Early in the COVID-19 crisis, some U.S. B2B brands turned off the marketing spigot temporarily, while others kept marching forward with adjustments in campaigns and messaging. Even B2B businesses that survived the aftermath of 9/11 in 2001 and the 2008-2009 financial crisis didn’t have a marketing playbook for a global pandemic.
As COVID-19 continues to spread, millions of people endure unemployment and the economy remains stuck in low gear, marketers are fine-tuning their strategies. Long-term planning is largely a question mark because of so many uncertainties. Will there be a second wave? Will testing improve? When will a vaccine become available? Will schools reopen?
Given an unclear path forward, B2Bs we interviewed are taking it day by day. All agree the right approach is to keep marketing through the crisis with sensitivity – and without being opportunistic. Brands that remain at the forefront will be better positioned to boost sales and market share when public health and the economy recover.
“If you stop completely, there’s a harder mountain to climb later,” says Debbie Luyk, vice president, product marketing at Chicago-based SAI Global Inc., a global risk management company. “You have to keep yourself relevant.”
Leaning Into COVID-19
“We were definitely guarded about doing anything at the very beginning,” says Alison Kermode, senior vice president, director national marketing for Chicago-based Clune Construction. “We put ourselves into a little bit of a holding pattern because the whole situation was unprecedented and was a huge question mark. We had to navigate it carefully.”
SAI Global also hesitated to jump into marketing without a thoughtful approach.
“When all of this started, there were two camps,” Luyk says. “One camp was of the mindset that you keep marching forward with what you were planning to do, no matter what. Another camp was saying we need to keep marching forward, but also lean into what’s going on and try to connect what we’re saying to that so that it’s more relevant and sensitive.”
Many B2B businesses had to shelve their existing marketing plans and shift quickly to reflect the new reality.
Luyk’s company faced the same challenge.
“We had everything lined up around big risk areas, not considering the fact that we’d have to pivot for this pandemic,” she says. “We had to lean into the COVID crisis.”
Finding the Path Forward
While overtly sales-y messaging has never been popular, it’s even less so now. B2Bs are rolling out genuinely relevant, helpful marketing that conveys empathy.
“We don’t want to be ambulance chasing,” Luyk says. “We understand many organizations have had to cut resources and budgets for tools such as ours. We know there may be a time gap for what people want to do versus what they can do.”
If any business has doubts about the benefits of avoiding self-serving marketing, consider what Luyk’s company learned through cold prospect outreach.
“We got some really good feedback where people told us, ‘We’re watching how vendors are acting during this time, and we’re going to remember that,’” Luyk says.
With that admonishment in mind, SAI Global created a pandemic information center. The company is sharing free resources and information on topics such as business continuity management, disaster recovery, ethics and compliance, data privacy for remote workers, and environmental safety solutions and tools. The company adds resources to the center regularly.
Clune Construction, which has always focused on social responsibility as part of its corporate culture, is emphasizing charitable initiatives, including its food donations to hospitals to support first responders.
“Being a service-oriented company, giving back to the community is very important to us, even without the pandemic,” Kermode says.
Other B2Bs have not only pivoted their marketing campaigns but also their operations. For example, Curate Foodservice, which provides food for colleges, universities and other institutions, flipped rapidly to serve a new client base.
“Now, we’re working with hospitals and large convention centers that have been converted into makeshift hospitals to provide shelf-stable pandemic meals,” Bang says. “We used to provide food for buffets; now, we’re making individually wrapped products.”
Marketing Budgets and the Shift to Digital
B2B marketing budgets may not have been cut so much as reallocated to digital efforts. Businesses that relied on trade shows and other traditional marketing were forced to pivot almost overnight because of COVID-19 and cancellations of in-person events.
“A lot of our marketing dollars go into advertising and sponsoring industry events,” Kermode says. “Those events aren’t happening right now, but there’s still a question mark as those events may happen later in the year or occur virtually. We’re in a bit of a holding pattern … and waiting to see what happens.”
In McKinsey & Co.’s B2B Decision-Maker Pulse Survey, respondents said digitally enabled sales interactions are now more than twice as important as traditional sales interactions. Nearly four in five B2B sales teams have shifted to videoconference or phone for outreach. Read more about what’s happening with B2B sales in the wake of COVID-19.
“Digital will have a surge like we’ve never seen before,” Bang says. “I think COVID has shown what we can accomplish digitally.”
Curate Foodservice recently launched an online cooking series, “Cooking with Chef Isabel.” Its first video was a how-to for chicken Marsala.
“Food service has never been a digital-savvy industry,” Bang says. “We were forced out of our comfort zone to do that – and with a fairly small team and limited resources.”
Digital enables marketers to personalize offers across channels, provide hypertargeted messaging and measure outcomes. As McKinsey notes, “Many B2B companies … have found that advanced analytics provide a far more objective and dynamic assessment of the quality of a commercial offering than traditional methods.”
Marketers that embrace digital now will be poised to weather future economic turmoil and a second (or third) COVID-19 wave.
Sales and Marketing Alignment
For the past few years, B2B specialists have focused on the need for and benefits of sales and marketing alignment. In practice, though, there’s been room for improvement at many organizations. Upheaval from the pandemic has prompted more collaboration and coordination out of necessity. These efforts may also involve customer success teams.
At Curate Foodservice, sales and marketing have always worked closely together, Bang says. The difference now is that the two teams are talking and planning daily while being flexible to changing client needs.
“I’m talking to every member of the sales team even more,” Bang says. “It’s definitely more collaborative.”
At SAI Global, sales and marketing coordinated efforts before COVID-19. Now, Luyk says she’s seeing more structure and formal processes across the organization. All-hands-on-deck discussions and planning benefit B2Bs for the long haul.
What’s Next for B2B Marketing?
B2B marketers aren’t sure what the third and fourth quarters hold, much less first quarter 2021. Most seem to be focusing on the short term because COVID-19 is still a big unknown from a public health and economic perspective. With the virus still here, it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone months down the road.
“For now, we’re just trying to adapt to what’s going on,” Bang says. “It’s been changing weekly. I know I’m not going to be doing flashy, crazy campaigns.”
Adds Kermode, “There’s such a question mark around where we’re headed. You need to be future-oriented and still do the planning, but I think there’s value in staying in the moment and looking at what you have to deal with right now.”
“I think a lot of people are holding back and waiting to see what’s going to happen,” Luyk says.
In the meantime, her company is crafting messaging and content for the COVID-19 recovery.
“We’ve become a lot more agile as a marketing team,” Luyk says. “You can pivot quickly if you have the right leadership and the right vision. As the months go on, we’ll see where things are headed and then pivot again if we need to.
“I think a lot of organizations get very locked into moving through their plans no matter what. You have to be able to step back and evaluate as things are changing.”
Now, to You
How has COVID-19 affected your B2B marketing plans? Have you increased your digital campaigns? Are your sales and marketing teams collaborating more than ever? Let us know in the comments below.