

Step 4: Recovery

And breathe, the recovery stage signifies post-crisis, however there is still work to be done. You may have handled the crisis very well, but you have a certain responsibility to continue to let consumers know the current situation. It’s also important to analyse the crisis period and evaluate what happened, what went well and what could be improved if a similar situation arose.

What practices should I avoid?

As a crisis hits it’s important to be able to “read the room”, a general rule of thumb is to not bombard your audience with heavy promotional advertising. During a crisis we would suggest a balance of 20% promotional content and 80% helpful or relevant content.

In terms of reading the room, you have to appreciate that your audience is looking for authenticity from brands. By ignoring the situation your company might inadvertently promote a consensus among your audience of naivety and denial. In a survey on consumers in America’s buying habits, 73% of respondents said that “the way companies conduct themselves during the crisis will impact whether they do business with those brands or retailers in the future.”

Understanding that there is no perfect solution or quick fix to a crisis, will allow businesses to create an even more human experience. Audiences can be very forgiving if you own up to a mistake as don’t use a scapegoat. People want a brand to build a rapport through the right mix between humble and confidence, hold your hands up and admit you were wrong and bounce back even stronger.

How to develop a crisis marketing strategy

Like any marketing strategy intensive research is imperative for success. Think of a crisis marketing strategy as a cross between the ‘usual’ strategy document and a risk assessment.

When setting up the document it’s important to have a clear plan to be able to create the plan to implement. Discuss chapters with the relevant teams and what will need to go under those headings.

For example, your chapter list may look like this:

  1. Purpose
  2. Risk Framework
  3. Defining Roles and Responsibilities
  4. Do’s and Don’ts
  5. Maintaining and Updating the Document
  6. Communication Channels

We appreciate that many of these chapters will be self-explanatory, so we will focus on ones that may have a question mark over them.

  • Let’s start with chapter 2: Risk Framework
  • This is your chance to determine the severity of a crisis, and the appropriate actions to take at different levels of crisis – with level 1 being the highest risk. You should also detail who has what responsibility for each level. We recommend that you create a table like the following:


    crisis marketing strategy table graphic
  • Chapter 3: Defining Roles and Responsibilities.
  • When a crisis begins to affect your business and in turn, your consumers, it’s important to have an appropriate team to begin the implementation of the process we’ve already talked about. Create a list within your crisis document of key players who act as a first line of defence.

    You should have different/ mixed employees per level (using a table like above) and for the higher levels you should identify a greater incident response team.

    Be as detailed as possible when setting out roles and responsibilities in order for there to be no quandary as to what individuals and teams need to do. For example, your most public channels that your audience will likely see need addressing first. Having a strong social media team to navigate through the crisis and influence public perception and opinion of your business is a key role that shouldn’t be confined to one person.

    A content marketing and PR team need to be acutely aware of what is in the pipeline to be sent out, and ask questions like is it appropriate in the current climate? If not, why not?

  • Chapter 6: Communication Channels.
  • Although you may think that this document only pertains to external audiences, it’s important to remember that internal communication is just as vital – especially to internal stakeholders who may not be directly involved with the implementation of this document.

There may be more to add, but the above headers are the most commonly used across businesses. Any additional chapters would be at the discretion of your company and its own policies.

Examples of great crisis marketing

Plans and priorities change with a crisis, we have to reiterate that adaptability and proactivity form an integral part of crisis marketing. As market’s we can be used to working under pressure, but here are three of our top examples of crisis marketing:

innocent

If you haven’t succumbed to the innocent Drinks social media hype over the years, then we’d love to know how!

The B-Corp has shown that adaptability, responsibility and a strong sense of community are key drivers of their success. Throughout the pandemic, innocent kept up with their characterful and light-hearted social posts while going through a 2% decline in sales and turnover. Underlying sales in the UK fell from £188m to £171m, with headline revenues of its UK operating arm down 20% to £233.2m due to the impact of the pandemic and changes to the operating model as the group moved into in-house manufacturing.

However their tongue-in-cheek posts (see below) had a tone of voice which resonated with their followers, and they saw a steady pick up in sales in 2021. In a publicly released report from 2021, innocent’s then “chief squeezer”, Douglas Lamont, said “I’m proud that in a year like no other, we never lost sight of our purpose, vision and values”.


screenshot of innocent drinks brand covid response on twitter

JC Penney

A minor crisis in comparison to a worldwide pandemic, but still a great example of crisis marketing from retailer JC Penney who inadvertently depicted an infamous dictator as a kettle.

The crisis happened in 2013, and users of Reddit were quick to draw upon the similarities between a kettle and (wait for it), Adolf Hitler.


JC Penney mistake at crisis


What could have been a PR disaster after the Telegraph decided to run with the story, soon turned into a humorous campaign brilliantly handled by JC Penney’s social media team.


Telegraph news response to JC Penney blunder


It could be argued that the innocent mistake may not have been a crisis, but JC Penney’s response could have escalated the mishap into one. The consequence of having a kettle that looks like a fascist? A $40 kettle selling out on a famous retailer’s website then having a social-media adjusted price point, where the kettle was selling for $199 on eBay.


JC Penney twitter response to own blunder


Amazon

The online giant, Amazon, surprised many when they grew by 28% during the “great recession” of 2009.

They continued to innovate, and released new Kindle products which helped to grow market share, and sales by 28%. Jeff Bezos stated that:


Kindle has become the No1 best-selling item by both unit sales and dollars – not just in our electronic store, but across all product categories on Amazon.com


At the end of 2009, consumers on Amazon bought more eBooks than printed books as they offered a lower cost alternative to cash-strapped customers – a lucrative opportunity taken by Amazon to up their advantage over competitors.

Marketing in a recession will never be easy, largely because it often involves going against instincts and standard operating norms. It’s clear that Amazon was a part of its consumer’s new journey and was able to shift its marketing message and re-engineer its value proposition.

Future of crisis marketing

If we use our most current example of a crisis, Covid-19 affected every business irrespective of size and annual revenue. Those companies like Uber Eats, Amazon, Zoom etc who operated with strong digital platforms pre-pandemic saw a great increase in subscriptions.

It would be naive to think that Covid-19 will just disappear overnight, so adaptable businesses need to think of the long-term in terms of Covid staying with us over the next few years, but also the short-term overhanging threat that lockdowns might become a reality again.

By continuing to strengthen your company’s ‘digital DNA’, which consists of digital-savvy team members, faster decision making using digital platforms, digital connectivity with both internal and external audiences and keeping up-to-date with digital trends.

With digital methods of marketing, there is an expectation from consumers that businesses should be held to higher standards. A brand should share its purpose more clearly – and include strong corporate social responsibility communications to an external audience as well as in-house employees.

Basically, Covid-19 greatly accelerated the use of digital by a good few years. It might be too early to see if this is a positive step, but we’ll keep you updated and see what manifests for the future of crisis marketing. With the climate crisis, further pandemics and an impending recession on our doorstep, marketer’s will have their work cut out for them.

Crisis marketing checklist

 


A crisis can happen at any time, make sure your business stays ahead of the curve by taking advantage of the search and digital marketing channels that you have access to – and contact us if you need more help!



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