B2B companies are leaving no stone unturned as they look for cost reductions, with additional spend being closely scrutinized. Across multiple industries, marketers face the daunting prospect of long-term budget cuts and resource reductions, and are continuously challenged as companies realign priorities to keep the balance books healthy.
As any B2B marketer will know, despite the countless examples of business growth, reputation and credibility being underpinned by good marketing, a large proportion of time is spent defending the benefits of the discipline. This can be draining. So in this landscape, it’s totally understandable that many adopt a day-by-day attitude and avoid focusing on serious long-term planning. However, a quick look at the history books tells us that the survivors and beneficiaries are often those who start planning during a crisis.
In 2010, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) conducted one of the most comprehensive studies into a post-recession economy. It analysed strategies adopted by 4,700 of the biggest public companies over the last three global recessions, and found that the most recession-proof companies were the ones that strike a delicate balance between cutting costs to focus more on operational efficiency, and investing comprehensively in the future by spending on marketing, R&D, and new assets. Forward-thinking companies knew precisely the right moment to accelerate and gain a headstart.
As HBR’s analysis highlighted, marketing has a crucial role to play—and I would argue that marketing is probably more important during a crisis than the boom times.
Firstly, it is the gatekeeper of an organisation’s reputation, so being clear about the strength and stability of the business is priority number one. No one wants to lose customers because they incorrectly think they’ve chosen a failing or weak provider. Secondly, marketing will be instrumental in shaping a clear path and strategy for recovery, ensuring the business is ready to accelerate with a plan. Finally, during the crisis, marketing is uniquely able to flex (in a way that product development, R&D, strategy, etc. cannot be) and be agile enough to support the business to take advantage of opportunities that may arise in the short term.
So how does marketing achieve this delicate balancing act? Four key ingredients can dramatically improve your chances of success during difficult times. These include the ability to deliver a truly integrated strategy, a flexible and agile team that can see the broader picture and knowing how to stretch every dollar. The fourth ingredient, and the hardest to achieve, is being brave and knowing when to invest to win. Bringing all of these together will not only assist the business in navigating the difficult times and preparing for recovery but also may help it to seize new opportunities and even grow while the competition is stumbling and stalling.
'The new norm' has become an overused phrase, but the inescapable takeout is that the world we operate in has changed. The unprecedented scale of disruption across all levels of society and geographies will inevitably bring all of us back towards the starting line—leveling the playing field, with everything to play for. Within aviation, for instance, in the short-term hygiene will likely “dethrone” comfort as the deciding factor in the passenger’s decision making. Think about how this disrupts entire marketing campaigns built around images of plush seats and inflight gourmet meals.
With industries having to rethink their approach, the time is ripe for well-planned integrated marketing strategies—ones that protect today’s reputation, lay the foundations to accelerate when ready, and acknowledge there may be a whole new set of opportunities waiting where customers have different expectations and priorities compared to pre-crisis times.
But before we race ahead, the first challenge marketing colleagues may face before getting out of the starting blocks is answering the question of what they mean by 'integrated marketing'. Simply put, it is about identifying synergies, leveraging assets and resources, and aligning the right channels to drive a more powerful outcome. Sounds simple. But yet more often than not, we fall at this first hurdle.
Integrate: thinking, teams and delivery
It’s easy to fall into the trap of adopting a “tick-box” mentality, checking boxes for social, PR, and advertising without identifying the synergies on a strategic level. I don’t think of that as an integrated approach.
Instead, entire marketing teams—including external partners—must come together and take stock of all the resources they have at their disposal. Now is the time to break the walls down. Get everyone across the different disciplines, like social, PR, advertising, digital, and employee communications, to understand each other’s capabilities, think about the bigger picture, and work closely together, leveraging each other’s channel and expertise to deliver a more powerful outcome.
It is also crucial to keep a very close eye on developments in the market. Casualties are inevitable, and eventually, companies will be actively looking for new vendors to replace defunct ones. Up-to-date information sets the foundation for marketers to act with agility.
Often ignored or unable to activate due to organisational structures, never forget that one of the most valuable and cost-effective resources is our colleagues. They should be our brand and product ambassadors and can become a powerful voice across our sectors when mobilised in the right way.
Be agile to remain in the industry’s line of sight
For many industries, recovery forecasts from the current crisis remain largely speculative. Within aviation, we’ve heard experts predicting recovery periods that range from 12 to 36 months. A volatile market makes agility and speed all the more important. What may be relevant today may have changed in six to eight months, and opportunities may have passed. Marketers have a critical role in ensuring that their businesses react fast, engage powerfully, and move on when necessary.
Being brave – investing to win
There is no question that being brave and investing to win will be the biggest hurdle most B2B marketers face. Being a brave marketer is one thing. Working for a brave business that understands the value of bold investments is rare. As the HBR highlighted, the evidence demonstrates the benefits of leaning forward during a crisis. However, it is fair to say that most of the businesses will not feel comfortable or confident in making this move.
In reality, if you can pull off the first three ingredients, you are doing well and managing to ensure your organisation is in a good position to tackle the crisis.
In an attempt to shift from theory to reality, it may be useful to share a recent example.
When Covid-19 hit, the aviation sector came to a virtual standstill as the world closed down around it in a matter of weeks. Rumour and speculation became the 'new norm' and despair set in rapidly. As a company with a clear strategy to establish a leadership position in our industry, we at Inmarsat asked ourselves one simple question: What would a leader do in this situation?
Used to connecting the world at 30,000 feet, we focused on our role and purpose in connecting the aviation industry. And, in a way that had never been done before—taking speculation off the table and driving real debate by the people that know best, the industry experts.
Agility was key and, in under seven weeks, with a network of partners, agencies, in-house colleagues, and production houses, we put together FlightPlan, a day-long ‘virtual broadcast event’ featuring discussions, panels, and interactive Q&As with panelists and moderators spread across continents. It was an event shaped by the industry for the industry.
Our conscious decision not to give the event a commercial agenda brought the industry together and encouraged the participation of industry leaders, analysts, and journalists—some of whom were direct competitors.
Flightplan ticked a number of important boxes. In the short term, we rapidly brought together an industry that was suffering. The response has been an overwhelming recognition that we stepped up and delivered at a time of real need, lending us recognition and credibility. In the long term, it built relationships that didn’t exist before and provided a stream of opportunities to engage the industry regularly with useful information under our own identity and build the foundations of future industry discussion.
The results speak for themselves, but a large part of this was down to the integrated approach adopted and the agility of everyone involved.
So, if the first three ingredients fall into place and your plans start helping you see the light at the end of this particular crisis, turn your attention to the fourth ingredient. As you do this, and you should if it is relevant, I would urge caution on how you do it.
Advertising veteran Bruce Barton once said, “When times are good, you should advertise. When times are bad, you must advertise”. Unfortunately, this sentiment has been widely misinterpreted and hijacked by many a bad marketer to defend irrational expenditure. What he really meant was spending in a downturn makes a lot of sense if the prevailing winds are with you. For example, spending makes sense if your business is strong and stable and your competitors are failing, leaving a whole army of customers looking for a new partner to support them.
In conclusion, this is the time to be creative, agile and integrated. Don’t hide under the covers and wait for the winds to pass. Marketers will be fundamental to recovery. Don’t let anyone tell you different.
Dominic Walters is vice president of marketing communications and strategy at Inmarsat Aviation.