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Interpreting Consumer Readiness for “Business as Usual”

A recent survey of consumers by Dentsu Aegis Network revealed that consumers are split on whether it’s acceptable to start marketing “as normal” and move away from acknowledgement of the COVID-19 crisis in marketing messaging. The survey reveals that half of consumers think brands should continue to acknowledge the crisis and they believe normal marketing is not appropriate. However, the other half of consumers feel the opposite. What’s a marketer to do in this circumstance? How does one deploy marketing without offending one half of the population? There are three strategies you should consider to help solve this puzzle:

Business as usual

1. Use data to understand consumers on a one-to-one level and meet them where they are

Through targeted marketing to individuals rather than proxies or mass audiences, you can tailor your messaging appropriately to different segments or groups. Using key variables like “local COVID-19 infections rates” and “infection trajectory” coupled with regional and individual demographics (both first-and third-party), you can begin to build different audience profiles. Perhaps an individual lives in an area with low infection rates, has high disposable income, and has not lost his job due to the crisis; that customer might be ready for marketing with “dial” turned to normal messaging vs. a COVID-19-influenced message. In this environment, real-time (or near-real-time data) and time-series data is more important than ever to assess customers’ situations and understand trends. Third party partners can play a big role here, but so can your first party data. Has the customer called into to tell you about financial hardship? Can you gather data from interactions online or in the call center that can be helpful in marketing? Do you have information about whether that customer is salaried or hourly? Is the customer’s occupation impacted more severely by the crisis than other customers? Those that have the infrastructure to capture and use this data nimbly have a real advantage. At the end of the day, no approach in trying to segment customers is going to be perfect – we are all learning our way through this crisis – but creativity and experience can guide the way.

2. Consider how well you communicated in the past regarding COVID-19

Have you acknowledged the crisis in multiple communications and across channels? Have you regularly shared what your company is doing to assist customers and colleagues and to support the community in email, social media, and other channels? Do you know whether or not individual customers have engaged with those communications (e.g., opened an email, clicked a link, etc.)? If so, you’ve likely built a foundation of goodwill and understanding that gives you permission to begin utilizing non-COVID-19 messaging. That said, a strong plan will include ongoing updates as the COVID-19 situation evolves alongside this “Business as Usual (BAU)” marketing messaging. 

3. BAU in a Thoughtful Way

Finally, marketers should consider moving to “normal” marketing with no mention of COVID-19 but doing so in a sensitive and thoughtful way. Consider the marketing you are going to deploy – does it run the risk of being insensitive in the face of the crisis, or just plain tone deaf?  For example, does your creative have images of travelers or people eating at restaurants? Even if the overall message is benign and acceptable, this imagery might turn off some consumers. We’ve worked with many clients to adjust their creative to maintain the integrity and core messaging, while not affecting the integrity and power of the call-to-action. This requires a thoughtful, nuanced approach from creative and strategy teams working collaboratively with product owners. This strategy “splits the baby” and allow you to leverage existing creative assets, resume some BAU marketing, but to do so in a way that implicitly acknowledges the crisis.

Consumer sentiment continues to evolve on an almost daily basis and your approach to the crisis should too. There’s no one right answer to the question “when is the right time to get back to normal?” but leveraging your marketers tool kit will help you stay on track. If you use timely, relevant data and insight to inform strategy, and leverage a mix of channels to deliver the right message to the right customers, you will be more likely to get it right. 

Merkle has made numerous free resources available to our clients and the broader community – including an “economic resilience” dashboard that helps marketers understand which areas of the country may be ready for more “normal” marketing activities. We also prepare weekly insight reports by industry vertical to help marketers understand what they should be doing right now to address the crisis.  Find both here.

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