Opinion: The 4 immediate actions CMOs must take to deal with COVID-19
While many business leaders are focused internally on workplace or supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic, chief marketing officers have additional external pressures to consider. Not only must they address the same cost optimization and remote workforce issues as their peers, but CMOs also face the challenge of adjusting strategies for uncertain customer attitudes, behaviors and needs.
The key to taking proactive control of this fast-moving situation is not to create a single plan. Doing so creates risk at a time when so much remains unknown. Even the best minds in public health cannot accurately predict the future. For example, a survey of infectious disease researchers, conducted March 16 and 17 found the consensus forecast of expected US cases for March 29 to be roughly 19,000; in fact, the US was nearing 150,000 cases on that date.
No one can foresee the future, so CMOs must envision all likely outcomes. You’ve already formed a task force to address unexpected challenges. To provide that group with direction, retain control in this troubling period, protect your brand and prepare your team, you must take these four immediate actions:
Build COVID-19 contingency plans
The key to mitigating risks associated with COVID-19 and identifying opportunities is rigorous scenario planning. Consider a range of scenarios from best-case to worst. Your best-case option may be based on a simple two-phase plan—months of crisis followed by rapid recovery.
Your other scenarios must consider an intermediate term of ambiguity that extends into 2021. During this period, we will see constant or fluctuating limitations on events and mobility, periods of increased social distancing and variable impact to incomes and buyer confidence. Furthermore, different regions will be impacted in different ways. Much as we see today, with the United States iwill face a different set of limitations and consumer behaviors than, for example, South Korea. “Agility” has long been a requirement of marketers, but in 2020, CMOs will be tasked to manage with unprecedented agility.
Monitor, report and react to shifts in customer behavior
Maintaining customer-centricity is of utmost importance during times of stress and quickly changing expectations. If we can’t anticipate the future with clarity, neither can our customers, which means we must rely on all available listening tools at our disposal to recognize real-time shifts in customer context.
Two weeks ago, Gartner polled more than 200 marketers and found most are turning to third-party research. This is natural during a time of swift change and need for consumer insight; still, it’s vital to understand that your customers will face unique needs and situations versus the general population. Use social listening platforms, your front-line employees, proprietary mobile data and "voice of customer" programs to better understand how your customers’ needs are evolving.
Prepare marketing teams for interruptions and challenges
The actions that CMOs take now will set the tone, internally and externally, for how the organization will weather the crisis. Many leaders have reacted with great compassion, allowing their employees time and flexibility to attend to families and address immediate needs. While that is a caring place to start, CMOs are now shifting to a new, assertive stance.
Two-thirds of marketers tell us they are expecting moderate-to-significant budget cuts, and that percentage has grown in just weeks. Now is the time to make your key employees essential. Using your scenarios, put people to work building reactive and proactive communications for each stage of each scenario. Cross-train team members to backup front-line digital employees who will deal with a surge of questions and inquiries. And get creative in lending employees to other portions of the business that may have resource gaps as customer demands change. One CMO told me this week, “We’re in wartime, and we’re making wartime decisions.”
Review marketing plans for potential impact
While many marketers paused their media buys in March, a more proactive stance is necessary to protect the brand and maintain the essential flow of business in the coming months. As Andrew Frank, VP analyst at Gartner notes, “As marketers prioritize agility, the flexibility of programmatic media that can be turned on and off on dime becomes an asset. So far, this has mostly resulted in rapid reductions in display and social advertising but marketers must now prioritize needs and opportunities to provide timely, vital information—or dispel misinformation—through programmatic channels that provide efficient targeting at sharply reduced costs.”
Failure to anticipate potential change to marketing strategies will leave marketing teams in defense mode throughout the duration of the crisis. Marketer’s COVID-19 scenarios must consider impact to messaging and media budgets. In each scenario, identify the triggers that are unique to your brand. If your marketing plans require tradeshows or sports events, you need to prepare for those to be interrupted throughout 2020. If your brand messaging is based on personal gatherings, you may need to consider how that will be welcome in markets that are emerging from crisis but could fall on deaf ears in others still struggling to control infections. Scenario planning is key to preparing the media plan and creative you need to deploy, based on the unique situation your brand and its customers face in the moment.