Marketing in the COVID-19 era: Take a step back

LBS Insight

Marketing in the COVID-19 era: Take a step back

Aeroplanes are grounded, restaurants and churches closed, streets empty. The world seems to be on standby, waiting for something to happen.

In the meantime, companies are trying to survive. Those that shut down in response to government directives on the pandemic are planning what to do next, and those allowed to open are under pressure to deliver under challenging circumstances. There are not enough raw materials; blocked roads are not allowing product deliveries. Customers are on some variation of lockdown.

Marketing Directors need to take a step back and rethink their whole strategy. With the postponement and cancellation of most of their action plans, marketing teams have to redesign and quickly create short-term and long-term campaigns.

No more events, parties, or fancy influencers. Consumers are no longer looking at brands as personality or image tools to help them reinforce their external perception. They are now focusing on ’surviving’ with limited essential products, threatened by potential job losses, and under the threat of an ominous virus.

Brands have stopped their traditional communication to start connecting with the urgent needs of their consumers and society, reconstructing their customer relationship and thus, building a new communication strategy.

But where do we start? Where do we focus?

The starting point should be to understand the consumer.  Consumers are currently confronted with a new reality, with new obstacles and problems. If we consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, these days, we can see consumers seeking to fulfil their physiological or basic needs.

They are moving from ’esteem’ and ’self-actualisation’ levels to the base of the pyramid, where ’physiological’ and ’safety’ needs become critical due to the current crisis. Therefore, many brands are adapting their communication messages from the image and personality objectives to more sensitive issues. For example, some brands are producing sanitizer gel instead of beer or soft drinks, ventilators instead of cars, medical uniforms instead of fashion items.

During the Crisis, communication is vital in two ways:

  • From the company to the client, using major media channels (digital, social media, television, radio), but also through more traditional and personalised channels such as the telephone, emails or text messages. This communication strategy is particularly right for B2B (Business-to-Business) companies with a database of loyal clients, who can be contacted regularly through a phone call or a personalised email.
  • From the client to the company, listening to customers and answering their questions, being proactive, and flexible. Companies have to listen because they want to offer their best customer service, even when they are not able to sell or serve products. Moreover, because customers are looking for support, they need to feel understood even if their needs cannot be met immediately. Despite the distance, our employees must show empathy and listen.

1 “Motivation and Personality”, Maslow 1954


Active listening can also be achieved through interviews, customer surveys, blogs, and digital analytical tools. Marketing teams should focus on Understanding the Consumer to provide better service and develop innovative products. Set up a blog and ask your consumers to share their experiences during the lockdown (ethnographic research). From your CRM database, launch short surveys to identify your current customer needs. Monitor and analyze your consumer behaviour on your website. Today, all these research tools are available, affordable, and easy to use.

What is next?

Do not wait till the end of the lockdown, start planning. Prepare different scenarios and be ready to redefine your marketing strategy and your traditional marketing mix.

You will probably have to re-segment your market.  Traditional segmentation will not be enough to help you target the right consumers and develop innovative products or services. Your customers will be risk-averse, health-conscious, and extremely price-sensitive. A recession, combined with a potential naira devaluation, plus countless job losses, will adversely affect numerous categories.

The consumption patterns, especially among middle and upper classes, will change. The average consumer will stay at home, increase his digital usage, and look for health-conscious, safe and reliable brands. On the other hand, low-income segments (bottom of the pyramid), consumers living on one or two dollars per day, will continue in a survival mode. Companies offering products for this segment must learn to adapt their products to low-cost concepts, packs, or services.

When looking at your Marketing Mix (4Ps), consider the Price as the most critical factor, but do not forget the other Ps. The new price-sensitivity will require companies to focus on their value brands and their premium brands. Consumers will expect to get value for money. The mainstream brands will suffer if you do not increase their value perceived. Companies can try to develop smaller packs like the beverage industry is doing with the sachets for milk, water or spirits. Another option is to add ingredients or supplements to the current recipe (vitamins, minerals, flavours). You can also restructure your yearly services, selling them through modules or reduced proposals (short-term subscriptions, modular studies). In other words, be creative and innovate.

From a promotional perspective, do not stop supporting your brand. After the 2008 crisis, the companies that did not stop investing were the ones who recovered faster. Thus, even if you are focusing on reducing expenditures and managing cash, invest strategically in your core brand. Your brand equity is more important than ever.

Your point-of-sale and supply chains will undoubtedly be affected. In the short-term, customers will go back to work, and in less than one year, we will be adjusting to the ’new’ normal, with higher online consumption and with customers focusing on the solid, safe and reliable brands.

Thus, one can predict the success of companies that are listening to their customers and engaging with them, to offer a better service and more innovative products. These are companies with creative, multidisciplinary, and efficient teams who are ready to respond to their consumer needs. Companies that continue investing strategically to reinforce their core brands. Furthermore, socially responsible companies engaged with their communities, which understand the value of a true and honest image to grant loyalty from their customers and employees.

Take a step back and be ready for the future.

Vanessa Burgal teaches Marketing at Lagos Business School. She is an expert on brand development, launch and management as well as consumer understanding, market segmentation and brand positioning.

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