The COVID-19 pandemic required a quick shift for professional marketers that has given way to a new toolbox and playbook for success. Photo by Campaign Creators on unsplash.com
published on November 17, 2022 – 2:39 PM
Written by Ben Hensley
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, business marketing strategies were forced to change, shifting focus from more of a responsive effort to a significantly more proactive approach, in particular revolving around social media and an online presence.
Experts in the field say that customer experience and employee engagement will be the most dominant trends in the coming years, with consumers driving businesses toward a more “long-term customer relationship” centered approach.
The ever-evolving online environment a large amount of marketing strategies are required to employ can be filled with room for both opportunities, but can also be an intimidating platform to navigate, as it constantly evolves and integrates new and exciting opportunities for businesses and organizations.
From an educator
Technology providing a link to the outside world for many during the COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses and marketing strategies to speed up a process many were already starting to embark on.
Betsy Hays, professor of public relations and advertising for the media communications and journalism (MCJ) department at Fresno State, says that many businesses saw this as an opportunity to raise brand awareness to a consolidated population of people sheltering in place.
“With brands, it was fascinating to see who could pivot quickly and who didn’t,” she said. “We definitely saw the folks that provided themselves as a resource or retooled themselves to manufacture more hand sanitizer or clothing companies that started to produce masks.”
Hays added that the pandemic, paired with an increase in online interactivity, has created a more “fast forwarded” trend lifespan that brands should try to capitalize on.
Companies like Zoom that were “first on the scene” saw an initial boost. Following Zoom playing the role of “innovator,” many other companies including Microsoft, Google and Apple also experimented and developed their own video conferencing services.
“Zoom was one of the companies that ‘won’ the pandemic,” Hays said. “It was incredibly imperfect; it’s improved quite a bit since then, thankfully, and now Zoom is a word that every single person on the planet is aware of.”
Companies like Zoom who act as innovators commonly see a boost in marketability due to name recognition.
Towing the line of “edginess” can also potentially attract customers, but Hays said having an open mind is extremely important to ensuring brand reputation does not suffer.
“I tell my students all the time about the analogy of the horse with the blinders,” she said. “That is the worst thing that can happen to a communications professional.”
Aside from the obvious red flags to avoid, Hays said the inclusion of “edgy” content in a social media marketing campaign can work quite well.
“Obviously don’t be a racist. Don’t be sexist. Don’t be homophobic,” she said. “There are lots of things that are mandatory, so once you check those boxes, more than likely you’re going to be fine.”
But mistakes, on some levels, do happen.
Hays adds that the best way for a company to receive forgiveness for making a marketing mistake is to have built a reputation of positive interaction.
“One of the best ways to be able to rebound is to have a little bit of forgiveness insurance built up,” Hays said. “If you are a brand that has established yourself as being ethical, being audience centered, doing the right thing — you are going to be much more easily forgiven for a mistake that’s non-catastrophic.”
From the professionals
Marketing, of course, differs for nearly every business, with retailers, entertainment venues, transportation services and all other businesses vying for the same plot of digital real estate.
While there is plenty of space in this digital marketplace, having the ability to learn and adapt to what customers want is something that can always generate business.
Jane Olvera, president and founder of JP Marketing in Fresno, said that many techniques her company utilized prior to COVID changed due to the shift to primarily digital marketing for many companies.
In the past, JP Marketing and other marketing companies had utilized secret shoppers and other techniques to discover what trends did and did not work in the marketing landscape. Now, focus has shifted to online surveying and other techniques that provide statistics much faster.
Olvera had already anticipated a shift to a more digital setting for marketing, but said the pandemic accelerated the necessity of that shift.
“Sometimes, I think unbeknownst to us, we make it difficult for customers to interact with us and that customer journey is really challenging,” Olvera said. “When you added the extra layer of COVID and you added a layer of lack of personal interaction and the need for things to be remotely at somebody’s fingertips…it heightened the need to really pay attention to these things.”
Olvera said one of the biggest challenges facing businesses is the assumption of a customer’s desire, making connecting with customers — be it digitally or in person — essential.
“I think that’s more heightened than ever, which is why we find ourselves as an agency doubling down on research to try and understand the consumer better,” she said. “I can’t use a study from pre 2020 because we have all changed pretty significantly.”
Olvera said that business-to-consumer personalization is one thing that could provide success for businesses in the future.
Personalized letters from companies and other “extra mile” moves go a long way toward building a better relationship with customers, building a path that the customer will hopefully return to.
“There’s no reason why we can’t have that level of quality customer service,” she said. “Those personal touches and building those customer relationships — I think that’s the ticket to the future.”
Building the customer/business relationship
Be it online, in person or a combination of both, a key element of marketing strategy is building customer relations and creating a product or environment that generates returning customers.
Steve Miller, president of Fresno First Bank, has utilized an emerging market strategy, engaging local athletes’ name image and likeness (NIL) in his advertisements.
The advertisements not only draw attention to the local bank in a fun and unique way, but also incorporate local members of the community — in this case, student athletes from Fresno State — driving up local interest.
“I think NIL was a unique opportunity that came about during the pandemic that gave a lot of companies, including us, an opportunity to do something different,” he said. “NIL was just a more fun way to do things like that.”
Miller added that NIL partnerships becoming available during the pandemic aided businesses as consumers at the time relied heavily on their phones and mobile devices.
In addition to Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook and other social media avenues, Fresno First Bank also airs their commercials on YouTube, and have made them available as advertisements on streaming platforms as well.
Streaming services offer companies like Fresno First Bank the opportunity to reach physical paying customers, as opposed to social media, where many have reported automated “bot” profiles posing as customers to provide potentially inaccurate feedback.
“I think that will be kind of a continued push as more and more things go just to streaming,” he said. “The beauty of that is people are paying for a service and you’re getting actual eyeballs.”
Other organizations like the Fresno Grizzlies, who rely almost exclusively on in-person interaction, have also been forced to adapt in response to the pandemic.
“In a post-COVID world, it gave us the chance to rethink the way we do a lot of things,” said Jonathan Bravo, director of marketing and communications with the Fresno Grizzlies.
The pandemic shrunk the size of the front office staff with the Grizzlies, but Bravo said that gives them the chance to be more versatile. Many front office personnel are required to “wear multiple hats” and cover duties for one another.
From a marketing perspective, the Grizzlies focus more on in-person entertainment than other businesses and organizations — and were given the opportunity to rethink their strategies following an entire 2020 season that did not see a single cleat hit the field.
“The fact our staff got to live through that gives us a unique perspective on what it must be like to be a fan,” Bravo said. “You get to feel the same excitement they’re feeling.”
As opposed to competing with one another, like many retailers do, the Fresno Grizzlies and other minor league baseball teams often work together, discussing what works and what doesn’t work to bring fans to the ballpark. With fanbases largely set in place, teams do not compete for customers at the same level that retailers do.
The challenge for them is bringing customers — in this case, fans — back to the ballpark time and time again.
The Grizzlies, therefore, utilize a unique form of marketing actively during their games: on-field promotions. Bravo said that for the first time in nearly two years, the 2023 season should feel like a “regular” year.
“We did unveil our Marvel inspired logo for 2023, which we couldn’t be more thrilled about,” Bravo said. “Getting to work with a Marvel artist on that was pretty surreal.”
The promotion calendar will also focus on social activities, food, school and more, doing their best to incorporate themed promotions to draw fans from all walks of life and interest levels.
“I truly believe that there is something for everyone on this year’s promo calendar,” Bravo said about the Grizzlies’ promotional calendar.