When the global zeitgeist is centred around fear, uncertainty, and panic during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a prevailing clamour for assurance, direction, and solution. There is not only immense pressure on governments to manage the crisis but also on businesses. The industry question is, how can marketers manage it?
Since the viral outbreak, our habits and societal norms have been entirely subverted. In a bustling city such as London, being bumped into by strangers was a daily guarantee; now, there is a mandatory 2-metre distance between all members of the public during the solitary excursion allowed per day. We’re also witnessing a surreal obsession with hand sanitiser, toilet roll, and facemasks. Such a behavioural change is particularly widespread amongst Gen Zs, 90% of whom are found to have altered their daily routine.
This volatile public mindset is concretely reflected in the marked shift in consumer shopping habits. Sales of goods deemed ‘essential’ - groceries and household items – have increased, whereas those of items deemed a luxury, or ‘non-essential’, are dropping. This has severely affected myriad retailers within the ‘non-essential’ category – clothes, shoes, jewellery – who are continually issuing profit warnings, such as retail giant, Zara.
As a result of such damage to the economy, marketing budgets risk not being viewed as priority, and therefore cut. More than 60% of UK marketers are delaying or reviewing budgets in the midst of the pandemic.Consequently, a 50-75% drop in the UK ad market has been forecast for April – the worst monthly decline in memory.
Amongst B2B marketers, there is an equal air of uncertainty as to whether strategies set in motion prior to the outbreak will be able to deliver the forecasted ROIs, or have the desired reach. According to data gathered in March, just as the viral outbreak gained momentum in the UK, only 40% of B2B marketers felt confident that they would receive any ROI on current campaigns. 
Pre-existing strategies for example may not adequately address the inevitable rise in reachability of digital campaigns over other platforms, given the number of people now working from home. Not to mention that key industry events on the B2B marketing calendar have been disrupted, such as the cancellation of the 2020 B2B Marketing Expo in London.
However, cutting budgets and pausing existing campaigns in an attempt to defend profits in the short-term will only make recovery harder in the long-term, once the climate begins to level out. It is therefore vital to continue with marketing efforts to be able to bounce back at this point. Additionally, with others cutting budgets, the benefit of maintaining share of voice will be greater, and long-term brand building efforts won’t need to suffer.
To help mitigate in the short-term whilst the pandemic persists, it is vital for marketing leaders to cut through the noise and identify where threats and opportunities lie, recognising the need for coms now more than ever. Given the sensitive nature of the global health crisis, it cannot be treated as a PR or CSR stunt, nor a chance to piggyback. B2B marketers should embrace a new, humanised approach, recognising that marketing and comms need to be injected with emotion, and the gravity of the situation paid due respect.
Whilst appealing to emotion is frequently perceived to be the job of B2C, B2B marketers must equally acknowledge the personal challenges brought on by COVID-19 for clients. Without this, collateral around the crisis risks landing badly, and stakeholders could lose faith in leaders’ grasp of the situation and how they’re handling it in the short and long-term.
A humanised approach is effectively demonstrated by the trial conducted by the Mayor of London in partnership with the Intercontinental Group. Supported by the government, Sadiq Khan has block-booked 300 hotel rooms with Intercontinental for the next two weeks, so rough-sleepers can self-isolate in the capital. While the Mayor of London is therefore seen to be putting on a public display of mingled pragmatism and empathy, the Intercontinental Group is boosting their brand advocacy through this partnership.
Inspired by this government-business unity, B2B marketers can position themselves as part of the solution. For example, the inception of US initiative, ‘StopTheSpread’, has seen corporations rally together to find purpose in the fight against COVID-19. 1,500 C-suite leaders are working to create partnerships with healthcare product manufacturers and distribution services to support the US healthcare system. Recent figures show that at a global level, 45% of people see both business and government as more effective when they’re working as a team, exemplifying the value of such a partnership and the opportunity that lies within.
In times of upheaval, marketers need to attenuate the immediate impact by establishing themselves as beacons of stability, reliability, and trust for clients. Flexibility and ingenuity need to take the fore in order to adapt to the current climate, whilst striking a balance between levity, empathy, and authority. Efforts in producing coms, adapting existing strategies, and increasing brand advocacy through meaningful partnerships, will ultimately aid a swift recovery on the other side of the pandemic.
 GWI Coronavirus Research March 2020, Behavioural changes to daily routines https://www.globalwebindex.com/hubfs/Downloads/GWI%20Coronavirus%20findings%20March%202020.pdf?utm_campaign=open-data&utm_source=open-data-release-1
 ‘Survey: US consumer sentiment during the coronavirus crisis’ https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/marketing-and-sales/our-insights/survey-us-consumer-sentiment-during-the-coronavirus-crisis
 ‘Profit warnings from firms in Europe mount as Covid-19 bites’ https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/mar/18/profit-warnings-from-firms-across-europe-mount-as-covid-19-bites
 ‘Majority of marketers delaying campaigns as coronavirus fears escalate’ https://www.marketingweek.com/marketers-delay-campaigns-coronavirus-fears-escalate/
 ‘UK ad market faces drop of 50% in April’ https://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/uk-ad-market-faces-drop-50-april/1678661
 ‘UK B2B marketers split on whether they can overcome coronavirus pandemic’ https://www.thedrum.com/news/2020/03/24/uk-b2b-marketers-split-whether-they-can-overcome-coronavirus-pandemic
 ‘Adapting to New Market Realities: How brands should think about advertising during and post COVID-19’ https://ipa.co.uk/media/8583/adapting_to_new_market_realities_v4.pdf
 ‘Demonstrating empathy: Deal with the human tragedy as a first priority’ and ‘Communicating effectively: Maintain transparency and provide frequent updates’ in ‘Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges‘ https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/leadership-in-a-crisis-responding-to-the-coronavirus-outbreak-and-future-challenges
 ‘London’s rough sleepers to be offered hotel beds to self isolate’ https://www.london.gov.uk/press-releases/mayoral/rough-sleepers-to-be-offered-hotel-beds-to-isolate
 US Corporations Sign on to StopTheSpread https://www.stylus.com/us-corporations-sign-on-to-stopthespread
 ‘GOVERNMENT SEEN AS FAR MORE EFFECTIVE WHEN PARTNERED WITH BUSINESS’ in Edelman Trust Barometer 2020 https://www.edelman.com/sites/g/files/aatuss191/files/2020-03/2020%20Edelman%20Trust%20Barometer%20Coronavirus%20Special%20Report_0.pdf