Q&A: Multi-Site Marketing in an Uncertain Environment

Featured Executives

  • Greg Fant, Managing Partner at RevelOne
  • Gayle Milling, a seasoned Chief Marketing Officer with experience at a variety of multi-site businesses
  • Matt Murphy, Chief Marketing Officer at Pathway Vet Alliance

Topics Covered

  • Finding the right balance between crisis messaging and “normal” marketing
  • Maintaining authenticity in the brand
  • Identifying and executing on the highest-return marketing investments
  • Evolving the marketing strategy as businesses reopen

How are you thinking about the balance between crisis-driven marketing and “normal” marketing right now?

Milling: It’s critical right now for retailers to show that they have their customers’ best interest top-of-mind. They need to ensure there is the appropriate balance between consumer safety and revenue. At the same time, it is imperative to continue the messages and tone that work with their loyalists.

In terms of COVID-19, the appropriate depth of communication on hygiene and safety measures depends, in part, on the type of business. For example, a massage business might want to go deeper on their hygiene communications than a retail store. You’re going to lose a 24-year-old going to H&M if you go overboard on safety and don’t retain the language and personality that resonates with them.

Murphy: Pathway’s locations remained open through the pandemic since veterinary services were deemed essential. We emphasized hand-washing, PPE and all of the things that go into exceeding the CDC’s guidelines. Now, as we embark on bringing back nonessential services, such as grooming, on a state-by-state basis, the communications challenge is complex. Communications have to be very tailored to customers who use specific services in specific geographies.

Fant: It’s also challenging to acknowledge the current situation while continuing to pursue marketing opportunities with appropriate positive messaging. It’s a territory that we’re going to see a lot of smart brands start to navigate relatively quickly—but it can be tricky to do so with real authenticity.  

On that topic, there’s been a lot of discussion about authenticity among consumer brands in the marketing press. What does this mean in practice? What are some great examples you’ve noticed?

Fant: It has to be based on the truth. Consumers can see through self-serving communications. Unless you have a message that’s truly a value-add to consumers, it’s not a time to be doing brand advertising connected to current events. More effective messages will tell true stories about how companies are making life easier for consumers and improving the local community, and they will resonate with the brand’s identity.

For a sustained period of time, there will be a need for creative ideas to help people impacted by these crises, but these ideas need to be effective, on-brand, and give people ways to support their fellow humans. Any brand that can enable people to help other people is in winning territory.

Milling: Authenticity is also about standing by your mission and your value statement during this time. Positioning may need to be slightly tweaked in today’s world, but brands should stay true to their voice so that their message resonates with their core consumers.  

As opposed to those broad, one-size-fits-all messages, it’s better to tailor messages to customers. You don’t have to create 50 different email templates or hyper-personalized messaging. You should, however, focus on large, core consumer segments that cover the majority of your current customer base versus a one-size-fits-all email. Show your most important customers that you know something about them and their relationship with your brand, that you value their loyalty and that you’re sensitive to their needs. 

Murphy: Disruption is on everyone’s minds and has impacted literally everyone in the world. Every business has been affected in some way.

It gets back to frequency and the relevance of the specific message at that point in time. There are some brands that felt they had to communicate when it wasn’t necessarily as important, because everyone else was. And some are doing a better job than others in having a relevant message.

Given pressure on marketing budgets due to the COVID-19 crisis, where can multi-site businesses get the highest ROI in this environment?

Milling: Businesses should prioritize their loyalists, who typically generate a larger share of overall revenue, and who are going to be critical to retain in this new world. It is important to segment your customers in a thoughtful and efficient way in an effort to best retain them. As I mentioned earlier, one-size-fits-all messaging doesn’t particularly resonate with varying consumer segments. You need to speak to the needs and preferences of particular cohorts—especially your top customers. 

Likewise, consumers in different segments want to receive information differently. Aging boomers and the elderly are less likely to be digitally savvy, using more basic communication vehicles such as standard email, Nextdoor and Facebook for information. As you skew younger, digital is critical to drive messaging. Brands can easily experiment and test different messaging strategies in social media, quickly pivoting to what works. Analytics are critical in determining where to focus, including type of messaging and frequency and duration of that message. 

Murphy: We are also focused on our existing customer base, and we’re paying very close attention to marketing metrics. The fundamentals of marketing are essentially the same, but the cadence and content are certainly different. Speed and nimbleness are essential. We are having to move quickly and look at data differently—such as by state—which reveals processes we do well and others that may have opportunity for improvement. I think these new ways of looking at the business will have value for the long term.

Fant: Consumers’ understanding of technology has increased exponentially across all generations, so digital channels will get considerably more marketing attention. Businesses are going to want to use nimble channels that they can better control, such as paid social or search engine optimization, and there will be even more of an acceleration toward channels such as Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. There’s very little cost to produce and market in those channels, and you can flex budgets up and down quickly, which you can’t really do with traditional broadcast, print or radio. Given the lack of visibility to what the world will be like in the coming weeks and months, the ability to flex will be critical.

How should multi-site brands evolve their marketing strategies as we continue to reopen?

Milling: Innovative ways to predict and meet consumer needs will be key. Omni-channel capabilities such as curbside pick-up and ship-from-store will become standard, as will any digital enhancements that mitigate the need for in-person elements of the sales process. It will also be important to effectively communicate to your consumer base why you are making these changes, and how the changes will benefit them.

Fant: Consumers are going to look for companies to come back with even more energy and commitment. Anything you can do to extend your commitment and your service level to consumers in an authentic manner is going to go a long way. Also, people helping people is going to be really important, and can create brand affinity and engagement. Businesses should think about charitable cause marketing as a way to engage a broad base of consumers, such as giving a percentage of sales to a strong local or regional charity. Showing customers you are directly helping their community can be powerful.

Murphy: Some things, like curbside pickup and delivery, will become the norm. We can also expect other permanent changes, like more mobile and online booking, or different payment models. People have had the chance to experience these services, and many will feel this is a better way to interact going forward. Consumer businesses will need to adjust their economics in support of e-commerce-blended models and be prepared for a “new normal” that is not yet fully defined.    

In terms of messaging, we are still focused on letting our customers know we are here for them in these challenging times, and we’re backing that up with products and services. Businesses that remained open with essential services like ours are likely to be back to more normal messaging sooner. While we are very aware of our customers’ state of mind and the experience they are coming out of, we will soon be transitioning to that more upbeat, pet-focused messaging that our customers are used to.

Conclusion

Like so many of us, marketing professionals are fully aware that we are unlikely to ever return to a world exactly like the one we knew before. Today, these expert marketers are focused on authentically helping customers and their communities, whether that’s through safety and cleanliness measures, philanthropy or the advancement of social issues.

Going forward, they are looking for ways to stay connected with customers through all of the change we are experiencing. While ready to return to more positive messages, these forward-thinking professionals know that timing, well-honed empathy and true authenticity will be critical to making that shift successfully.


 

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