Marketing During Crisis: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

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Jan Muhleman
July 27, 2020
July 27, 2020

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This article was originally featured in Forbes on July 15, 2020.

The past four months have been more disruptive to business and marketing than most of us can remember. In a relatively short time, we went from business-as-usual marketing to messages of safety and concern about COVID-19, to messages of support and unity with Black Lives Matter to messages of cautious re-opening optimism. As more and more advertisers raised their voices, their marketing became increasingly ubiquitous and undifferentiated, to the point where the same solicitous lines were repeated again and again by everyone as captured in this comical mashup published by Ad Age. While this video is an extreme viewing of the sea of ads that ran in the early days of the pandemic, it beautifully illustrates how much each sentiment blurs into the next with so many similar phrases and soundtracks. 

Timeliness and relevancy have become key ingredients in modern marketing, but when all marketers are focused on the same challenges, that reflection alone is not enough to truly stand out from the crowd. Empathy and cultural awareness are not a bad reflection on the advertisers when done authentically, but a sea of sameness has diluted the message and consumers are moving on quickly. The speed with which these changes in consumer attitudes and corporate marketing are occurring is fueling a need to listen, respond and even anticipate their sentiment in record time to drive messaging and action.

If you are a marketer and pay attention to any of the dozens of emailed webinar invites in your inbox, you are probably aware of the tremendous amount of consumer data being shared by a number of research firms. Ipsos and Resonate are two such firms that have been sampling consumer attitudes since the start of the COVID-19 quarantine. They have published data that speaks to how consumers expect companies to both act and communicate through and beyond the crisis. And “act” is the operative word here. Don’t just tell me that you understand what I am going through, tell me what you are doing for me.

During the past few months my marketing agency has experienced first-hand the enormous amount of communications choreography required in the utility and energy sector. These essential businesses provide the services we all need so desperately when we are sheltering in place, working and teaching from home. We have used a variety of data sources, both secondary and primary, to help our DTE client pivot their messaging and content during this time period. Speed and agility have been essential. From extending payment terms, to reassuring customers that DTE employees were in the field working to make sure service is not interrupted, to confirming their commitment to support the economic recovery of the state, these ads were produced, tested and approved within weeks and were deployed across all digital and traditional channels. They aligned with the evolving concerns and priorities of the customer as Michigan, once the third-highest state for COVID-19 cases, began to reopen. The messaging stood out from the barrage of “timely” new ads people were seeing on TV because DTE was specific about the ways in which they would help their customers. 

Not all companies are in a position to respond quickly to disruptive changes in the environment and not every company or category needs to. Several other clients chose to stay the course with the messages they had in the market at the time. We were in a great position with DTE as we had recently produced new visual assets that could be repurposed. The spots leveraged the award-winning format of the current brand campaign but were clearly new, important messages that customers found appropriate for the time and circumstances.

The results from DTE’s tracking studies and our own proprietary research show that the relevant messages of care, commitment and action resonated with the customer. Ratings for DTE as a caring company surged in their Net Promotor Score survey, and they were ranked more trusted than state, county and local municipalities in our own research. A big accomplishment in a traditionally low engagement, utility category.

Newly released J. D. Power data shows that the entire utility category experienced an increase in customer satisfaction scores. We believe that this reflects customers’ appreciation for the essential services that provided not only continuity of service but also offered payment deferrals to people in need. As our DTE client observed, customers were looking for the company to assure them of stability and normalcy. Their swift response and ongoing positive communications were rewarded with their highest overall satisfaction score in the recent wave of the J. D. Power Residential Electric survey, and they were ranked first in Communications among Midwest Large Utilities in the same study.

Our country and the world will continue to be in a state of unrest for the foreseeable future. You can no longer lock in your content calendar a year in advance, or effectively pivot to a general “we understand the times” message when a situation changes. You have to constantly listen to consumer sentiment. Actions speak louder than words, and saying the right thing at the right time can positively affect customer attitudes toward your brand. That requires a clearly defined brand, a flexible plan approach and a library of assets that can be deployed on a moment’s notice. The winners will be the brands that anticipate and welcome change and are ready for it when it happens.