COVID-19 has changed customer challenges, mindsets, and expectations. How should B2B brands adapt to the new normal — and step up where it’s needed most?
We’re starting to see it, or at least imagine it: the light at the end of the tunnel. While acknowledging that we’re still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses, individuals, and governments are starting to entertain the idea of emerging into a new normal.
There’s been plenty of advice on how brands can, and must, adapt their strategies during this difficult time — and many brands have already taken smart steps. But the big question now is: what’s next for brands as we all begin the transition to a post-pandemic world?
We know it’s not going to be an overnight shift. The pandemic and its effects will have a lasting and profound impact on what people want, what they fear, how they behave, and how they interact. All of which translates into a major shift for brands — people’s expectations of the businesses they buy from, work with, and work for have also changed significantly.
In some respects, customers have actually become more understanding. They’re more willing to forgive things like lapses in service or delays in delivery because they recognize how difficult things are for businesses and individuals alike. But while customers have become more sympathetic in some areas, the COVID-19 crisis has put a spotlight on other areas where stakeholders will expect brands to step up, and stand out, when we finally emerge on the other side.
So, in this era of new and daunting expectations, we want to share a series of imperatives around how B2B brands can continue to adapt — and become the businesses that people want to work with, and for, in this brave new world.
1. Stay in the know
When planning brand strategy for the transition and beyond, consider what this new normal actually looks like for key stakeholders, and how to adapt in line with their evolving needs. But how do you get a grasp on those needs when they are changing almost daily?
Insights gathered one week may be outdated the next. Which means traditional approaches to collecting valuable research won’t cut it. Brands need to conduct research that’s fast, nimble and targeted to stay on top of what’s happening right now — and execute on those findings in record time.
To keep a finger on the pulse of changing trends and dynamics, leverage research platforms that provide immediate access to key stakeholders, delivering real-time, actionable insights to your business. Setting up regular, two-week research sprints provides a constant knowledge stream that translates into powerful and timely data during a time of constant change.
2. Shake up experience
Like it or not, the way people experience and engage with brands has changed. The pandemic has shown us all just how much of our work, and our life, can truly be done online — and people will expect that to continue post-pandemic. The era of the sales handshake, physical roadshows, and industry events will take time to bounce back — if it ever completely does. How can brands continue to bridge the gap between the physical and the virtual, without compromising on quality of communication?
Rather than thinking of digital channels as an inferior replacement or a support to face-to-face interactions, consider them an opportunity to curate an entirely new experience for stakeholders — one that plays to their new expectations for convenience, speed, and remote access.
Consider re-assessing stakeholder journeys and the key points at which they interact with your brand, and re-invent the experience. In-person demos can become interactive explainer videos. Investor conferences can become virtual webinars. Salespeople can be supported by powerful websites, apps, and e-commerce channels. Try to think outside the bounds of normal tactics and be creative in defining the new digital experiences that will set your brand apart in the months to come.
3. Make it personal
Research will reveal the specific challenges facing each customer segment right now. What are their concerns as they emerge from the pandemic? What do they see as major opportunities on the horizon? And most importantly, how are they looking to you for help?
Use that research to connect with customers on a personal level. Reach out to existing customers directly and speak to their challenges, rather than sending out blanket notes of concern. Clients want to see that you’re there for them, personally. If you can, go beyond personalized conversations and create tailored offerings that help meet their specific needs. You’ll be demonstrating true partnership — and strengthen your long-term relationships.
That same research should inform marketing to prospects. Start by developing a messaging platform and content plan that is tailored to each audience, and leverage technology to ensure communications are more targeted and personalized than ever. At this point, everyone is deeply immersed in their own specific challenges. If you can speak to them with messaging that demonstrates genuine understanding, or hits a particular pain point, you can show that you are a partner who gets it, who cares, and is able to help.
4. Inspire internally
As we start to emerge from this crisis, each organization will be undergoing its own transition period. For employees, the crisis has probably been a time of uncertainty and anxiety. And that uncertainty is likely to continue. Companies need to create an atmosphere of positivity as the organization forges a path to recovery. How can you mitigate those concerns — or even better, inspire actual enthusiasm and passion in the months to come?
The most important foundation in raising employee spirits is communication. Secret strategies and unanswered questions will amplify anxiety and uncertainty. An employee engagement plan must articulate a clear strategy for the transition and beyond — even if it’s not all rosy. Messaging should paint a clear picture of what success will look like, and define individual roles in helping the organization get there. It must be specific and genuine — something employees can truly buy into. Everyone can be inspired by knowing and sharing powerful group goals.
5. Win the new talent war
The competition for talent has changed — and, like everything else, will continue to change in ways we can’t yet fully predict. What we do know is that unemployment rates are higher than ever. If you’re in a position to be making new hires, you may find yourself inundated with applications. But how can you make sure you’re attracting the right candidates, at such a critical time in your road to recovery?
Brands will still have to work hard to win over the best and brightest. But priorities for recruits are shifting. The lure of nap pods, well-stocked snack areas and unlimited PTO — while still, no doubt, attractive — is down. What recruits are more likely to seek now are the fundamentals. Stability. Strength. Authenticity. We’re no longer battling over the perks, we’re battling over the basics. Is the company honest and reliable? Does it take of its employees? And, most importantly, is it financially stable?
To win over the strongest candidates, it may be necessary to re-evaluate your recruitment brand strategy and shift it to convey a sense of security and positivity. But the change must be truthful: expectations around authenticity and honesty are higher than ever right now, and lapses won’t easily be forgiven.
6. Show investors a plan
More than ever, investors need reassurance. Even a company that has experienced a boom during this time needs to demonstrate how it will adapt to a potential drop-off in revenues as things start to stabilize.
Now is the time to focus on an effective investor engagement strategy, moving beyond business-as-usual messages, tactics and frequency. Investors will want to see informed, strategic updates and plans for the future. They will want to hear about research findings, about the key opportunities in the market and how the company is pivoting to take advantage of them. Showing an awareness of challenges and a set of tactics to mitigate or overcome them will also go a long way.
Whatever the specifics of your investor communications strategy, keep relevant information coming, but avoid overwhelming recipients. Develop a considered investor messaging platform and communications plan, and bring it to life through dynamic content like investor presentations and videos. This isn’t the era of “no news is good news.” Silence, or simply reticence, could be seen an ominous sign to investors.
7. Stand for something
During this pandemic, brand purpose has become more important than ever. Brands have had to redefine their missions, craft uplifting messages, and demonstrate how they make a positive difference in their communities. And once the pandemic is over, it’s critical that brands continue to embrace these values. Because the bar has truly been raised — and higher expectations around a company’s “why” be felt for a long time.
Customers will expect brands to maintain their sense of social generosity, of support and selflessness — and they’ll be wary of brands that drop these activities when the pandemic is over. Brands that were purposeful during the crisis, who fulfilled those purposes, and who continue to fulfill them post-pandemic, will emerge the strongest.
If your company doesn’t have a clearly defined brand purpose, consider developing one that feels true and authentic, and offers relevance beyond products and services. Because these terrible times have made it more apparent than ever that people want to work with — and for — a brand that makes a difference.
An era of new expectations
However long it takes to emerge from this crisis, we are entering a new era. While we can conjecture what the upcoming trends and shifts will be, it’s clear that every business and every market will be different. But one thing we can be sure of is that expectations across every stakeholder group will have changed. To be among the brands that survive and thrive during this time will require keeping on top of those evolving expectations — and stepping up to meet them.
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