Looking back at all the past crises in our history, specialists were able to conclude that brands that made every effort to remain true to their values were the most resilient. They used their brand power to point the company towards a shared goal, making the decision to invest in people and focus on the fundamentals of what made them different in order to provide real and authentic value to customers.
By Romanita Oprea
At the same time, brands that continued to communicate and keep their consumers close were the ones that had the most success over time. And that is because companies need to understand the evolving consumption patterns and fine-tune their strategies accordingly. Although it might seem smart to contain costs by cutting marketing and communication budgets, failing to support brands or examine core customers’ changing needs jeopardises performance in the long term. Instead, companies that put customer needs above everything else, as well as adjust their strategies, tactics, and product offerings in response to shifting demand, are more likely than others to thrive both during and after a recession.
In times of crisis, brands that manage to build a relationship based on trust with the end consumer are the ones who win. At times like these, beliefs, behaviour, and attitude divide consumers into several categories that somehow relate to a brand in different ways: determined people – clients who know exactly what they want –, undecided people, and reluctant people. The level of consumer loyalty, as well as the notoriety of a brand, are highly dependent on how much a company has communicated level over time, so adopting a growth strategy in hard economic times can contribute to increasing the loyalty of existing clients and can also attract new ones.
What should a brand do after an economic crisis? The short-term impact of an economic decline can represent a very difficult period for most brands. It all comes down to how resilient a business really is. “On the one hand, we’re seeing strong companies willing to invest in advertising and promotion during the pandemic, thus nurturing their growth strategies. On the other hand, smaller companies who have managed to overcome the critical period will put a lot of effort into innovating and surprising the end consumer, as they tried to do when the crisis broke out. Nonetheless, both categories will face some economic damage and have their financial and energy resources depleted. As history has proven, communication after a crisis tends to be very pragmatic, focusing on functional and rational benefits,” says Simona Dan, managing partner at The Public Advisors. On the consumer side, as things tend to relax, customers become tempted to buy different products or services that they’ve lately deprived themselves of. According to Simona Dan, this is a key moment for brands to invest in promotion and make a difference in communication through a strategy that covers multiple touchpoints, concentrating on social media channels and customers benefits. Managers should also take strategic steps to maintain consumer loyalty at high levels through marketing activities designed to restore their brand’s good reputation.
“Regardless of the company’s financial strength and the budgets invested in promotion campaigns, showing empathy for the target audience is key, so getting involved in community matters through dedicated projects will certainly make a difference in the eyes of the customer,” Simona Dan adds.
At the same time, one must realise that companies are impacted differently by an economic crisis: some are hit on the business front, in terms of operations, others lose the relevance of their products as market requirements change, while some are just presented with new opportunities.
“It is important to see brands as the result of this entire chain, from concept to production, market, and customers. If I had to choose one thing that fit all, I would say it was the need to understand and assess this whole chain and how it is affected by the crisis, before making any decision to move forward. Sometimes you’ll see that just trying to sell quickly based on the same old routine just deepens your problems,” says Crenguta Rosu, managing partner at DC Communication.
Sorina Mihai, managing partner at Porter Novelli Romania, considers continuous evaluation to be a key factor, at every level. For her, every downturn is an opportunity for brands and companies to assess where they stand and readjust accordingly. Both during and after a crisis, especially a recession, customers and other stakeholders are looking for reassurance, for something that will help them navigate through dark times and look forward to sunnier days.
On the client side, Ruxandra Voda, corporate communication director at Telekom Romania, looks at communication from an organisational perspective and takes communication with employers and customers into account. In a crisis, she believes that it is strategically wise to heighten the level of communication with both employees and customers. Therefore, Voda points out that organisations must communicate frequently at an internal level, provide safe feedback channels, help employees work from home efficiently, address job-related concerns, and provide a roadmap for the future.
“In the specific case of the current health crisis, communication that helps employees stay physically and mentally healthy plays a very important role. Many companies have developed programmes to address these specific emerging needs, such as the Healthy Me programme at Telekom,” Voda explains.
Externally, companies must understand consumers’ changing psychology and habits and identify new customer segments that emerge during a crisis. This way, they will be able to offer products and deliver messages which are aligned with the needs of such new consumer segments. “In deciding which marketing tactics to employ, it is critical to track how customers are reassessing priorities, reallocating budgets, switching among brands and product categories, and redefining value. It is therefore essential to continue investing in market research. As the recession winds down, consumers will regain buying power, but they may not return to their old purchasing patterns. Market research could thus explore whether consumers will end up going back to familiar brands and products, stick to substitute products or welcome innovation. Reassuring messages that reinforce an emotional connection with the brand and demonstrate empathy are vital as well. Such messages must be backed up by actions demonstrating that the company is on the customers’ side,” the Telekom representative added.
A caring and empathetic communication style alongside products and services that prove a brand’s customer orientation is the best way to convince people that remaining loyal to that brand is a sound decision.
What brands should never do is stop communicating. “Many times, companies consider it inappropriate to communicate during an economic crisis, due to the budget reduction that always occurs when there’s a crisis, as well as due to the “lower impact” their statements might have because of the multitude of disruptive messages that tend to pop up in a difficult context. It’s just a matter of adjusting your messaging so that it doesn’t become irrelevant, using the most appropriate media to spread it, and creating emotion and familiarity in order to connect with the receiver,” argues marketing business adviser Alina Laslau. At the same time, brands must quickly adapt to the context so as to avoid losing the spotlight to someone who might be better at delivering the message. Sometimes it is not enough to just do good things; you have to communicate them, so that they reach your audience.
What advice would communication specialists give to brand representatives? Crenguta Rosu points to two directions she would work on: one is short-term, namely capitalising on what they already have, and the second, in parallel, is assessing what happens during the crisis in order to set long-term objectives. We assume that brands live in a continuum, but some form of conversation must have happened during the crisis, so signs of customers’ changing needs are probably already there. Some form of adaption must have already happened. “This will allow the dialogue to continue, will facilitate sales, and will allow a quicker understanding of where customers stand. The second is like the ‘Computer, asses damages’ line we hear in star fleet movies. You need to know what is left of your starship to decide what to do next and how to get your warp speed engines back up,” added DC Communication’s managing partner.
According to Sorina Mihai, honesty is the best policy, and she is certain that every communication professional can get behind this statement. Consumers are becoming more aware of their power and looking for shared values with the brands they choose to interact with. Therefore, authentic, reassuring, and empowering messages that reinforce an emotional connection with the brand and demonstrate empathy and purpose are key.
“If I were to choose one piece of advice, though, I would undoubtedly tell them to always be prepared and open to the possibility of shifts in their consumers’ attitudes, values, and needs. Brands who maintain authentic and empathetic communication have a better chance of creating a more meaningful connection with their customers post-crisis,” Mihai explains.
Corina Vintan, founder and managing director at Links Associates, believes that brands should continue to build trust and reputation and provide content that is truthful, unbiased, and reliable.
“Never forget that brands that alleviate fears are trusted four times as much and that action builds brand trust. Without a trusted leadership source to look to, people don’t know where to get reliable information – it is important to communicate and maintain control of the message. Business gains the most trust by being a guardian of information quality,” Vintan argues.
“A state of broad-mindedness and empathy towards real consumer needs are two of the things that I find to be truly priceless and which can significantly contribute to designing the proper post-crisis recovery strategy. Brands that remain imprinted into people’s minds are the ones that stay close to their clients even in turbulent times. Likewise, to overcome such moments of crisis, it would be ideal for companies to communicate on innovation – be it the development of new products or the launch of new services –, to become actively involved in community life, and last but not least, to show gratitude to those who were loyal to their brand during difficult times,” Simona Dan notes.
One important aspect is also highlighted by Ruxandra Voda, who points to the fact that during crises, it is more important than ever to remember that loyal customers are the primary, enduring source of revenue and organic growth. Communication is essential to maintain trust in the brand.
Even recent history has so many examples of dos and don’ts, and especially of how easy it is for a company to lose its credibility in a second, just because it’s afraid to react in certain moments.
“Putting you company on a pedestal and thinking it is intangible is certainly not a good idea, especially since we are currently facing an avalanche in terms of brand communication. Social media is indeed the best ally in this context, proving its usefulness even in the case of low budgets, as it provides strong targeting and availability without huge costs to reach a large number of people. Alternatives are always available,” Alina Laslau concludes.
In moments of crisis, as feelings of anxiety and mistrust grow, new questions arise: “who can I trust?”, “who can I listen to?”, “who is right?”. According to The Public Advisors’ managing partner, brands that win over consumers’ trust are those that emerge victorious. Companies with a long history on the market have the opportunity to strengthen their relationship with customers by sending out simple but powerful messages such as: “thank you for choosing us for so long”, “we have proven that we fit together”, “we will do everything we can to get through this together”. As for new brands, according to Simona Dan, moments like these can create a chance to attract new customers by building a relationship with them through messages like: “I came to help you in these difficult times”, “I am here for you”. “To be noticed and memorable in a brandscape, you must first aim to communicate clearly and constantly,” Dan adds.
A constant reminder
Although some brand representatives understand how important it is to never stop communicating, even during hard economic crises, they still might need a kind reminder from time to time. How does that happen and how can one do it without it being too much? We often look to the visible part of a brand, but there is more to it than that for business leaders. “I’m not saying it is right; I am saying that it’s really difficult to allocate resources amid scarcity. There is also a general understanding that one knows the business best and that is why the focus is mainly on how to make business work because that is in their direct control while market changes are not. The only problem is that when this is done, they may discover that consumers have changed and that the market no longer exists.,” Crenguta Rosu says.
Market stability over a certain period of time or higher demand for a particular category of products or services might create a false sense of stability. According to Alina Laslau, inertia or familiarity can lead to brand owners being too comfortable with their results. “Many industries have great examples of brands that have never let their guard down, even when they’ve been in first place. Communication and innovation have always been the forces that have led to real stability, and they certainly cannot survive without each other,” she explains.
Moreover, when things get hard, like they have over the past year, some managers prefer to embrace results and business-oriented approaches first, thus relying too much on their product and less on promotion. This has a simple explanation: the primary emotions that overwhelm all companies during economic downturns are uncertainty and fear of losing everything. “Actions are less rational and more emotional. Unfortunately, a crisis involves restructuring costs and, under pressure, decision-makers cut down communication budgets, neglecting the long-term impact such measures may have on the company’s image. What needs to be vivid in everybody’s minds is that a brand’s communication strategy should be designed to fit a medium and long-term vision in order to help it reach its potential and secure a good position on the market. So, when disruptive events or crises emerge, only be small adjustments should be made to the strategy, along with the implementation of contextual tactics, and radical changes in terms of brand communication are not recommended,” Simona Dan argues.
In turn, Sorina Mihai looks towards brands’ responsibility towards their communities. Recessions are collectively-navigated hardships, and during these times people seek motivation, empowerment, relief, and certainty from their favourite brands. In her view, there’s no better time for brands and leaders to get involved and show how much they care and what they stand for than a crisis. “As customers are becoming more deliberate and mindful about their consumption patterns and behaviours, consistent communication is crucial to keeping them engaged and involved with the services and products a brand provides,” Porter Novelli’s managing partner concludes.
Must dos after an economic crisis, by Corina Vintan:
- Values have morphed; what matters most now, after family and health, is helping other people;
- Brands are expected to get involved in social issues – new mandate for businesses;
- Brands that step up, ease fears, express positivity and hope, and empathise with consumers will gain loyalty;
- Brands are now seen as powerful advocates and effective partners in change;
- It’s important to take meaningful action first and then communicate about it.