• Brandminds 2020

Mihai Bonca on crisis
management marketing:
Is your brand willing to adapt in order to contribute?

Mihai Bonca is a marketing strategy and brand transformation professional. He has over 15 years of experience in marketing as a Marketing Director for various brands ranging from traditional FMCG to B2B, IT and eCommerce. Currently developing his consultant career, Mihai is also contributing towards the next generation of professionals as a Marketing Strategy Lecturer in different Business Schools.

mihai-bonca
Mihai Bonca

Today we are all struggling to flatten the curve and prevent the spread of the novel Coronavirus (Covid-19).

Businesses worldwide are contributing in various ways to support the efforts of research facilities working to find a vaccine and employees working from home by offering free video conferencing tools.

In times of crisis, communication is vital.

But how should brands manage this particular crisis or any other crisis? What should crisis management marketing be about?

I reached out to Mihai and invited him to answer my questions on how brands should approach crisis management marketing.

Read the answers below.

Question: Crisis management marketing: how should brands react and respond to the global Coronavirus outbreak?

Mihai Bonca: The best companies and brands outlive a crisis by showing an increased sense of awareness towards themselves and the others.

They manage to spot and bridge the gaps that did not exist before. The best leaders act on fast-forward, replacing the need for perfection with pace and an acute sense of urgency.

The classic manual of crisis management has three steps: the leader must take control and show he/she is fully in charge; has to show that understands the issue; has to act forcefully, overcompensating.

Trust, knowledge and control are the main ingredients.

But let’s take a more in-depth look.

The crisis disrupts the fabric of existing behaviours. It starts by altering the patterns of everyday life and influences the client’s psychological needs. Everyone backslides towards safety necessities. The blow of a crisis challenges the old norms, and as a result, it levels the playfield between different kinds of companies.

Every crisis has its own degree of novelty and innovation. The 2000 crunch was focused mostly around the internet fizz. The 2008 depression was triggered by the housing bubble and infected the financial markets. Now, we have a new class of situation, a step-up in the crisis category: a health calamity and a lock-down impairment. There is no manual available in the corporate world on how to respond to it.

Marketing Strategy & Brand Transformation Professional Mihai Bonca on crisis communication management: Replace How can we deliver our sales targets? with How can we change, contribute and help? Click To Tweet

How can companies tackle this new enemy?

After outpacing the first “freeze” moment, some companies will do what they know had performed before in other dire situations, only more aggressively. Facing cash flow issues, they will contract. Most companies will tighten around core business, cut costs, increase the revenues for those few products that respond to basic needs, lay off redundant employees. They will rapidly exit fragmented or unprofitable markets.

It is a decent reaction. With a certain degree of luck, and if they had their coffers full after the boom years, they would survive the hibernation period. Afterwards, they will return to their old businesses, slender and more vigilant.

At the same time, every crisis creates an exceptional class of winners. These are the few companies that will act differently from the early beginning. They are sharp, flexible and will step forward. They will seek to make a difference. They will think first about the physical and psychological safety of their employees and then about their active involvement in the communities. Instead of cutting their losses, they will adapt and invest. The leaders will replace the question How can we deliver our sales targets? with How can we change, contribute and help?

These companies are neither the largest ones nor do they have a better crisis manual.

They genuinely learn by doing, accepting mistakes and following their instincts. The instinct of a company is embedded in its culture. Their ambition, key values and beliefs, the way the team members trust each other will surface in these difficult times.

Now is the best opportunity for a company and its management to highlight what they are made of. Or to recognize that all the nice words are just corporate fluff, a wallpaper they put conveniently behind the reception desk.

The companies that will block and suffer most are the “command and control” ones. They natively do not trust their own people’s judgement. They concentrate the power of decision to a few all-knowledgeable executives. Their line managers do not work for the external clients or for the communities, but to please the higher-paid persons in the organization. The “pleasers” were promoted not because they were nimble or strategical, but because they obeyed orders and efficiently implemented the ideas of those in charge.

The news is that the environment has changed, and one or a few people cannot hold all the answers.

The winners of the crisis will learn new skills very fast. These companies will make a difference just because they have entrepreneurial people leading the frontline squads. These organisations are made up of independent cells that do not wait for orders, there is no time for that during a war.

They have the natural reflex to recognise what is right or wrong and what has to be done. These companies will intuitively transform during these months and will emerge as the new organisms that will dominate a transformed food chain. They will be the forerunners when the crisis eventually ends.

This crisis will help terminate some of the autocratic “command and control” companies. Hard power will be replaced by soft power, orders by influence, pleasers by self-governing people.

The stars will be those organizations that have a clear ideology, act fast, are adaptive, organized in squads, led by
autonomous and virtual leaders. Each internal group can react quickly and independently.

It is a perfect opportunity for brands and companies to highlight their DNA and inner values. On the shorter term, the rational benefits will attract consumer trust. On the longer run, the public will feel safer with the brands and companies that prove they are leading the way out of this crisis.

These could be the enterprises that show they care, have empathy and intend to contribute to the community.

How can we contribute and help? will be the acid test for companies and brands.

Q: What should a brand’s marketing communication plan include?

MB: Whatever a company planned just one month ago is 100% out-of-date.

Organizations should start from a blank piece of paper. Please scrap the old activity plan and the old communication materials before creating new ones.

Give a fresh start, recognizing a completely different reality, set meaningful objectives, connect with different tensions and a different state of mind of the consumer.

The new plan should feature a mindset crafted for a “commando” mode. Flexible and adaptable, fluid, able to change from one week to another. Hopefully, the brand strategy had been completed before, and everyone knows the brand DNA well, its strengths and limits and audience insights.

Marketing Strategy & Brand Transformation Professional Mihai Bonca on crisis communication management: If your brand does not have anything to offer or is just trying to sell unnecessary products, please stop. Click To Tweet

I recommend starting the new plan and the new communication by acknowledging the aspects that have already transformed the audience. What are the key changes in their dreams and tensions? What are their new habits? How did the individuals adjust their consumption behaviours? What are the new media touchpoints?

The next step would be to understand if the brand has a “Big Idea”, or something meaningful to offer. Is it something the brand can contribute with or is it a sales incentive nicely packed?

If your brand does not have anything to offer or is just trying to sell unnecessary products, please stop. This will only highlight your brand’s irrelevance, wasting money and playing with fire. People will prove these brands wrong.

A “Brand’s Big Idea” shouldn’t be a communication direction. Think about the active substance, not just about the coating. The active substance should cascade in the marketing mix, influencing product, packaging, pricing, distribution and partnerships. If it can meaningfully change the mix, then it can improve the end benefits.

Mihai Bonca on crisis management marketing: The issue is not the communication itself. The challenge for the marketing team is to show how a brand is willing to adapt in order to contribute. Click To Tweet

After the “Brand’s Big Idea” is settled, media limitations can assist a team to become more innovative. Digital is the best channel. It is quick and the production basically takes minutes or hours. It also gives brutally honest feedback, showing if there is any active substance or not. The public will propel the campaign if it is relevant or bury it alive if it fails to convince.

Radio is also quick, clean, with a rapid and cheap production. However, to rise above the high radio clutter, brands need novelties.

Packaging is also a great channel. Takes a longer time to be modified but represents free media, when it matters the most, at the point of sales.

Traditional TV is probably the worst medium. Why would someone create a TV ad these days? It is costly, a new production adapted to the moment is difficult if not impossible. TV does not provide rapid consumer feedback.

During these war times, actions are more powerful than ever. Word of mouth and free PR will filter the significant brand initiatives, that have an active substance, versus the frivolous ones.

The issue is not the communication itself. The challenge for the marketing team is to show the way a brand is willing to adapt in order to contribute. Most brands will just prove they are irrelevant.

Q: Dos and Don’ts of marketing strategy during Coronavirus-crisis

MB:

Best practices:

hand-click Organise in squad teams, adapt, be flexible, scrap the old plans. Start the change with
yourself, accept mistakes, learn as you do.
hand-clickBe empathetic with your audience, real and contextual.

hand-clickChallenge the ways your brand can genuinely contribute to the wider community.

hand-clickCraft a “Brand’s Big Idea” in crisis. Show that the brand has “active substance”, it is not just a
sugar-coated fluff. Use the entire marketing mix.

hand-clickActions are more powerful than words. There are companies that have already shown us how to
do that: LVMH started to produce hand sanitisers, Pernod Ricard donated alcohol (from
Absolute Vodka), Coca Cola dropped the media spending and donated the budgets, auto
makers joined the race to do ventilators, Inditex started producing masks.

Worst practices:

hand-click

Continue with the old communication as nothing happened. This just shows an inability to have
empathy, to contribute, or to change.

hand-clickIf you are lucky enough to be in a category in high demand in crisis, do not use the crisis to
increase profits. Do not boast yourself. Do not hike up the price just because there is no
alternative. People are going to remember the immoral behaviours and penalize properly
afterwards.

Q: Corona beer and Coronavirus. What should brands do when their name is associated with
unfortunate events?

MB: Corona beer is facing some headwinds, not all related to its name.

Beer is not a category who appeals to basic psychological needs, therefore the entire market will drop significantly. Just think about all the bars and restaurants which closed down.

A further minus, the communication of Corona built over time an emotional category linked to outdoor fun and beachy sensations. This is not a relevant space now and will not be for a while.

Then follows the name similarity. If someone has a friend or a close family member who suffered due to the virus, the simple name Corona will trigger negative emotions. For the rest of the people, the association will pass in time.

There are examples of brands that emerged more powerful after serious disasters, reacting properly. Tylenol is a text-book case.

When the crisis ends, Corona has the opportunity to step forward, act, and communicate what their brand is and what it is not about.

On this regard, Corona in the USA just announced a donation of 1,000,000 USD to the Restaurant Workers Relief Fund. Which goes into the right direction. I am curious if post-crisis, Corona will return to their shallowish communication, Let’s pretend nothing happened. We’ll just squeeze lime and have fun on the beach as we did before.

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