Why the COVID-19 crisis can be a golden opportunity for retail brands

By Parry Malm, CEO of Phrasee

Change is afoot

“Lisa Simpson:

Cheer up, Dad. Did you know the Chinese use the same word for ‘crisis’ as they do for ‘opportunity’?

Homer Simpson:

Yes. Crisitunity.”

Every generation has a moment that defines it. Two world wars, landing on the moon, the advent of the Internet, 9-11, the Brexit referendum, the list goes on. These moments are almost instantly recognisable for what they are: a moment when everything – EVERYTHING – changes forever.

The COVID-19 crisis has changed modern life. Exactly how much it has changed remains to be seen. There is one industry, however, that has been forced to adapt faster than any other: retail.

This crisis has been marked by shortages, supply chain issues, and changes in the relationship between retail brands and their customers. After a decade-long slow crawl toward an online-first approach that saw US online spending top $600B in 2019 for the first time ever, digital channels have been pushed to the forefront in countries across the globe.

Embracing the “new retail normal”

“Old ways won’t open new doors.” – Unknown

Consumer intelligence specialist CACI identified a shift toward online retail among new consumer segments in its recent Digital Marketing Scorecard report. Its authors posited that older shoppers have bridged the digital divide in record numbers. “Prior to the pandemic”, Field Marketing’s Frank Wainwright reports, “Millennials and Gen Z consumers saw far more multi-channel engagement. The lockdown, however, has forced many previously reluctant groups to engage in online behaviours that they had resisted.”

With new groups now experiencing the ease and convenience of ecommerce, the possibility that many will carry these new purchasing behaviours with them as they emerge from COVID-19 lockdown is highly relevant for modern retail brands. It behoves such brands to revisit how, when, and where they broadcast their marketing messages to these individuals.   

Empowering your brand to stand out from the crowd using data-based insights into what works on your audience, striking a balance between the salesy language of yesteryear and the branded messaging of the future, and being open to new strategies and technologies is the surest path to COVID-19 recovery success.

The need to control your messaging in this rapidly shifting marketing landscape has never been more urgent. If it wasn’t clear before the COVID-19 crisis, it certainly should be now: effective brand messaging is the future of marketing.

Doubling Down on Brand Messaging in a time of crisis

“You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you.” – Uncle Ellis: No Country for Old Men

While the COVID-19 crisis has proven to be a boon for some retail brands – Amazon reported a mind-boggling $33M per hour of retail sales in Q1 of 2020 – others have been forced to tighten their belts and brace for the recession to come.

Cutting marketing budgets may appear to be an easy way to trim the operational cost fat, but, as previous recessions have shown, retail brands which choose to make marketing cuts during difficult times often find themselves left in the dust by those which don’t – the recession of 1981-1982 being one recent example worth noting:

In terms of total sales in the years during (and immediately following) a recession, brands which continue to invest in marketing historically outperform those which don’t by a wide margin.

Ensuring that your marketing messages are on-brand and optimised to the tastes/preferences of your brand’s unique audience will be crucial in the months to come. The spammy clickbait tactics of yesteryear have no place in the marketing landscape of 2020. Consumers expect more from the brands they invite into their feeds and inboxes. This transition represents an unprecedented opportunity to enhance the dialogue between your brand and the customers who you hope to engage. 

Many retail brands will put off investing in emerging marketing technologies like AI in an effort to save money. But, as George Satayana once famously quipped, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”.

For those brands able to see the silver lining on the dark cloud hanging over the retail business (and indeed, the world) right now, there’s a golden opportunity available. An opportunity to outpace the competition, embrace change, and to build a more effective, data-driven marketing strategy.

Where the marketer of yesterday took a risk-averse approach to new tools/strategies, the marketer of tomorrow moves much more boldly.    

Embracing change today and empowering your retail brand to reach digital audiences more effectively as quickly as possible could well prove be the key differentiator between the retail brands which succeed during the COVID-19 recovery and those that falter.

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