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The new rules of engagement

April 29, 2020

Previously, we looked at the results of choosing to advertise or not during economic downturns, and the results were pretty clear. Decade after decade, there was data that showed the brands that continued to communicate with their prospects and customers during a recession or the depression came out of that time with a stronger position, a dominant position in their category and were able to rebound much faster than the brands who stayed silent.

We know you should be talking to your prospects and customers, but how do you do that with sensitivity to the current situation and in a way that your audience is actually receptive to hearing?

Now is not the time for a hard sell. But that doesn’t mean you should be silent. Here are the core tenants we should be wrapping our communication around right now.

Informative: Now is the time for us to keep every stakeholder informed. Don’t forget how vital your internal team is at this point. You can’t over-communicate with them. This is a time of uncertainty, which is disconcerting. The more certainty you can provide by consistent communication, the better.

Service-oriented: Be one of the helpers that everyone is looking for right now. How can you and your organization serve the community? You can and should be sharing useful information, tools, and services. Don’t be shy about inviting your customers to participate in your acts of service. Everyone is looking for a meaningful way to give back.

Sincere and transparent: Everyone is on edge and highly sensitive to anyone trying to take advantage of the current crisis. Be very clear about your offers, motives, and any small print. Do not leave anything up for interpretation. You can lose your most loyal client right now if they misunderstand.

Emotionally intelligent: I’d like to think we’d always be sensitive about our audience’s current state, but it is mandatory right now. You don’t need to go on and on about the crisis. You don’t need to use up two-thirds of your message to thank others. You don’t need sad, somber music. But you do need to be mindful that everyone is feeling less certain, more tender, and a little tentative.

Flexible: Payment terms, pricing options, delivery models – everything in our world is upside down right now. You’re going to need to find ways to zig where you used to zag. There’s a silver lining to this demand for flexibility. It’s like a free research project. Pay attention to the new offerings that get the biggest positive response from your prospects and customers. Some of what we’re doing for clients now because of C19 is going to stick. It may make what you do even more desirable.

Generous: This isn’t so much about your pricing; it’s much more related to your attitude and spirit. Everyone around us is on an emotional tightwire. Things set them off faster; they’re quicker to judgment and emotional extremes. As you communicate with your team, your customers, and your potential customers – tread lightly. Be generous with yourself. Now is not the time for corporate speak or being inflexible around the rules.

The biggest mistake you can make right now is to stay silent. Your employees, clients, and the people who would benefit from what you do all need to know you’re there. Your marketing needs to reassure them all that you’re stable, and you’re ready to help. It’s time to prove your leadership position by stepping out and stepping up.

The second biggest mistake is to communicate or sell in a tone-deaf way that suggests you’re not re-tooling how you’re doing business, given the world’s reality. Weave these five tenants through all of your marketing to ensure your audience can actually hear you.

Originally published in The Des Moines Business Record as part of Drew’s weekly column series.

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Not if but when

April 22, 2020

Sooner or later, every business will need to get back to marketing and selling their offerings. Working from home or no working from home, new case counts, or no new case counts, mask or no masks – our businesses cannot survive silence for too long.

Today, let’s deal with the when question.

Here in the US, we’ve been dealing with COVID-19 for anywhere between six and eight weeks, depending on where in the country you are. For Iowans, it’s been about six weeks since businesses started shifting to work from home, restaurants began to close, and we were all focused on learning as much as we could about this infectious virus and how it was changing our world.

The first phase, which is when we’re experiencing the community outbreak of the virus, is winding down. That’s not to say it’s entirely over, just that we’re moving from crisis to containment efforts.

Until now, it’s felt a little inappropriate to market or sell. But that didn’t mean we should have gone silent. As we’ve discussed previously, we needed to shift our marketing messages to messages of education, community service, and just being helpful. That was true on your social channels, any paid advertising you’ve done, and your website content.

There’s no doubt that the recession most of us have been waiting for over the past two years is now here. How deep of a recession or how long it will last are questions that are above our paygrade, but as business owners and leaders, we have our marching orders — to do all we can to make sure we weather the recession and come out on the other end.

The good news on that front is we have plenty of data that shows us how to handle marketing during a recession. Let’s look back over the country’s history and our past recessions.

1920s: A study was published in the Harvard Business Review in 1927 that shows that companies that continued to advertise during the downturn, were 20% ahead of their pre-recession market share position. Companies that reduced their activity lost over 7% of their market share.

1940s-60s: A study that tracked advertising dollars vs. sales trends for the recessions during this period (1949, 1954, 1958 and 1961) showed that both sales and profits dropped for the companies who cut back on their marketing. Even after the recessions ended, the companies continued to lag behind their competitors, who kept their marketing active during the downturn.

1980s: McGraw-Hill Research analyzed 600 B2B companies and found that the companies that maintained or increased their advertising grew, not only during the recession but for up to three years later. Within the study, companies who advertised aggressively had grown 275% over those that did not.

1990s: A MarketSense study showed that the best strategy for growth during a recession was to invest in building your brand equity (long-term) and promotional short-term sales offerings. Employing this strategy, Kraft Salad Dressing experienced 70% sales growth.

2000s: Harvard Business School studied 4,700 public companies that looked at their performance during the 1980, 1990, and 2000 recessions. The companies (like Target) who increased marketing/sales expenditures and their capital spending while working hard to cut costs and improve productivity, flourished.

Decade after decade of proof tells us that we need to keep marketing during the recession. We have to be talking to our prospects and customers. In the future, we’ll explore the nuances of what we say and how we say it. But in this case, silence is clearly not golden.

Originally published in The Des Moines Business Record as part of Drew’s weekly column series.

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We have more control than we think

April 15, 2020

Let’s be honest — as business leaders, we like control. We get to call a lot of the shots. And much of our success is a result of our efforts.

This is why this worldwide pandemic has knocked us so far off our game.  It feels like we’ve been stripped of all control. I’m talking to business owners every day. Some have lost a significant portion of their business. Others are busier than ever and hiring. And yet — they’re all panicked at precisely the same level. Everyone is feeling like they’re on a fault line, just waiting for the earthquake. They don’t know when or if it will come or how powerful it will be.  And so, they assume the worst and get paralyzed.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth. You’re actually in total control. You may not control all of the variables, but what you do control is the final result. You possess everything you need to guide your organization to the other side.

You need five mini-plans of action. But before we get into the mini-plans, let’s agree on some truths.

Truth #1: Here’s the most important truth that I think you need to internalize and whisper to yourself when you feel the fear creeping in. You’re going to be fine. You’ll be able to keep feeding your family. You’re not going to lose your house. You may have to completely reinvent how you go to market or who you serve — but you’re good at this.

Truth #2: You can’t control how long this crisis will last, how your clients will react, who will be ready to buy, or how your team will respond. But we can manage our way around them. You’ve been doing it for years.

Truth #3: This crisis is going to shine a blinding light on all the places within your business that have flaws and cracks. You can wallow in the brokenness, or you can be grateful for the insight and fix what needs to be fixed.

Truth #4: You can shed the malaise and get to work today. Or next month. The only difference will be how many competitors got out ahead of you. Don’t give away your advantage by staying stuck for too long.

Here are the mini-plans I suggest you have in place within the next few weeks:

Operational/financial plan: How will you get the work done on time and on budget? Then, determine the minimum acceptable profit margin for your business and manage your way to never dipping below it.

Team plan: How will you keep them motivated, efficient, profitable, and striving to serve each other and your clients?

Client plan: You need to proactively guide each client into a position of readiness so that when they can step back in — they’re ready and more prepared than their competitors.

Prospect plan: What can you talk about that will be valuable, based on what your prospects are ready to hear at any given moment in time.

Vision of the future plan: What parts of normal are worth rushing back to, and what could/should be different? How do you get even better?

With every one of these plans — you get to set the course. I’m not saying any of this is going to be easy or without sacrifice. But what I am saying, as loudly and clearly as I can, is that you can do this. You don’t need one thing more than what you have right now.

And how we show up right now as leaders both internally and externally is the most critical marketing we can do right now.

Originally published in The Des Moines Business Record as part of Drew’s weekly column series.

 

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I can’t hear you

April 8, 2020

If you have children or an obstinate dog, you know what it feels like to be speaking perfectly clear and simple English, and yet it’s like you are alone in the room. The dog is engrossed in a bone or chasing the cat. Your kid is watching their favorite TV show or has their nose in their iPad or computer game.

You could be offering them a million dollars (or a million bones), and they’re just not on the same frequency. They might not even notice that you’re talking because you’re on the wrong wavelength.

That’s the reality of the marketplace right now. There is no special pricing, no coupon, no financing option that you can offer right now that is going to draw your prospect’s attention away from where they’re focused.

Right now, they’re worried about their job security, if their business will survive the COVID-19 shutdown, homeschooling, finding toilet paper, and fashioning a mask for their next grocery store outing.

Previously we discussed that until they’ve answered these very basic needs, they’re just not going to be receptive to any sales message unless what you happen to sell helps them solve one of the problems they’re focused on right now.

If you’ve been watching TV or been online, you’ve started to notice a shift in advertising messaging. It has moved away from selling, and most of the more prominent national brands are simply saluting everyday heroes like doctors, nurses, and first responders. Or they’ve modified something in their delivery model to better serve their audience during this shelter-in-place economy.

They are speaking to their audience in a way that they can be heard because they’re talking about the same topics that are already occupying the minds of their constituency.  They’re finding the frequency that the audience is tuned into and showing up there.

What frequency should you be broadcasting from? Right now, it’s the community outreach frequency.

You could:

  • Host a drive-through food bank drop off at your location (car dealerships)
  • Create downloadable posters with positive messages that kids could color and their families could hang on their front door (any business that works with kids)
  • Curate easy to cook dinner recipes from within your community of customers (local restaurant)
  • Offer simple mask making instructions along with a how-to YouTube video (fabric store or security company)
  • Collect donations to provide food and shelter for all of the animals being abandoned at this time (vet clinic or pet supply store)
  • Offer your products or services for free for first responders, medical professionals or delivery drivers (just about anyone)
  • Offer free counsel to business owners (attorneys, CPA, etc.)

The key to this act of service is that it needs to be tied to what you do. If you’re a medical supply company, the mask pattern makes sense.

It doesn’t make sense if you’re an HVAC company. But all of us can and should do something. It’s the only frequency our audience can hear right now.

Then, use your advertising dollars, social channels, customer groups, and any other communications vehicles to invite your customers, prospects, and the community to join with you to help. Or, use those same outlets to celebrate and thank our local heroes.

For example, Big Al’s BBQ & Catering is offering free meals to long haul truck drivers since their food options are pretty limited right now. They can’t go into a restaurant, and you can’t take a big rig through a drive-thru. Big Al’s is promoting their generosity on their Facebook page and inviting their customers to help.

How about you – what could you be saying that your audience is ready to hear?

Originally published in The Des Moines Business Record as part of Drew’s weekly column series.

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The first stage – marketing during a community outbreak

April 1, 2020

There are so many unknowns that we are dealing with today in relation to COVID-19. But there is one certainty. This will pass, and we will move into a new normal. We aren’t going to just pick up where we left off before COVID-19. The truth is – like any other event of significance, this moment in time will change the way we do business. The way we interact will change, in some way, each of us.

But there will be a time, just like after 9/11 and the’ 07-’08 recession when it will feel okay again, and we will go back to business with the same vengeance as before the pandemic.

There are three distinct stages we’ll experience on our way to a new normal, and in each phase, we must think about marketing a little differently.

We are in the first stage, community outbreak. As we’ve all experienced in the last couple of weeks, we have moved into a homebound economy. For most people, they’re still experiencing a mix of disbelief and fear related to the virus. Some have cocooned in their homes, taking social distancing to an extreme. Others, on the opposite side of the spectrum, may be working from home, but they’re still socializing with neighbors on their driveway, going out shopping, and trying to cling to a pre-COVID-19 normal.

As your audiences grapple with accepting this situation, they are not particularly open or in a position to buy anything beyond essentials. Like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, they’re focused on covering their basics. If you sell to consumers, they’re spending on food and supplies to keep their family safe and entertained. If you sell to businesses, they’re scrambling to figure out how to function with a 100% remote workforce and are worried about their own revenue challenges.

Both groups are hoarding cash out of fear because there are so many unknowns. Even if you offered them the best deal on the planet – they can’t hear you right now.

During this phase, there are two major marketing mistakes you can make. The first and most offensive is to keep selling. At best, you look tone-deaf to the situation, and at the worst, you look greedy and uncaring. The second major mistake is if you go silent. Coming up, I’ll show you data on what happens to organizations that disappear from the marketplace during a financial downtown like the one that followed 9/11.

What we can and should do right now is move from selling to serving our community in any way we can. A great example of that here in Des Moines is RE/MAX Precision. They’re distributing activity packets for four different grades (pre-K to 3rd) free of charge, and the 200+ families who have received the packets have been, as you can imagine, very thankful.

An ad agency in Bangor Maine, Sutherland Weston, created a free guide of all the places and special times that seniors and people with compromised immune systems can shop in their town. Both are excellent examples of how you genuinely help and build your brand at the same time. There’s nothing wrong with doing both.

Beyond serving the needs of the community, which should be our first priority, businesses can and should still be communicating. Instead of selling, shift to educating, and informing. Your audience isn’t in a position to buy right now, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help them today. For now, you can stay relevant and valuable to them by sharing with you know in a way that serves them right now.

Be of genuine service today. It’s the right thing to do. But it will also the right way to market right now.

Originally published in The Des Moines Business Record as part of Drew’s weekly column series.

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Look for the helpers

March 25, 2020

I have always loved the story that Mr. Rogers is credited with:

When I was a boy, and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, “look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping”. To this day, especially in times of crisis, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

We’ve been talking about shifting your selling focus to a helping focus. Hardcore sales messages are not only going to fall flat right now, but they’re going to be perceived as tone-deaf, given what everyone is going through. There will be a time when we can go back to our usual marketing tactics, but right now is not the time.

You should be shifting your focus to being of service. The first audience that you need to be caring for is your internal team. Elevating the frequency and humanity of your internal communications is critical right now.

Make no mistake – this is marketing. But it is emotionally intelligent marketing. It’s brilliant PR, and it’s demonstrating to your audience that you actually live out your corporate values when life gets complicated.

It’s easy to espouse your values when profits are healthy, and your marketplace is hungry for the work you do or the products you sell. It’s a whole different ballgame when you really don’t have anything to gain in the short run. That’s when we truly show our corporate character.

The other shift you should be asking yourself is how you can help your prospects, customers, and community. Coming up, I’m going to spotlight local businesses who are exemplifying this strategy.

The Foundry at Valley Junction converted an 1890s railcar barn and iron foundry into a distillery, food & beverage hall, and commissary kitchen. News of distilleries using some of the by-products of their normal output to create hand sanitizer hit the internet recently. The owners of the Foundry decided to do the same. Last week, hundreds of cars lined the streets outside The Foundry and handed staff and volunteers empty bottles only to have them filled with free hand sanitizer.

By the time the weekend was done, hundreds of gallons of free sanitizer were distributed to families who had been frantically searching the city for what has been an impossible item to find on store shelves. Even Amazon is sold out.

Thanks to the innovative thinking and kindness of the team at The Foundry, thousands of Des Moines area families are resting a little easier and feeling a little safer.

Your business may not be in a position to give away something as essential as hand sanitizer. But I know that there is something you can do to make surviving this storm easier for someone. This isn’t about the size of the group you’re caring for; it’s about the act of caring.

I want to shine the spotlight on local businesses that are embracing this idea of being a helper. But to do that, I’m going to need your help.

Be on the lookout for the organizations that are shifting from marketing and selling to helping. Send me an email (drew@mclellanmarketing.com) and tell me what they’re doing.

Together we’ll celebrate the helpers, and together we will survive this storm as a community of business owners and leaders. How we show up right now will define who we are long after this crisis is nothing more than an unpleasant memory.

Let’s do all that we can to get each other through this with as few casualties as possible.

Originally published in The Des Moines Business Record as part of Drew’s weekly column series.

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Social media fails during a crisis

March 25, 2020

I covered this not 6 months ago but feel that the situation each and every one of us finds ourselves in today, calls for us to revisit social media and the way it has changed the way we learn about, share and react to big events – good or bad. We rush to it to celebrate but we also rush to it when the world is in danger or a tragedy has occurred, whether it’s a natural disaster like a hurricane or the situation we are in today, the spread of the Coronavirus or COVID-19.

For many of us, social media has replaced traditional media and news sources for that initial alert. I don’t know about you, but I learn something new every day about the Coronavirus on-line. It’s true that I, and many of you, still turn to our more traditional news outlets for ongoing news and updates, but Facebook and Twitter seem to not only inform us of the minute by minute happenings but social media uniquely reflects the sentiments and the humanity of the situation.

When we’re in crisis, we want more than the facts. We want to share the experience. We want to express our outrage or sympathy. It’s the emotion of the moment that pulls us into the social channels and keeps us there, eager to participate.

That’s why people react so strongly when a gaffe occurs. The emotions are so heightened that when someone does or says something insensitive or self-serving, people go nuts.

So, how should we handle social media when the country or the world is in crisis? The truth is, if it’s not handled well, you can create your own crisis. And where will it explode? On social media, of course.

When your brand stumbles on a regular old day, you may get blasted for it, but it passes. But when you fail during a heightened time of emotion and scrutiny – that can stick on your brand forever.

Here are some social media fails to avoid when the world around you is focusing on something serious.

Curb all regular postings: This is not the time to share articles, post photos or promote your business. And by the way – doing any sort of hybrid posting where you speak of the situation AND your company just smacks of borrowing from someone else’s sorrow for your own gain.

Pause all auto postings and auto-tweets: Many people use tools that auto-populate their feeds with great content. But accidentally acting like everything is normal when it most definitely is not can make your brand look at best, out of touch and worst, insensitive.

Don’t use the tragedy to get social cred: This is not the time to solicit likes or followers, even if you offer donations or some other support for whoever is suffering. Profiting in any way from the circumstance makes you look petty.

It’s never funny: I’m sort of stunned when it happens but it seems like some moronic brand always tries their hand at humor. Trust me, it’s never funny. During Hurricane Sandy, Gap joked in a tweet that everyone should just stay inside and hit gap.com for some retail therapy, not unlike some other brands doing the same right now since we are all supposed to be staying at home as much as possible.

Make sure you know which profile you’re using: There have been many incidents where a social media brand manager thought they were using their own personal account to comment on a tragedy or social happening and instead, embarrassed their brand and got themselves fired.

Do all of these faux pas mean you have to stay silent during a national or international crisis? Absolutely not. Share authentic emotion. Let them see the humanity behind your brand.

Be a resource. Be encouraging. Be genuinely helpful. Be real.

Just don’t be a social media failure. This isn’t the time to promote, profit or proselytize. It’s time to be human.

This was originally published in the Des Moines Business Record, as one of Drew’s weekly columns.

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Where are you listening?

March 18, 2020

Do you still have a customer service number that you promote on your product packaging, website, or collateral material? Do you get many snail mail letters from disgruntled customers? How about drop-ins, asking to speak to a supervisor.

That’s how people used to complain when a product or service didn’t live up to their expectations. Depending on your target audience, odds are, you’ve noticed a decline in these particular methods. But that does not mean people have stopped airing their grievances.

If anything, consumer complaints are on the rise. It’s not an if, it’s a where. My worry for businesses is that they’re not listening where their clients are venting their concerns.

A recent study done by Sprout Social shows that 46% of consumers have used social channels to call out a brand. 55% of consumers say that the reason they reach out to a brand on a social channel is because they want resolution or a response. What do you suppose their reaction is when they get silence in return?

Only 3% of the respondents said they didn’t want any sort of a reaction or response from the brand. This is a key insight for us all. They are not complaining just to complain. They are complaining to get something in return.

What are they getting from you?

The same study revealed that consumers believe that social media increased the accountability of a brand by:

  • Uncovering unfair treatment (80% of respondents)
  • Giving the consumers power (75% of respondents)
  • Encouraging transparency (70% of respondents)
  • Amplifying issues (65% of respondents)
  • Helping employees share experiences (55% of respondents)

When we don’t respond to their publicly aired grievance – how do you suppose that plays? I’d argue that at best, it makes us look out of touch and at worst like we have something to hide. None of those are going to win us any prizes in the customer service hall of fame.

Don’t be fooled by the suggestion that this is just a millennial behavior. Yes, they will shift to social faster than their older counterparts, but customers of all ages will use any tool at their disposal to get the attention they need. I’ve seen many 50+ consumers (myself included) use Facebook, Twitter, and other channels to get some action or reaction.

While the Sprout Social study focused on social channels, that’s just scratching the surface. Review sites for your industry, general review sites like Yelp.com, consumeraffairs.com, the Better Business Bureau’s site, your website, and, of course, Google and Facebook reviews are all fair game.

How big is your risk in this area? Who monitors all of these sites and channels for your company? How quickly do you notice when one of your customers raises an issue or asks a question? Do you respond, and do you have a protocol for your responses?

It’s not like the internet is a new concept or that anyone thinks people are going to cut the cord anytime soon. So why wouldn’t a business recognize how critical it is to monitor and respond to what’s being said about and to you on social channels and other online locations? I understand that it’s daunting. But that doesn’t mean we have the luxury of ignoring our customers simply because we’d prefer they use another method of communication.

The good news? When you respond well to an online complaint, you can not only solve the issue but actually earn a reward. 45% of people will reinforce the positive outcome by posting about it on social, telling their circle of influence about the resolution. They’re also more likely to do business with you in the future.

Be sure you are actively listening where your customers are most likely to be talking. And talk back.

This was originally published in the Des Moines Business Record, as one of Drew’s weekly columns.

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How to market when no one is listening

March 18, 2020

We are in seemingly unprecedented times. As our country and state readies itself for whatever the coronavirus is going to throw at us, it’s a little tough to be thinking about your next marketing tactic.

I want to remind you that this isn’t actually the first time most of us have seen a season like this.

9/11 and the Great Recession were very similar. Events outside of our control had an incredible impact on the economy, our businesses, families, and personal finances. This particular threat feels even more imposing because we’re also facing a health concern.

The country and Iowa will survive this. The question is – how will businesses fare? There’s no doubt that companies will be harmed. Our goal is for you to mitigate as much of the risk as possible and prepare your organization for the calm that always comes after the storm.

That’s the good news – no storm rages on forever. There’s always a calm that comes after the storm has run out of steam. We’ll get to that point too, just like we did after 9/11 or the recession. But first, we have to do all we can to survive the storm.

How do you market when no one is listening, and even if they are, they’re probably not in a position to buy? It’s time to move to a long-term strategy. What you do in these coming weeks isn’t about immediate sales. It’s about making a sale in six months or a year.

This is not the time to capitalize on the situation. I’m already seeing opportunists re-tooling their marketing to seize the opportunity. When people are in panic mode, they don’t react well to feeling taken advantage of by someone they thought they could trust.

No sale or coupon is going to get people to care what you have to sell right now unless it’s a necessity as they wait out this storm.

It’s time to shift entirely into “be of service” mode. It’s time to focus your attention, time, and efforts into helping your customers, prospects, and employees through this season.

How can you help? That’s the question to keep asking yourself. What can you do that will genuinely be of service to your most important audiences? What do we have (access to your product or service, knowledge, introductions, strategic counsel, etc.)?

Let me give you an example.

Shine Distillery & Grill, a small distillery in Portland, OR found a unique way to help. The first batch of alcohol in their distilling process isn’t drinkable. They’ve been throwing it away after using a little bit of it as a cleaning agent to keep their facilities shiny and disinfected.

As they watched people scrambling to find hand sanitizer, it occurred to them that they might be able to help others during the coronavirus. They reached out to local authorities to find out what they would have to do to use their waste alcohol as a sanitizer. Turns out as long as they’re not making medical claims – they can bottle it and give it away. It’s an 80% alcohol solution that is well above the CDC’s 60% recommendation.

Maybe you can’t replicate that. But perhaps you can create some financial relief through a payment program for your customers and then build a communication strategy around that. Perhaps you can hold educational webinars that help your prospects, and customers save money or serve their customers better in this odd moment in time. What if you gave your smaller customers access to some of the perks that your more prominent clients enjoy?

That’s being of service without remuneration. For now. I believe that kind of generosity is our marketing mandate for the next couple of months.

Be of service.

Originally published in The Des Moines Business Record as part of Drew’s weekly column series.

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Sometimes the best marketing is to be silent

March 11, 2020

As the world whips itself up into a panicked frenzy about the coronavirus, there is an inevitable ripple effect. Airlines and hotels are emailing their most loyal customers, telling them what actions they are taking to protect their customers. Events and public venues are doing the same or canceling scheduled events altogether.

Social media is imploding with people sharing accurate and inaccurate information about the virus itself, how to protect yourself from the virus and how the virus is impacting everything from the Corona beer sales to the stock market.

Brands are itching to get into the action, but it is a slippery slope. Lush, the natural soap store, has invited the public to come into any of their stores to wash their hands. Their CEO was quoted as saying, “The simplest thing you can do to not get a virus is to regularly wash your hands,” he said. “So, we’re saying people can come in off the street and wash their hands in our place. We’ve got loads of soap and plenty of hot water.”

What was your reaction to Lush’s gesture? Did you think they were being altruistic, or did it occur to you that it was an interesting way to drive traffic into their stores?

The PR firm 5WPR released a survey saying that 38% of Americans “would not buy Corona beer under any circumstances now.” That headline got the firm a lot of international ink for their findings, which is the holy grail to a PR firm trying to prove they can help clients get media coverage. But, when you dig into their data, only 4% of people who had ever bought Corona in the past answered affirmatively to that question. So, most of the people who said they wouldn’t buy Corona now also never bought it before the coronavirus.

There are widespread reports of price gouging for products related to the worldwide panic. Hand sanitizers, latex gloves, and face masks are flying off the shelves, and some retailers are taking full advantage.

Some of China’s most prominent influencers are cashing in, posting photos of themselves in masks, and sharing buy now links with their audiences. They are offering makeup tips and fashion ideas to make wearing the masks more fashion-forward.

99.99% of all brands should remain silent, steer clear of this situation, and just conduct business as usual, especially if what you sell doesn’t have a genuine association with the virus and health issues around it. Anything you do, even if it is with good intentions, is going to have a tough time passing the whiff test. You are going to be accused of trying to take advantage of the situation for your own gain.

Advertising platforms are also trying to get this under control. Amazon has warned sellers that they are watching for price gouging around antibacterial products, facemasks, and other protective gear. Google has locked down buying specific keywords relative to the disease and products related to it.

The coronavirus crisis will pass, but consumers will remember who tried to take advantage of them when they were frightened. There are no doubt going to be companies who capitalize on the panic. In the short run, they’ll make a lot of money. But, they’re also going to be put on trial in the public forum.

We’ve seen this play out before right after 9/11, hurricanes, oil spills, tornados, and other crises. The organizations that help without looking for financial gain are always the heroes, and those who take advantage are the goats.

Whether you sell antibacterial hand sanitizer or not, odds are your business will make decisions tied to the coronavirus. Just remember that the world is watching.

Originally published in The Des Moines Business Record as part of Drew’s weekly column series.

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