What’s next in retail: Five keys for marketers in the COVID-19 era

Dan Hoedeman VP Engagement

What’s next in retail: Five keys for marketers in the COVID-19 era

The second in a series that looks at the future of retail from the perspective of things marketers can do to make an impact in 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic is putting marketers under more pressure than they have faced in their careers. The news and outlook changes by the day, but through it all people are deeply worried about their health and their job—if they haven’t already been impacted. It’s a fraught time. It is also a time for marketers to step up. 

There is opportunity for marketers to make a difference for their business at a time when every little win matters. Here are five key thoughts to consider.

If you can (and should), now is the time to spend.

Not every company is in a position to spend. Even giants like Coca-Cola have cut marketing spend to manage cash flow.

Not every company should spend. Airlines, for example, made the right decision to go dark.

For companies that can spend, the fundamentals are good: People are paying more attention to ads during the coronavirus pandemic and ad rates continue to drop.

On top of that, the media space is far less competitive. Whole categories of advertisers have gone dark and others have cut back. While some of the traditional media set pieces like live sports aren’t available, the increased attention makes this media environment better than ever. After all, if everyone else is quiet, you will be easier to hear.

New shopping behaviors are being formed. Be part of them.

The pandemic has forced us into a digital economy, and that is forcing people to learn new shopping behaviors. 

Like all new behaviors, fear is a barrier. We’ve all been there. Maybe it’s approaching a restaurant, not seeing anyone inside, and moving on to somewhere else. Or maybe it’s making a food or drink choice, not being completely sure how to pronounce what you want, and choosing something else. We’ve all had social fear act as a barrier to something new.

Retailers must be out front in telling people that they can shop at their stores during COVID. To erase the fear barrier, they must make it clear how.

That education needs to happen as part of lower funnel advertising, online, and in-store (if an option is available like curbside pickup, limited customers in store, or similar). Repetition is an important part of this education.

It may be that the convenience of things like curbside pickup become an advantage for brick-and-mortar retailers as the pandemic lifts. It’s easy to imagine customers preferring to order online and pick up curbside on their way home rather than ordering from a purely digital competitor like Amazon. This works only if customers comfortably know how to shop this way.

Now is the time to try new digital channels.

Digital ad prices are falling, steeply, and yet at the same time digital engagement is especially high because so many people are staying home. In other words, now is the time to pilot new digital channels or new efforts within existing digital channels.

The opportunity is especially high for upper funnel efforts like email list signups. People remain starved for things to do. Imagine a retailer using an effort like this to build a community of parents going through the pandemic. A great combination of meaningful content for the customer and a list-building and sales opportunity for the retailer.

The channels can be more or less exotic within the same framework. Depending on the brand, maybe TikTok is the right channel. Converse has been experimenting on TikTok, for example. But it could be any channel. The point is that, with prices down and engagement up, now is the time to try.

Use empathy, not tropes.

COVID fatigue is starting to set in and, with it, the memes making fun of the emerging tropes: the thoughtless brand’s “our COVID response” email, the stock “in this unprecedented time” phrase, and “we’re in this together” social posts. It’s too much of the same. People are getting worn out with it.

They’re getting worn out with the bad news as well because it’s everywhere.

But what does that mean they need from a brand?

They need messaging with empathy and, pardon the buzzword, authenticity. If you have something to say, say it, but do it in a way that is appropriate in a world where people are getting sick, losing their job, and are otherwise on edge. Authenticity, in this case, is a synonym for humanity. Speak like your brand would speak, but do it from a human point of view. 

Prepare for the return of shoppers.

People take their cues for action from others, especially when they are wary. Imagine yourself entering a restaurant in a foreign country. You look at the couple in front of you for cues on how to ask for a table or where to go. It’s natural.

As the lockdowns end and people resume normal life, they are going to look to others for cues on what to do. That is a big opportunity for retailers.

Like a busker in the subway, the retailers who are able to get people back in their stores are going to encourage more people into their stores and so on in a flywheel effect. Engaging with the people in your loyalty program, your credit card program, or frequent shopper groups early and think through ways to get them shopping again is going to be a differentiator. Their action is going to convince other people that it’s socially correct to shop in your store again. It’s something smart marketers will be planning for now.