Covid-19 and B2B Marketers

Andrew Last

14 Apr 2020

Clearly it’s been an extremely tough, taxing and frankly surreal March, but I did feel some encouragement – optimism even – when I joined a panel of b2b and tech marketers last week.

The topic, unsurprisingly, was Covid-19 and how b2b marketers were responding.

The messages consistently coming through were:

  • “Our whole global team has been pulling together; sharing learnings and experiences”
  • “We now meet daily for 10 minutes rather than monthly for a half-day offsite – and are getting so much more done”
  • “We’ve become more agile and are making decisions in 5 hours rather than 5 days”
  • “We’re producing content to help our customers, rather than sell to them”
  • “We’re working closely to support our sales teams in supporting their customers”
  • “When we come out of crisis mode, we’re going to be more open and more likely to innovate”

These soundbites have been echoed by Harvard clients over the last few weeks.

The crisis has put marketing in the spotlight and b2b brands are responding by focusing on best practice and, ultimately, ‘doing the right thing’.

But what does this mean in reality?

Focus on your people, but don’t be too quiet

The number one priority for any business right now is to look after its people. There’s a huge amount of upheaval which will increase staff stress levels and potentially cause mental health issues. Internal comms has a big part to play here.

Next come customers comms of course.

There’s a risk of upsetting customers or prospects by selling too hard or appearing exploitative, but it’s almost as risky to stay completely silent and carry on as normal.

By now most brands’ Covid-19 policy appears on their website at least. But the next stage is to communicate directly with customers, ideally through a combination of relationship managers and CRM. This is where marketing should be getting closer to supporting sales people with helpful assets.

And don’t feel the need to keep the good work you’re doing under wraps.

Vodafone posted a blog from their CTO explaining the massive increases in network usage. As well as talking network resilience it covers activity around supporting the likes of the NHS and home-schooling.

It was measured, reassuring and demonstrates true leadership in a crisis.

Don’t just talk, support your customers

We’ve seen activation stunts from the likes of McDonald’s receiving a backlash. Whereas the brands who are coming out on top are those getting closer to their customers and genuinely trying to help.

Accounting software provider, Xero, has set up a business continuity hub to help their customers – often vulnerable SMEs – deal with the crisis. It’s packed full of helpful advice, training courses and discussion forums on everything from navigating government support and cash flow management through to advice on remote working and workplace wellbeing. The forum is a community where users help with advice, and Xero moderators guide the conversations.

Xero already improve everyday lives for SMEs, now they’re demonstrating how confident brands can be generous with their time and supportive in their approach during the crisis.

Lead by being responsive and adaptable

If anyone could be called a ‘winner’ in such extraordinary times, then it would be Zoom. They’ve gone from relatively niche enterprise software to critical infrastructure in less than a month. Their share price has rocketed and to “Zoom” has become a verb overnight.

This isn’t just down to being in the right place at the right time, but how they’ve responded to the crisis.

Tonally, they use empathetic language in their comms and they’ve created a dedicated microsite packed full of resources and training materials on remote working, digital healthcare, home education and virtual events. Plus there’s an offer for schools to use their software free-of-charge.

Yes, they’ll be converting a lot of new paying customers – but they’re handling the crisis with maturity and humility.

Will Covid-19 signify the end of the techlash?

Zoom have received some fairly high profile negative press attention over privacy concerns, but overall even the Big 4 are being seen in a positive light.

Amazon have been compared to the Red Cross.

Facebook launched a programme to support SMEs

Google  and Apple  are helping track the number of C-19 cases

With both consumers and business buyers relying even more on their infrastructure, there could be an end to – or at least a toning down of – the techlash as we progress.

Should you ‘advertise’ your way through the crisis?

As you’d expect there’s a big call from the ad industry for brands to keep spending. Whether it’s agencies, publishers or management consultants, justification comes by referencing learnings from the 2008 recession.

The stats and graphs can be convincing, but we’re dealing with something very different here. It’s closer to wartime than a ‘traditional’ recession. I find myself agreeing with infamous ad man Martin Sorrell when he called this out as “nonsense” last week.

Of course, pulling all paid advertising for the foreseeable future will clearly damage both brand and sales, so brands must take a long-term view. But with buyers at their most vulnerable and CMOs under pressure to cut cost, now’s the time to make smart, informed choices on media spend.

With the likes of the FT, Wall St Journal, Harvard Business Review and Bloomberg lifting their paywalls we are seeing an uplift in senior business audiences online, but any paid activity would need to be carefully managed in terms of messaging and tone-of-voice.

Whatever next?

We don’t have a silver bullet at this stage – you only need to look at the varying economic scenarios modelled by McKinsey to see that no one does. But we’ve broken down the crisis into three phases and looked at b2b buyer mindsets, actions and tactics to consider within each stage as you plan ahead.

Check out our Covid-19 B2B marketing response framework.

And finally, a quote from the APG that really strikes a chord for just how pivotal it is to get this right:

“The memory structures we are building now will go deeper and last longer than much of the better-planned marketing that comes before or after.”