For the first weeks of COVID-19, it felt like the end of the world was indeed finally here. The stock market was falling, companies were laying people off, people were forced to work from home, grocery shelves emptied, and, almost every country in the world had infections and deaths soaring – there seemed to be no end in sight. Many of us who have been through other crises before could not help make comparisons of past crises — the dot-com bust of 2000, 9/11 in 2001, the financial crisis of 2008. However, even the most optimistic of us couldn’t help feeling that this was different — never before, in our lifetimes at least, had we seen a crisis with a catastrophic combination of a financial crisis and a humanitarian crisis happening simultaneously and at a global scale.
12 years ago, when I founded Jivox, just before the 2008 financial crisis, the thing I learned very quickly (and painfully) was that Marketing was almost always the very first budget to be cut in a crisis. In general, most CEOs and CFOs in the midst of such an enormous crisis, take the attitude of “shoot first and then aim” when it comes to cutting costs in a crisis and marketing is an easy target. Given most of the Marketing function in large companies has traditionally been outsourced, it’s an easy place to cut before you think of cutting personnel. Within Marketing, media spend is, of course, the easiest to cut and so that goes first and then possibly services, tech vendors, and lastly personnel, probably in that order.
COVID-19, therefore, at first felt like yet another crisis that would decimate Digital Marketing tech companies as budgets were cut and it seemed like we would go into another nuclear winter for tech purchases. COVID-19 was, of course, a crisis like many others before, but it was also unlike others — different as it seemed like it could be short-lived, with various pundits predicting so-called “V” and “U” and “boat-shaped” recoveries. As we saw groceries and consumables flying off the shelves (toilet paper anyone?), another question that came to mind was whether with the significant change in lifestyles with working from home, whether this was going to impact all businesses or just some.
By carefully analyzing what our customers were doing, we tried quickly to understand what was going on. Within a few weeks, it became clear that this crisis was different. While certain industries like Travel and Hospitality and Retail were hit very hard and it felt like they may take a while to restart, many other industries it seemed could see a tremendous need and opportunity to invest in Digital Marketing technology. It is also clear that for others, due to the changing nature of their businesses (e.g. fast food becoming a delivery business), they would be forced to rethink archaic marketing strategies, tools, and processes that they have been living with.
Here are a few considerations for marketers while planning for a post-COVID-19 future:
Cost Savings from Creative and Content Production
Today’s creative and content production methods are ripe for disruption resulting in significant cost savings for brands. Most brands are still relying on an archaic content and creative production model that was built for TV and print advertising, where each piece of content and creative was manually created, edited, distributed and paid for. As Marketing channels continue to proliferate and as brands look to deliver relevance through personalized content and creative, these costs have significantly escalated.
With the inevitable Marketing budget cuts, this is one area ripe for the use of technology to save millions of dollars in production costs. Modern dynamic creative technology (DCO) enables creative content to be automatically versioned in multiple languages, product packagings, etc. without having to manually create and pay for each ad creative. Special offers and pricing can also be dynamically changed without having to spend millions of dollars on production fees.
Direct 1:1 Consumer Marketing Becomes an Imperative
CPG companies have been aware, for some time now, of the threat to their model of relying heavily on retail brick-and-mortar distribution for their products which made them heavily dependent on retailers. As a result, they haven’t had the opportunity to build direct relationships with consumers. While some have invested in eCommerce distribution of their products via eTailers like Amazon or even via Direct-to-Consumer sales, many still depend very heavily on retailers to sell.
COVID-19 has shut down retail sales almost entirely during the shelter-in-place phase, however, brands that have eCommerce offerings and direct-to-consumer marketing have skyrocketed in sales. CPG companies that relied heavily on TV, OOH, and Print advertising are now redirecting their Marketing investments to Digital Marketing as a new way to drive customers to purchase via their websites and apps. A quick shift to Digital Marketing is their response to retail sales’ continuing to plummet and possibly not recovering for a while due to social distancing whether enforced or driven by consumer fear.
Similarly, quick service restaurants (QSR) also are facing a bit of an existential crisis as dining out becomes risky and consumers instead are opting to order in. So, brands like McDonald’s, Subway, Chipotle that focused most of their Marketing efforts on brand awareness need to shift gears quickly to 1:1 personalized digital marketing — it is important that they direct consumers to their own or other food delivery services in order to survive. Again, even with quarantine restrictions lifted, it will be a while before consumer dining behavior returns to normal.
It is probably also true that the switch by consumers to ordering digitally for delivery may be a permanent switch as they have now learned out of necessity a new mechanism for dining that they either did not know was possible or simply did not get around to trying. Much like we have all learned by using Zoom that meetings don’t always have to involve travel or be face-to-face, this may be a permanent change.
All of this means more investment in MarTech platforms designed for 1:1 personalized marketing that enables these brands to collect and use data for digital marketing, platforms to manage digital media purchases and creative and content automation platforms to deliver offers and personalized messaging. These are all technologies they did not have to worry about when relying on TV advertising, which was inherently one-size-fits-all and bought and executed for them manually by agencies.
Agile Marketing Becomes the Norm
The first thing brands learned from COVID-19 was that during a time of crisis, or an opportunity whether driven by a virus, by competition or consumer behavior, changing messaging and content to respond quickly is critical. Many brands took weeks to change their advertising messaging as the archaic creative and content production teams toiled at significant cost and time, manually re-creating everything from TV commercials to display ads to reflect crisis messaging only to be followed by another such expensive cycle for recovery messaging.
The response needed for COVID-19 was also unusual in that messaging had to be differential depending on where in the world (or even within a country) the brand was advertising. This meant that current one-size-fits-all messaging was risky as they were either talking about empathy in areas where folks had moved past the crisis or were trying to direct people to stores where stores were closed or the infections were peaking.
While the speedy response needed to COVID-19 has been highlighting these issues for marketers, the issues have existed all along. Travel companies have for long needed to deal with natural disasters or seasons and quickly change their messaging or remove certain destinations from their marketing. Telcos need to constantly respond to special offers and discounts offered by their competitors. Retailers needed to constantly push out new offers to fend off competition.
As competing brands acquire more responsive and real-time marketing stacks where data-driven dynamic creative technology enables rapid and immediate changes to creative and content to be pushed out to all marketing channels, marketers will do well to embrace these technologies or face being left behind.
One thing is clear: marketers in the post-COVID-19 era will have to rethink what technologies they really need, which ones can help them save money, and which ones can help them transform their businesses that have been altered by this crisis. Marketing technology that helps with the above business needs will, therefore, be considered “essential” and the rest may end up in the garbage heap of tech-driven promises that never delivered true Marketing ROI.