Purpose, Empathy and Technology: Marketing During a Crisis

June 17, 2020

Man working at a kitchen table holding a baby

Editor's Note: This guest post was contributed by Matthew Lieberman, CMO-US/Mexico, for PwC.

When a crisis like COVID-19 occurs, marketers must change course. A lot of what worked well just last month now feels irrelevant at best, tone-deaf at worst. Internally too, my team faces new challenges to get their jobs done, so I have to be a different kind of leader.

It’s still a work in progress, as marketing always is, but along the way I’ve figured a few things out.

Let your purpose answer the big question

Our marketers must address many of our firm’s clients’ giant challenges. At a time when 80% of CFOs are expecting revenue and/or profits to drop, how can they stabilize their finances? When 70% need to cut or defer investments, what should they save from the chopping block? When vast majorities are putting together plans to transition back to on-site work, how can they keep workers safe?

Our big question is how to market solutions while striking the right tone. No one is in the mood for a hard sell — and no one has much time to listen. But I’m fortunate to work for a purpose-led company, so we center our marketing on this purpose: working to solve clients’ problems while fostering trust among all their stakeholders. 

This is something very specific that can address your immediate problem and increase your employees’, customers’, and communities’ trust in you. Even in a crisis, that’s marketing that will resonate with people and get them to listen.  

Show empathy outside — and inside, too

We’re all under a lot of stress, so using empathy to guide us is key. That requires customized marketing. My firm’s clients include not only some of the world’s largest tech companies, but also some of its biggest hotel chains as well. While each is a client, they’re living in two completely different worlds right now, and our marketing has to reflect their individual challenges.

That empathy is just as important internally. My team has had to abandon campaigns and turn on a dime to create new ones, at speed and at scale. 

I’ve always tried to be an understanding leader but have become even more understanding now. I too am shut up at home, working some of the longest hours of my life. If they can forgive my two cocker spaniels, Casey and Doogie, busting into a video presentation and howling for attention, I can certainly adjust my schedule to meet their new needs. We’re in this together.

Use tech for more than video chats

There’s no question: technology has saved the day. Investments in cloud and mobile tech have made the transition to work-from-home seamless for many firms. Some of this transition will be permanent. 49% of CFOs now say they will make remote work a permanent option for roles that allow it.

But tech can do much more to help marketers in this crisis. For us, there’s sophisticated data analytics, to help both customize marketing and track its efficacy. Second, since our upskilling program was already app-based, my team and I have been able to keep upping our digital skills and machine learning chops, same as before. 

Here’s how do it: practical tips

To do these three things — lead with a purpose, show empathy, and make better use of tech — these guidelines help:

  • Apply multiple lenses. To identify and address clients’ problems, while fostering trust among all their stakeholders, take a multi-lens view: With the help of technology, collect, analyze and share primary research on business and community trends from the points of view of executives, employees and consumers.
  • Be hyper focused. Right now, there are only a few services, products, and solutions that clients want to hear about — but if these offerings can help them survive and even prosper in this crisis, they will resonate enormously. 
  • Do more with less. Nearly everyone is facing budget cuts. So, also be hyper-focused as to which activities will function today. If you then execute impeccably and creatively, making maximum use of technology, you can be more effective than ever.
  • Put yourselves in clients’ shoes. Many clients are facing a whole new world — and budget cuts too. Recognize that they may need to adjust their spending and areas of focus. Think long and hard about their new circumstances before you start a campaign.
  • Watch for tone-deafness. You may never know the full extent to which someone is hurting or an organization is struggling. Including diverse perspectives when reviewing messaging is key to help make sure your campaign strikes the right tone and won’t come across as insensitive or irrelevant.
  • Talk to your team. Your team is facing new demands and ways of working. Both are still evolving. Talk to them early and often, and encourage them to talk to you. They need to know where the team is headed, what their roles are, and that you’re listening to them.

Get ready for the day after

This crisis may feel like it has changed everything, but in some ways, it has just accelerated marketing trends from before. I expect, for example, a permanent shift to more flexible and more virtual work. I expect to keep on ramping up our technology investments, not just to automate more, but also to help my team and I make smarter marketing decisions. I also aim to never forget what I’ve learned about my clients’ and co-workers’ courage during this pandemic — and I intend to keep feeling and showing empathy for all the challenges they face.