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From the Scholarly Kitchen

Marketing in Times of Disruption (and How to Avoid a #marketingfail)

July 1, 2020  |  By

Originally published in The Scholarly Kitchen on July 1, 2020


The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the ways we work and how we live. The nation’s collective outrage over the murder of George Floyd is an acute, and painful, reminder of the immense work needed to end systemic racism. Like many, I have been reflecting on what all this means to me, both as an individual and as a professional, and where the two intersect. This article focuses on my professional reflections.

By trade, I am a marketer. Marketers are trained to be empathetic so that we can better understand and communicate with our customers. What do you do when the emotions you and your customers share are sadness, anger, and fear? How do you market when you are unsure what tomorrow brings? Marketing, at the best of times is hard, and in a time of crises, it can feel near impossible. But market we must – colleagues depend on us to develop programs to bring in revenue, which keeps people employed and enables the mission of scholarly publishing to move forward. Customers depend on us to stay informed.

Many of the challenges for marketing in disruptive times apply to all industries, not just to professional and scholarly communications. As I talk to fellow marketers across numerous industries, I find myself circling back to these same six lessons:

1. Pause

First, take a deep breath and pause. While it may feel like you have no time, take time you must. There is little that can be done without some serious thinking. It is highly likely that the tone and cadence of already-planned communication will need to change. New strategies will need to be employed. All of this requires time to reflect and plan. As an added benefit, slowing down stimulates creativity and strengthens resilience. Marketers will have to try and delicately balance the dichotomous forces of reducing cost and increasing revenue. Resilience and creativity are, and will continue to be, essential.

2. Stave off a #marketingfail

In times of disruption, emotions can run high. Here is a simple model for crisis communications. To stave (S.T.A.V.E.) off a marketing fail, focus on:

Strategy & Set-up:
Planning is vital. Set up a (virtual) war room comprised of key collaborators. The war room is the hub for strategic planning, monitoring, and agile decision making.

Start by detailing what the crisis means to each of your customer segments. How have they been impacted? What do they need? Remember that customers include all individuals and institutions with whom you have, or wish to have, a relationship (buyers, members, prospects, users, authors, etc.) and that different segments will have different motivations.

Designate spokespeople and create messaging approval mechanisms to ensure consistency across all communications. These internal communications ensure that all employees are aligned and feel supported.

You most likely have an automated marketing queue. Now is the time to check it, as SAXX Underwear learned the hard way, with a stunning, inadvertent #marketingfail. Marketing fails can occur when a pre-scheduled automated email is no longer appropriate.

Tone & Timing:
It is critical to strike the right tone. Clarity and simplicity are paramount. Now is not the time for fluffy language or overly intellectual creative concepts. After a careful review, you are likely to jettison any attempts at humor.

It is an art to know when to communicate and when to hold back. When it comes to crisis-related information, be transparent and communicate frequently. Slowly reintroduce marketing messages, but, where possible, contextualize. A good example is Asana, which quickly pivoted post Covid-19 to contextualize their product benefits around remote working.

When it is not business as usual, “marketers need to decide how their brand will best communicate compassion and, importantly, what they are doing to live up to their own advice” (see AdWeek). A recent survey by Morning Consult validated that consumers will look more favorably upon brands that make supportive statements about Black Lives Matter. However, just as important, consumers want brands to commit to action in their statements.

Customers are increasingly demanding authenticity. Societies such as American Association for the Advancement of Science and American Society of Hematology, with programs that support diversity, Association of Computing Machinery’s award for Covid-19 research, and organizations that have shown support for #ShutDownSTEM, such as American Institute of Physics and American Society of Plant Biologists, are all examples of brands modeling their values in action.

Providing high customer value is always welcome. During the Covid-19 outbreak, brands, including many publishers, have shared educational content, provided free or discounted products, supported causes, and developed closer relationships with their customers.

A great example of adding value comes from the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS). Responding to healthcare practitioners’ needs for real-time Covid-19 answers, HIMSS developed a digital think tank for healthcare professionals to share and collaborate in real time.

When communicating during a crisis, empathy is key. Organizations that appear too eager to capitalize on a crisis (such as Kenneth Cole during the Arab Spring and Facebook after Puerto Rico was devastated by a hurricane) are perceived as being tone deaf and callous. A report from public relations firm Edelman, “Brand Trust and the Coronavirus Pandemic,” demonstrates the importance of empathy. Consumers expect brands to put people over profits during the pandemic. Edelman found that 71% of consumers indicated they would “lose trust in a brand forever” if they perceived the company was prioritizing profit over people.

Empathetic organizations listen to their customers. As the voice of the customer, the marketing team plays a critical role in analyzing customer data, monitoring digital signals, such as sentiment, and surveying customers.

3. Be an Advocate for Branding (with a capital B)

During times of disruption it is important to lean into your brand. Branding has never been more important. Sarah Sluis of AdExchanger reminds us “to avoid a coronavirus marketing fail, brands need to think long term, build their brands over focusing on performance.”

Gone are the days when your brand is simply your logo and tagline. Branding, with a capital “B”, encompasses:

  • An organization’s purpose, value, and mission
  • Customer and employee experience
  • The organization’s brand personality
  • Community, customer advocacy, and influencers that champion the brand
  • Messaging and storytelling that brings a brand to life
  • Brand architecture, identity, and guidelines

Branding is often thought of as the domain of consumer brands. However, branding is equally important to scholarly publishers. For example, research shows the importance of brand to authors choosing where to submit their journal articles. Brand attributes, such as quality and publisher reputation, as well as key author experiences, such as peer review and the publication process, all matter greatly. Conveying brand value and delivering excellent experience drives differentiation.

Branding is the foundation that everything else is built upon. As the primary steward of the brand, the marketing team needs to advocate for a modern brand strategy – one that focuses on experience and purpose.

4. High Value Content is Always Welcome

Consumer media consumption is up significantly during the present pandemic (see GlobalWebIndex survey). According to ABC News, books on “race and criminal justice” are dominating best seller lists. As a result, marketers are focusing more of their investment on content marketing. A Sirken and Newscred survey highlights that marketing leaders expect a dramatic increase in content marketing investment as a result of Covid-19 (up 50% – 78% depending on content format).

Unsurprisingly, there are some prodigious scholarly publisher examples:

  • The JAMA Network’s response to the coronavirus has been outstanding. I am particularly impressed by their coronavirus podcasts and the UX (user experience) win of adding “coronavirus” as an area of topical interest.
  • NEJM Journal Watch’s collection of COVID-19 coverage and OUP’s “Twelve Books that Give Context to the Current Protests” are great examples of smartly curated content.
  • Wanting to provide additive customer value, the Infectious Disease Society of America created infographics to help physicians navigate telehealth.
  • In a feat of amazing agility, the MIT Press launched a topical eBook within weeks of Covid-19 shut downs.
  • Organized around customer and community needs, the American Psychiatric Association’s Coronavirus Resource Center deftly presents information for professionals, students, and patients.

5. Planning is Fundamental

While not the most glamorous side of marketing, planning and infrastructure, are often the difference between a highly functioning marketing team and one that struggles during a time of disruption. The Sirken and Newscred’s survey shows how “enterprise-level planning and project management tools helped reduce the impact on marketing organizations caused by COVID-19.

Our new normal is likely to turn preconceived notions about location and structure on its head. These tools, which drive productivity during “business as usual”, greatly increase adaptability and efficiency in times of change and when teams cannot be co-located. They can also facilitate new organizational design that drives efficiency, such as agile marketing, offshoring, globalizing, and automation.

6. Digital Transformation Cannot Pause

There is a cartoon making its rounds on LinkedIn where a Covid-19 wrecking ball is barreling towards a company that had put-off digital transformation. While it can be tempting to pause digital transformation aspirations, especially in the face of budget pressures, the world will not wait for organizations to catch up. This is an excellent time for organizations to audit their marketing technology stacks to see how they can improve marketing performance, increase customer value, and drive cost savings efficiency.

As our industry navigates a post Covid-19 world, marketing technology will play an increasingly important role as:

  • Societies re-imagine digital conferences, member engagement, and organizing around the customer.
  • Faced with Covid-19 supply chain constraints, university presses reevaluate their direct to consumer strategies
  • Publishers accelerate the movement to digital for more academic titles and move away from costly and inefficient print gratis offerings.
  • Journal publishers put authors more central to their marketing, digital, and data strategies.
  • Publishers look to make their platforms more dynamic and increasingly benefit from AI and big data.
  • All organizations look to improve marketing efficiency by measuring the efficacy of campaigns and programs.

One of the core recommendations in the above referenced Edelman report is that, during Covid-19, marketers should “Solve, not Sell”. This simple and powerful phrase could have been the title of this article. Even in the best of times, marketing should solve first; sell second. So, to all my fellow marketers – happy solving.


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Colleen Scollans

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Colleen Scollans leads Clarke & Esposito’s Marketing & Digital Transformation Practice. She is a seasoned marketing, digital strategy, and customer experience leader. Prior to consulting, Colleen was the Chief Marketing Officer for Oxford University Press’s (OUP) Academic Division. See Full Bio

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