Marketing in a crisis – ‘We were mindful people were going through really tough times’

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marketing in a crisis

Messaging your business into the enormity of a global pandemic when life and livelihood preservation dominate your customers’ focus, is no easy task, even if you’re Google.

“Direction from the center, but decisions on the ground” is how the tech giant is driving its marketing strategy through coronavirus. “Though this is a global pandemic, its impact is local”, says Joshua Spanier, Google’s vice president of global media.

It is a valuable lesson for all sectors. Marketing managers in bridging saw quickly that maintaining relationships with clients on an individual level would be the only way to talk to them through the crisis.

“Transparency has never been more important,” says Gemma Palfreyman, head of marketing and communications at Lendhub, which has backed up that view with practical understanding and decision-making.

“As they say, actions speak louder than words, and we have been proud to honour any terms pre-Covid for our customers who have proceeded with their projects,” she says.

Marketing plans are made months ahead. But when coronavirus hit many had to be ripped up. “We had a great campaign that was about to be sent out when lockdown was first announced,” says Palfreyman, “but with people working from home it would have gathered dust on doorstep and post rooms of our broker’s offices”.

Silence was not an alternative for communication heads. In tech-speak they had to ‘pivot’ – lightening fast adaptations into a different way of doing things. Google’s global head of media admits “we’re asking ourselves every day, “Is this creative or ad placement right for this moment and in this context?” And when the answer is no, we pivot.”

He gave the example of a pre-pandemic Android campaign running that referenced being “out and about.” “Was that OK in the U.S. market a few weeks ago? Sure. Today? Not so much,” said Spanier.

Bridging – which in November had nearly three quarters of lenders expecting their business to grow over the next six months, according to the Association of Short Term Lenders – couldn’t market on that forecast by March. By August Bridging Trends reported a 45% fall in gross bridging loan volumes in the first half of the year, as activity was hit by the Covid-19 lockdown.

“We knew our immediate needs in terms of communications were not going to be met by our existing strategy,” says Sabinder Sandhu, marketing manager at Avamore Capital.

“We’d agree an approach internally and before launching, we’d have to alter our approach in line with emerging news,” she adds, “we couldn’t act like coronavirus wasn’t happening but also we were by no means experts and so it was important to find a middle ground.”

Striking the right balance between caution and panic has been hard, says Lendhub’s Palfreyman. “We have been open throughout the pandemic but obviously our risk and appetite were heavily impacted and so it was really challenging to get this message across.”

Market leaders in media consultancy have recommended softer, more empathetic customer communications during coronavirus, when business partners may be at a greater risk of dealing with personal issues above and beyond their commercial relationships.

Janet Balis, Ernst & Young’s global advisory leader for media and entertainment and Americas marketing consulting leader, advises companies to ‘present with empathy and transparency’. Writing in the Harvard Business Review she cautions: “People feel vulnerable right now. Empathy is critical.”

Avamore’s Sandhu says it has been a tightrope. “We had to be mindful people were going through really tough times both personally and professionally, and be careful to be informative and helpful where we could be.”

After the 2008 financial crisis, banks, building societies, fund managers, insurers, any institution with a link to the financial world, rebranded and re-marketed to focus on their long, resilient heritage where possible, and, most importantly, their future stability. More recently, Guinness, in the days leading up to St. Patrick’s Day, shifted its communications away from celebrations and pub gatherings to a message of longevity and wellbeing.

That approach resonated with Leah Brunskill, marketing manager at Market Financial Solutions. “We are of the opinion it is simply not enough to be presented as having empathy, which is why we took a more confidence led approach,” she says.

“We felt property investors and brokers need to know there is strong support and a stable finance provider ready for them, and if people knew that, confidence could hopefully return as quickly as possible for all clients.”

MFS carries out research on a quarterly basis that polls sentiment from both the bridging sector and wider property market. This has continued throughout the crisis, giving Brunskill valuable insight into what her audience really needed to hear. “It gives us some real data to use to then adapt our messaging,” she says.

Likewise, Palfreyman says Lendhub’s communication with brokers “has been key to really understand what’s going on in the sector and knowing their challenges”. The lender recently announced it would restart lending up to 75% LTV on bridging “because from conversations with our brokers found this was very much needed,” she says.

To stand out as more than just corporate entities in a world of human-connection severing lockdowns and self-isolations, brands have been seeking to associate their businesses with ‘doing good’, from drink manufacturers like Diageo switching to making hand sanitiser to alleviate shortages, to HSBC UK donating £1m to the National Emergencies Trust Coronavirus Appeal and British Red Cross to help support vulnerable people affected by Covid-19.

In a more limited way, bridging has tried something similar. “We have received some great feedback from our customers during the pandemic, so we have used these testimonials to showcase our service and support in our marketing,” says Lendhub’s Palfreyman.

Brunskill is putting her trust in her clients to see the value in what MFS is doing. “We have tried to be open with what we are able to offer and transparent with what we are doing, and we hope that allows viewers of our brand to decide for themselves,” she says.

“I think our aim has not necessarily been just good, but to aim for being a supportive lender delivering what is possible, and not making unrealistic promises.”

As 2020 enters the final quarter of the year, now is the time marketing managers start planning their big pushes for the next 12 months. In an increasingly complex landscape of recession and forecast job losses, with localised lockdowns and gatherings limited to six people, what does that planning look like?

“Our strategies will focus on being flexible and reactive to whatever the current environment is presenting,” says Palfreyman, “there’s no point planning events when they can be cancelled at the drop of a hat”.

Listening to broker and customer needs “will remain at the forefront and enable us to shape our proposition and messaging as we head into 2021”, she adds. It is something Sandhu echoes: “We are a relationship focused business and so keeping in touch with our key partners has been really important in helping us deliver the right message,” she says.

Brunskill will be focussing on MFS’s strategy to promote itself as a provider of education through reports, blogs and news. In times of sporadic change, she says this aims to keep customers and clients up to date with changes “so they know when they need information, we can provide it”.

“Education is our priority and our constant,” says Brunskill, “in terms of messages to the market, they will change as time progresses – but our underlying trust and transparency values will remain.”