Pivoting in Crisis #4: A greater need than ever for flex marketing

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24 March 2020

About pivoting in crisis

As the Covid-19 outbreak continues to spread and an abundance of misinformation muddies the water across the world, behaviours are starting to change. Just as the 2008 crash saw the birth of thousands of new businesses, Covid-19 will undoubtedly mean pivoting marketing strategies and ways of working. Several of the changes that coronavirus is causing will create new consumer needs. It is these changing needs that we are highlighting in this ongoing content series. In this piece we’ll look at the need for marketers to be adaptable in these challenging times.

What is flex marketing?

It seems like a lifetime ago already but back in January we at Unlimited Group introduced a new concept – Flex Lifestyles. It was (and still is) our contention that consumers were showing an unprecedented degree of appetite for flexibility (link). Across product sectors from food (flexitarian diets) to alcohol (lowered consumption which we termed “TeePartialism”) to commitment-phobia in contracts, stay at home working patterns and even the way we define our very identity, we saw a heightened need for flexible options.

We called for marketers to adopt what we termed “flex marketing” to cater to this new consumer demand for flexibility.  Of course, at the time, we could have no idea of what was around the corner, how our flexibility would be compromised and just how vital flexibility would quickly become.

Flexibility in a time of rigidity

To some extent this demand for flexibility is being massively threatened right now. Citizens are being told (or advised) what to do by a government frantically trying to gain a measure of control. Self-isolation, social distancing, working from home and avoiding mass gatherings are all understandable measures, given the current context. But, for consumers who had become increasingly used to being able to go, buy, say, watch, do whatever they wanted, wherever and whenever they wanted to, it represents a major disruption.

While consumers accept the reasons for such disruption, they are also, already, trying to find ways to flex the rules, to maintain some of their previous behaviours even now in their new surroundings. The trending hashtag #stayathomechallenge is a good case in point – a short-hand for this new adaptability. It includes a whole series of examples of those finding ways to make the most of their imposed confinement. Here are just a few to give you a flavour and hopefully brighten your day a little:

  • Jamie Carragher doing keepy-uppies with a toilet roll (link)
  • Window tennis (link)
  • Corona proposals (link)
  • Video creativity (link)

The wonderfully warm and inspiring videos of Italians and Spaniards confined to their homes but convening on balconies to sing and dance that have been doing the rounds on social media are another example. Consumers are adaptable. They will find ways around the challenges they are currently facing, and they will be looking for brands to be equally adaptable.

Flex marketing and evolutionary biology

As every (diligent) school pupil knows “Survival of the fittest” is a phrase that originated from Darwinian evolutionary theory as a way of describing the mechanism of natural selection.

Many have mistakenly interpreted this to mean that those who are strongest, fastest or cleverest are the ones who triumph over the weak, the slow or the less intelligent but this is not quite what Darwin meant by the term “fittest”. He actually meant those that best “fit” into their environment, in the sense of having exactly the right combination of attributes that suit the needs of that environment that would fare best (link).

As the external environment changes so do the characteristics that enable an organism to thrive in that environment. And, it is those organisms who are best able to adapt that are able to pass their genes on to the next generation and, thus, thrive.  “Survival of the fittest” is, therefore, perhaps better articulated as the “Survival of the most adaptable“.

We believe concept holds not just for evolutionary biology but for life in general and for marketing activity. Survival amidst the challenges of Covid-19 will be about:

  • Flexibility
  • Adaptability
  • Nimbleness
  • Agility
  • Repurposing
  • Creativity

Flex marketing and long-term brand-building

We know that many marketers are delaying much of their planned activity because of the current crisis (link). At the same time, we are seeing plenty of interesting pivoting (see below).

Writing in Marketing Week last week Mark Ritson called on the industry to hold its nerve, suggesting that the wheels of industry need to keep turning and are best greased by effective marketing.

“The coronavirus crisis will test us all, but marketers need to think long-term and keep building their brands, protecting their staff and honouring their values.” Mark Ritson, Marketing Week, 17th March 2020 (link)

We agree that brands must not abandon their long-term strategy, vision or values. At the same time, we believe that there is a massive short-term opportunity to pivot strategies and tactics, both in the interests of helping (and being seen to be helping) but also as a way of demonstrating real understanding of humans in a time of major distress.

The real challenge then is how to ensure that any such pivots are both helpful in the short-term but also help to build your brand equity in the long-term. Let’s take a look at some of the pivoting activity going on right now.

What does flex marketing look like?

 How businesses will flex or pivot will vary from one business and sector to another but here is some inspiration – looking at what others are doing may be a great start point for thinking how you can respond:

  • The National Trust is to open parklands and gardens for free during coronavirus social distancing period (link).
  • Ford reads the culture right with new coronavirus response advertising: The carmaker replaces its scheduled March Madness ads with two new spots about its car payment relief program (link).
  • Gin distilleries including Bristol’s Psychopomp Micro-distillery and 58 Gin, in London and brewers Brewdog (link) have announced plans to switch to producing hand sanitiser during the coronavirus pandemic (link).
  • Pret is giving NHS workers free hot drinks and 50% off everything else to say thanks (link).
  • Customers buying “ahead”, for example, in the form of vouchers, in order to help businesses to stay afloat, either spontaneously (link) or following requests by the businesses for help (link).
  • Car retailer Evans Halshaw is making many of its services available to customers at home such as free home delivery of new car purchases, free collection/delivery of cars due for servicing or MOTs and virtual test drives and test drives originating from the customers home rather than the dealership (link).

What next?

As the story of the coronavirus outbreak unfolds, new challenges will emerge and these, more than likely, will also represent the need for brands to quickly pivot to support a society under pressure. We’ll be exploring more impacts of the coronavirus outbreak over the coming days and weeks so be sure to check back in from time to time.

This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at Unlimited Group. 

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