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Commerce and COVID: How retailers can survive and thrive in the time of coronavirus

With no return to ‘business as usual’ on the horizon, retailers find themselves facing an uncertain future – but there are opportunities for those who are able to adapt to adversity.

Sked Social is hosting a series of educational sessions with industry experts to help you upskill during this time of global turmoil. The third of these ‘Upskill and Chill’ seminars, ‘Shopping ain’t what it used to be: Turning commerce on its head’, brought together two marketing experts to discuss how businesses can rise to the occasion and embrace the opportunities of eCommerce.

Tim Doyle is the founder of Eucalyptus, the ‘brand engine’ responsible for building eCommerce health startups Kin and Pilot, and the former head of marketing for upstart online mattress company Koala.

Laura Dew is the director of The Wonder Co, a Perth-based marketing and PR consultancy that works with retail, tech, lifestyle and hospitality brands throughout Australia.

Facilitator Meg Coffey, a social media strategist, quizzed the duo on their top tips for communicating with customers and establishing an eCommerce identity in the current climate.

Context is king

It might be tempting to bury your head in the sand and continue with your usual communications strategy, but both Tim and Laura emphasised that it’s essential to adjust your brand messaging to acknowledge the impact of COVID-19.

“I’ve never been in a situation before where one issue hangs over everything,” Tim said. “Every piece of communication is contextually placed in a world where people are at home, they’re isolated, and they’re dealing with the ramifications of COVID-19. Any communication we’ve put out that is unaware of its context has failed miserably, but everything that has been contextually relevant and aware has spiked massively. I’ve never had to do such a fast re-skin of all of our comms for a different world.”

“We have changed [our brands’ messaging] significantly, because any campaigns we were working on just weren’t going to work,” Laura added. “We’ve been working from a more reactive model, which I don’t like, but unfortunately that’s the way it has to be at the moment.

“Especially early on, when the Prime Minister was saying something new every other day, we were having to change our comms, and change some of our clients’ offerings, almost every other day… at the moment, it’s about trying to strike a balance with all of our clients to reflect the severity of the situation and how seriously they’re taking it, while still having that authentic brand voice and trying to brighten up someone’s day.”

While it’s important to be contextually aware, Tim also stressed the importance of brands knowing their boundaries.

“You have to know where you’re relevant and where your right to play is,” he said. “The first and most fundamental question you should ask yourself is whether you need to turn up [the frequency of your communications] or turn it down. The second most important thing is to know where you can be helpful and where you can be valuable, because that will dictate your tone.

“If you can be essential to people’s lives, and you can provide some value or shift your business slightly to provide that value, that’s fantastic, and you should talk about that. If you’re not essential to people’s lives, but you can be a source of entertainment, that’s great, too – play in that space.”

Honesty, Tim said, is the best policy.

“Supply chains are incredibly unpredictable at this time, and we’ve seen that with one of our brands that sells the contraceptive pill,” he said. “There have been national shortages… there’s not exactly a lot of freedom on our part to solve for that problem. Our response has been to overcommunicate, and people have been very willing to be flexible, because they know it’s an unprecedented and difficult time. I think placing your comms in context, and being willing to say, ‘Hey, things are hard and we’re doing our best’, earns you the right to be a bit more flexible with your customers.”

Keep your eyes on the prize

Yes, you need to be responsive and reactive. But, Tim said, you don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

“Operationally, we’ve been extremely responsive on a day-to-day level, but you need to keep in mind that a lot of the noise that will be there over the next few months doesn’t necessarily change the entire long-term outlook for your brand,” he said.

“What we’ve been trying to do is ask ourselves, how do we come out of this with the strongest possible offering? What pieces of infrastructure do we need to build now? What do we focus on, in terms of technology and long-term marketing plans, in order to come out of this in the best position, rather than running ourselves into the ground by trying to respond to every single change in legislation that happens now?”

One thing retailers can do that will pay off both now and in the future is to ensure they have a strong eCommerce offering.

“We’ve been setting up eCommerce stores for all of our clients who can sell online that weren’t already selling online,” Laura said. “Of course, most of them had online stores already, but in those cases, we’ve made sure their store is really up to scratch, given how much more demand there will be for it now.”

While eCommerce presents exciting opportunities, Tim stressed that retailers who are new to the online space need to avoid biting off more than they can chew.

“The advice that I always give to those making the transition into eCommerce is to be disciplined,” he said. “I think the temptation is to say, ‘Look at all of these cool things we can do; look at the variety of things we can do; look at all of the different ways we can communicate’. In reality, for most brands, you’ve only got a very small amount of people’s attention, and that attention is very fractured, so you have to be disciplined about what you offer and make sure you do it well.

“For example, Koala sells one mattress and has one very simple proposition – fast delivery with convenient returns and 120-night trials. It’s an entirely convenience-based business, and it just hammers that message again and again and again, until it’s drilled into people’s heads.

“But a lot of businesses, when they start out in eCommerce, try to do a thousand different things for a thousand different people. You have to know what you’re offering and what differentiates you, and then communicate that repeatedly and diligently. You only have a small opportunity, and you can’t waste that opportunity with mixed messaging.”

Opportunity is everywhere

It may not seem like it right now, but both Tim and Laura said that the current situation presents opportunities for brands who know where to look.

“I think there are parts of this opportunity that are remarkable,” Tim said. “For one, Facebook CPMs [cost per thousand impressions]… the cost is down to half of what it was a month ago. That creates a remarkable opportunity to hit a large audience for an affordable amount of money. They may not be transacting now, but there’s something in the fact that there is a big, cheap audience that’s highly engaged, unlike ever before. There is definitely a role for messaging in a world where it’s so cheap to do that messaging, even if purchasing behaviour doesn’t correlate with it right now.

“There’s never been a better time to go back to the channels that have worked for you, historically, because they are 30 to 50 per cent cheaper at the moment. Now is not the time to be looking for value-adding new channels, because the big players – Facebook and Google – are guaranteed to be cheaper now.

“The second element of the opportunity is that all of the big existing retail and hospitality players are hurting, and they’re inflexible. There’s an opportunity for you to be more flexible by virtue of being smaller than them, and to be the first and the fastest to react.”

Laura said the current climate presents an unprecedented chance for brands to tell their story.

“We’ve never had more of a captive audience, and it’s important to take that opportunity,” she said. “It’s a time to make sure you’ve crafted your brand story really well, and you’re using sensitive – yet somewhat fun – communication to engage with your audience and tell that story.

“Communication is more important now than ever. I think people are being more vocal than ever on social media about what they need, because obviously their situation has changed. What we’re trying to do is listen to those customers before we change the product offering, or change the way it’s packaged or delivered or whatever it may be. We’re listening and crafting the product offering – and all of our comms – around that feedback.”

Tim referred to his former employer, Koala, as an example of a company that has been able to successfully continue selling in the current climate.

“They essentially tried to frontrun the worst of the crisis by doing a lot of discounting as things were worsening,” he explained. “I was surprised, on some level, because I thought it was a bit risky from a brand perspective, but it seemed to work out well for them.

“What they did was the top of the funnel, they replaced all their TV commercials and radio ads with very brand-focused messaging about supporting small business. Then, in the mid-funnel, they went into full-on discount mode, with a sale where you got a $200 Uber Eats voucher if you bought a mattress. It just shows that the tactics that you utilise in order to drive sales… if you can place them in the right context, and you can get the comms right, they’ll continue to work.

“It’s not business as usual… but ‘business as usual’ is a bit of a strange term, anyway, isn’t it? Things are always moving.”

To see more ‘Upskill and Chill’ webinars, receive information on upcoming sessions and suggest topics you’d like to learn more about and experts you’d like to hear from, click here.

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