#RetailEXPOVC: A fresh approach to marketing during Covid-19

Adapting to the new world of Covid-19 has been a challenge the retail industry has met admirably. While the main focus of these new working practices has centred around making ends meet in the short-term, retailers should also be mindful of the vital role marketing can play in this period to help their business long-term. In a panel discussion on day two of the RetailEXPO virtual conference powered by Essential Retail, novel techniques that brands can use to forge a meaningful connection with customers during the crisis were highlighted by the participants. The panellists were Nicola Thompson, COO of Made.com, the online furniture and homeware retailer; Robin Phillips, CEO of Watchshop; and Beth Horn, head of industry for retail at Facebook, who were able to outline a variety of experiences and perspectives on this issue. The session was moderated by Essential Retail's editor, Caroline Baldwin.

Responding to people’s priorities

All three agreed that retailers should steer clear of traditional product marketing and discounting for the time being, primarily out of respect for the financial hardship being faced by many consumers. Phillips explains: “I don’t think a sustained assault on a big promotional front right now is appropriate and it’s not how we want to be as a brand game.” He adds: “It’s more important to show intrinsic value right now.”

The focus should instead be on people’s evolving priorities at this time. Whilst this approach may not necessarily result in immediate monetary reward, it can do wonders for building brand awareness and connecting meaningfully with customers, which can help set retailers up for better days to come. “Very early on we changed our content strategy to being about community rather than commerce and that was a big thing for us – it’s not the time to be trying to sell things, it’s the time to be trying to help people and help them find solutions,” says Thompson.

“I think the brands that do that really well will drive a level of stickiness with that audience over a prolonged period of time. It is so much more memorable than getting a 20% discount off a chair – it’s the brand that helped me figure out how I could work from home better, or how to entertain my kids.”

Authenticity is the most important trait that should define this strategy, with retailers demonstrating that they care and want to help. Horn highlights the approach of the Boots during this period as being particularly effective at this, with the retailer’s chief pharmacist filming daily videos to keep people informed of vital health information. She says: “I think when brands are really clear on who they are and how they want to speak to their community, that cuts through immediately because it’s genuine.”

Focusing on ‘grittier’ content

The panellists concurred that this type of ‘grittier’ content does not have to be particularly polished; in fact, it may be an advantage to make it somewhat ‘unpolished’ and not overly professional, as this can only further increase a sense of authenticity.

Social media channels are particularly effective for this type of content. At Watchshop, Phillips outlines how customers are being given insights into its inner workings. “We show people pictures of what the warehouse team are doing, what our staff who can’t get in are doing, how they occupy their time… getting across who we are in a very authentic way on social has been very helpful for us,” he comments.

Product marketing during Covid-19

All of this does not mean that product marketing should be totally ignored during this period, however. It is still important to make customers aware of the latest products and services on offer, as long as it is done in a manner that is appropriate to the current circumstances.

“We’re able to give the assurance that we have got the latest stuff that you want to see but we’re presenting it to you in way which you can say: ‘this is the credentials of it, you might want to buy it or you might not’,” explains Phillips. “We’re talking about what’s coming next and what the trends might be so that people can perhaps think about that and make what they think will be considered purchases.”

Promoting charity work?

Another area carefully considered by the panel was the question as to whether retailers should actively highlight any charitable endeavours they have undertaken during the crisis. Phillips expressed his concern about this so over fears of appearing inauthentic, seeing it as a civic duty rather than something that should be used to improve the company’s image. He adds that Watchshop has deliberately not publicised initiatives such as providing discounts for NHS staff and money to local hospitals for this reason.

Yet throughout the crisis, a number of retailers have been communicating these types of societal contributions, and Horn believes this can be effective, providing it is done with care and most crucially, the motivations behind the charity are genuine. “When you authentically care, it’s clear, and when it is transactional it’s also clear, and I think people sniff it out. So make sure it’s from a place of really thinking about what role you can play in your community,” she comments.

A good case in point has been the approach of Made.com during the crisis. The retailer responded to calls from doctors and nurses talking about the inadequacies of hospitals staff rooms by donating a number of items, including sofa-beds and cups and mugs, to more than 150 hospitals in the UK. Thompson explains that the promotion of this generosity came primarily from the recipients, akin to the unpolished, grittier content described earlier.

“We didn’t start talking about it until the doctors and nurses themselves started talking about it on Twitter and tagging us,” she says. “Eventually we did put it on our own social channels, but with content that was generated from the doctors and nurses sending us pictures. So we didn’t plan it that way but it couldn’t have worked out better for us because it wasn’t about jumping on a bandwagon or driving sales, we let it grow organically and just let social platforms do the work.”

Marketing is arguably even more important for retailers during the Covid-19 pandemic than it is during ordinary times. Keeping connected with customers, who are generally going to be engaging in far less retail spending, will be vital in enabling non-essential retailers kick-start their businesses once the crisis has ended. But this has to be done in a completely new style and tone, focusing on people’s difficulties at this time. Being authentic and genuine should be prioritised over commercial goals. If done in the right way, this approach could serve as a launch pad for many retailers once lockdown restrictions have been lifted.

All the content from the RetailEXPO Virtual Conference, powered by Essential Retail held earlier this week:

#RetailEXPOVC: Five ways retailers can adapt to the Covid-19 lockdown

#RetailEXPOVC: Three ways retailers can encourage women to smash glass ceilings

#RetailEXPOVC: Use data but always remain sceptical, says Dr Hannah Fry

#RetailEXPOVC: Vivobarefoot on regenerating retail to save the planet

#RetailEXPOVC: Ex-Waitrose boss on the post-Covid retail world

#RetailEXPOVC: How Pizza Hut regained its appetite for digital

#RetailEXPOVC: Five mobile strategy tips from The Very Group