At the start of the recession that followed the 2008 financial crisis, McKinsey, one of the world’s leading management consultancy firms, analysed the behaviour of nearly 700 businesses during previous downturns. The findings were stark.
Approximately half of the companies that entered these downturns as leaders ended up lagging behind when the economy picked up.
The brands that were successful were those that behaved counter-intuitively. When it came to marketing and advertising, they increased their spend and exposure, while competitors cut back.
In normal times, brands strive to make themselves relevant. This works around a World Cup Final or Wimbledon, for example, when supermarkets will offer 12 beers for the price of 10, or promotions on strawberries and cream.
But what do you do when there is only one event in the news cycle — and that event is a killer pandemic?
It is no longer appropriate to shoe-horn yourself into the story. Instead, brands need to work out what they need to change and whom they need to tell.
This has a big impact on the organisations that depend on donations to provide the services the community relies upon. Choosing when and how they communicate has never been more important.
When it comes to marketing in a crisis, charities must get three things spot-on. Timing, sensitivity and empathy. If they get these wrong, they run the risk of alienating their donors and coming across as tone-deaf.
On a basic level, life has changed for everyone. Where the impact is more pronounced, people have lost their income, their jobs and in many cases their lives.
Against this backdrop, donors cannot be hit with generic messages that do not acknowledge the wider situation.
For those in the care sector, their story is both relevant and natural. They are very much part of the narrative. The same is not necessarily the case for the many Israel charities (where the impact of corona has been far less than here) or the organisations that raise funds for people and services that have nothing to do with Covid-19.
Instinctively there might be a feeling that these organisations should take a back seat and wait for the crisis to pass. After all, who would support anyone right now that’s not dealing with corona?
This approach, while seemingly sensible in the short term, is riddled with long-term pitfalls.
Charities do not (or at least should not) exist to fundraise. They fundraise to exist. In times like these, however, that existence must extend over and above simply asking for money. Communal organisations for whom corona is not the core of their work right now must invest time and resources in reminding their support base why they needed them yesterday and will do again tomorrow.
Now is the time for them to ask: “What can we do for you?” not “How much can you give us?”
What no organisation can afford to do is retreat into a bunker, wait for the storm to pass and then regroup on the other side.
While some might feel comfortable going into hibernation, you can never be sure who — or what — will be waiting for you when you come out.
Barry Frankfurt runs Creative & Commercial, a communications agency that supports the not-for-profit sector.