At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, marketing budgets faced near-universal slashing. Google slashed their 2020 ad budget by 50% and several other companies quickly followed suit. Now, as the economy has begun to reopen, it looks like many companies are starting to ramp up their marketing spending once again. So, what’s the plan for advertising in a pandemic economy?
Purpose, convenience, and affordability seem to be the name of the game in the coronavirus consumer marketing landscape — and the more of it, the better. McDonald’s for instance, recently announced it would increase ad spend by $200 million through 2020. Granted, the company would traditionally spend that amount in a single month in “normal” times. The important part of this announcement to me is not the amount but the strategy behind it. McDonald’s said it will be positioning its value and affordability — clearly aiming itself at families struggling to make ends meet in a COVID-19 economy. Smart, simple, to the point.
Brands like Procter & Gamble and Unilever have made similar decisions, focusing on promoting brands “relevant for lockdown living”— foods and products one could use during a staycation, comfort foods, products that promote personal hygiene. But what about technology brands? How are they marketing themselves during the pandemic? And, in a time when technology is in such high demand, do they even need to?
Tech has been a catalyst for growth and a pillar of stability throughout the pandemic. However, all businesses took precautions and many pulled back significantly in their marketing investments. As we are getting back to business, tech is returning to investing in marketing, but doing so with more empathy and awareness of how things are different.
Refocusing Campaigns at Dell
While the demand for devices and connectivity has remained high throughout quarantine, as employees and students were forced to work and school from home, tech companies still faced marketing challenges as B2B customers tightened their belts and only bought products that they needed. Dell, for instance, has been incredibly transparent about their about-face from marketing campaigns focused on the success of small businesses. Those types of messages were deemed irrelevant almost overnight, so the company needed to find new ways to connect with customers, even as the demand for Dell products and services remained high—especially PC’s as work from home flourished. So, how did they do it? By focusing on virtual events that provided customers the help they needed to keep their businesses functioning. Rather than promote their former success in helping small businesses, they recommitted themselves to helping businesses survive the current moment.
The pandemic changed the world in a flash and marketing had to change just as fast. For large companies that had the resources to power their customers in need, it may have been the best marketing strategy of all—especially as we emerge from the pandemic. This type of investment in helping businesses facing challenges will create significant long-term loyalty that goes far beyond any marketing campaign.
Cisco Promotes Connection
Cisco is taking a similar approach. In its most recent ad campaign, it focuses on connecting with those of us who are frustrated by the lack of professional sports available for live consumption. The ad smartly uses the lens of Cisco’s at-home videoconferencing software Webex to share the experiences of professional athletes working from home. According to Cisco’s marketing manager, the campaign “is a product of what’s happening in the world right now.” Again: the company is showing customers they are understood. The pandemic is hard. And Cisco is there to help make life a little bit better. We are a Webex customer and couldn’t work without their product, but even if we weren’t, that advertisement might have swayed me to look into buying Teams and Webex to connect with my team.
While the scene for professional sports is changing by the moment, and more and more are returning, the ability to tie to moment and make connection shows that the company is in touch. Since the situation around COVID-19 is fluid, Cisco and other brands making similar bets on real-time situations will have to be agile, but the emotional connection brands can make by being in the moment is powerful.
IBM’s Pivot to Things That Matter Most
IBM is another company that realized it needed to regroup following the arrival of coronavirus. The company’s SVP of Digital Sales and Chief Marketing Officer recently offered some significant insights into how the company is managing its marketing shift—including efforts to “pivot hard towards the things that matter most.” They focused on bundling services that would improve their users’ lives immediately and admitted that even they — IBM — needed to accelerate their digital transformation efforts to provide end-to-end digital experiences for customers.
An interesting note from IBM is not just how they are advertising, but where. In the past, they focused a lot on advertising in places like building elevators and non-home environments. Suddenly, no one was in those places. So, they needed to act quickly to refocus their efforts on marketing in new environments and channels. Data, they found, was hugely important for that work. They found through keyword searches, for instance, a great demand for quick demos, which helped them better focus content creation to meet customers where they are—amidst the confusion, with a helping hand.
Microsoft to Remain Humble
Microsoft, which saw its business remain consistent throughout the pandemic, especially with its cloud business and even more so with its Microsoft Teams taking off as one of the biggest pieces of collaboration software available on the market. These parts of Microsoft’s business were big contributors to why its Q2 earnings were up, but that doesn’t mean the company is getting full of themselves. The tech giant’s UK CMO Paul Bolt recently said that staying humble will be the secret to surviving post-pandemic marketing challenges, which is good advice for any company — regardless of size — to follow. Microsoft has also made the bold move in recent months to close all retail stores and focus business more on online support, training, sales, and more. It’s clear that, even though they are one of the most valuable companies in the world, that retargeting and refocusing their efforts on ways they can actually help customers will be what ultimately helps them.
What Does This Mean For You?
Obviously, not all companies have the budgets and capabilities of IBM, Dell, Cisco, or Microsoft. Many small businesses are struggling to find money to advertise at all, let alone intelligently. What can we learn from these tech companies, as well as others like Unilever and McDonald’s, which are increasing ad spend once more?
First, we can learn that advertising continues to be a critical element to success in almost any industry. This is true just as much in periods of recession as it is in periods of growth. But the messaging has to change. In order to survive, these companies are focused on what their customers need right now. Which is why data — especially data powered by AI — is so crucial for advertising and marketing programs.
Which brings me to the second lesson: This is a time when avoiding wasted costs is essential. Data will help all of us spend marketing dollars in the smartest and most effective way, whether we’re dealing with a global pandemic or a surging economic environment. This is a time to invest not just in marketing, but smart marketing. Data, AI, machine learning, CDPs, and other programs and technologies that help you make sense of the data you’re gathering from your customers’ needs to be part of your marketing stack if you’re ready to not just survive, but thrive as well.
Futurum Research provides industry research and analysis. These columns are for educational purposes only and should not be considered in any way investment advice.
The original version of this article was first published on Forbes.
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