The Chinese word for “crisis” is frequently cited for its use of two Chinese characters signifying “danger” and “opportunity.” In other words, “never let a crisis go to waste.” Capitalizing on our current opportunity is good marketing strategy, but it’s dangerous when you copy everyone else.

Consider how many emails in your inbox begin:

At [company name], our top priority is promoting the wellbeing of our customers, team members, and the broader community. We are monitoring news about COVID-19 (the coronavirus) and understand the concern the spread of the virus has caused. We want to assure you that we are committed to being responsive to the needs of our customers as the situation evolves.

In a poll of Innis Maggiore associates, most counted at least 50 emails that started with approximately this same language. Most of us received upwards of five or six from the same company (since March 1) and each email began the same. Is this how to market during a crisis? No!

The above email introduction creates a sea of sameness. It happens to be from a credit company who is faceless, who we’re agreeable to write a check each month so we do NOT receive a communication, and who we want to eventually go away (once paid in full). Many email marketers used the same approach. Are they the types of companies with whom you wish to be associated?

Don't be like all the others.

If every company sends this same introduction, the tendency is to hit delete before you reach the first period. There are some organizations where this might be the perfect introduction. The danger is that it’s been done already by companies who we really don’t believe can ever authentically care about our situation. Do we really believe this credit company and others are truly thinking about us?

Whether this is your first major economic crisis as a marketer or you are a veteran of the aftermath of 9/11 and the recession of 2007-08, the challenges today are huge. Your initial reaction might be to copy what you see other marketers doing, just like the above example. But that will simply give you a wasted touch and most likely diminish your brand’s reputation.

Here are a few ideas you can use during a crisis of a pandemic, recession, or industry downturn without pandering to the situation:

  1. Innovate MORE: Peter Drucker said, “Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two — and only two — basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results; all the rest are costs. Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of the business.”

    Crisis typically makes us re-think our businesses, or at least individual products and services. Consider how many companies have switched to making hand sanitizers, face masks/shields, ventilators, PPE and more. Many restaurants modified their menus and switched their models to carryout and delivery. Innovation typically stagnates during the good times.

    Use the crises to challenge your organization to innovate, then market that innovation. If your innovation is significant, the media might cover your story! Think of how many companies you’ve heard about through press conferences. We can’t see a MyPillow commercial anymore without thinking of the 50,000 masks they are making every day.

  2. Market MORE: Companies tend to reduce marketing during downturns in the economy. They see marketing as an expense, so when they are cutting expenses, they slash marketing. In the last recession ad spending decreased 13% (per Forbes).

    If you treat marketing for what it is — an investment — then invest more when the clutter reduces. Plus, your marketing dollar will go farther because the cost of advertising drops during a recession. You have a greater chance to break through. (This point assumes your company already reserved some marketing dollars for the downturn.)

    Don’t change your marketing message to account for the coronavirus, recession or whatever the crisis may be. Simply spend more getting your difference into the minds of prospects and customers. Stay away from the email introduction paragraph cited above. Stay true to you. Pandering is bad. Positioning is good.

    As a popular adage declares, “When times are good you should advertise. When times are bad you must advertise.” Companies that advertise during a crisis are seen as stable, which builds trust and confidence in prospects and customers even after the crisis is over.

  3. Leverage MORE: If your company offers a solution to the crisis head-on, be ready to go. We have a couple clients who sell hand sanitizer and disinfectant products. They were ready when the opportunity presented itself. They staffed up (hiring hundreds of new employees) and had the distribution down pat. Business is way up!

    Anticipating change (the “new normal”), there are several local IT companies today who offer remote support. They are marketing like never before, and for good reason. The new normal may involve much more web conferencing and telework situations. Remote IT support might be the next industry to take off.

    Have a communication strategy ready to go whenever you see a trend that hits you squarely in the sweet spot.

Below are summary studies showing the effect on those companies who advertised more (and less) during a recession:

Periods StudiedAuthor/SponsorConclusion
1920s recession Vaile, Harvard Business Review Biggest sales increases come from companies that increase advertising.
1949, 1954, 1958, 1961 recessions Buchen Advertising Companies that cut advertising during recession experience dropped sales and profits.
1970 recession

ABP and Meldrum & Fewsmith

Increased advertising during recession leads to sales or profit advantages (or both) in years following recession.
1974-75 recession

ABP and Meldrum & Fewsmith

Companies that maintain advertising during recession experience higher sales and net income during and after the recession.
McGraw-Hill Advertising during recession creates 132% subsequent five-year sales growth.
1981-1982 recession McGraw-Hill Advertising during 1981-1982 recession creates 275% sales growth by 1985.
Undisclosed recessionary periods Cahners Publishing Company and Strategic Planning Institute Profit Impact of Marketing Strategies (PIMS) database; advertising during recession creates greater market share gains than decreases do, but there is “no statistically significant difference in the level of profitability [ROI].”
 Source: All studies are as summarized, quoted and/or cited in American Business Press (ABP, 1993). ABP changed its name to American Business Media in June 2000.

Spending on advertising right now might seem counterintuitive. However, every study shows that those companies that marketed during a crisis came out on top. Just don’t alter your message by pandering. Focus your messaging even more on your difference so you can gain even greater share of the mind.

That is how to market during a crisis.