When uncertainty derails your marketing plans, here’s what to do instead

Stephanie Horton / December 2020

Nobody loves a good plan as much as marketers. While the rest of the world gears up for summer vacation, we’re finalizing our back-to-school strategies. While everyone else debates whether November is too early for Christmas decorations, we’ve had our holiday marketing plans sorted since August.

If there’s anything the uncertainty of 2020 has taught us, though, it’s how difficult it is to plan. In my 25 years of working in marketing and strategy for fashion, publishing, and e-commerce brands, I’ve encountered my fair share of challenges, from the rise of direct-to-consumer companies to the omnichannel revolution. But I’ve never experienced anything as challenging as the current climate. Markets are unstable, competitors are unpredictable, and consumer habits are changing — some temporarily, others permanently.

This holiday season and beyond, instead of making rigid plans and watching them fall apart, try these four flexible marketing approaches instead.

Four stylized illustrations that represent flexible marketing approaches: Get used to pivoting a lot. Understand how you add value. Stay on top of fast-emerging trends. Make decisions quickly.

1. Get used to pivoting — a lot

What do you do when the service you provide or product you sell is wiped out overnight? That’s a question business owners around the world, both small and large, have had to grapple with since social distancing measures and nationwide lockdowns have either forced them to shutter or simply slashed demand. In these situations, even the most airtight business and marketing plans will collapse.

Just as restaurants and bars have had to pivot, doubling down on takeout services and swapping the tapas menu for essentials like flour and sugar, retailers of all stripes are learning to adapt this holiday season.

Take Facegym, a “face workout studio” that offers noninvasive facials, and on whose board I sit. In previous years, people would have been flocking to their website to buy gift vouchers for an in-person experience. This year, even in places where you’re technically allowed to visit a salon, many people are uncomfortable doing so. That’s why the company pivoted, creating a series of guided, at-home facial workouts to help reduce the tension and stress everyone has been feeling. What started as a way of adapting to a new reality has become a core part of their business.

Even if your brand has never traditionally leaned into online holiday shopping, now is the time to think about how you can adapt to what will almost certainly be the most digital-first holiday retail season yet.

2. Understand how you add value

When the best-laid plans go awry and you’re forced to pivot, one way of ensuring you can navigate through the uncertainty is to know the answer to this question: How do you add value to your customers?

For example, when the pandemic struck and stay-at-home orders were put in place, furniture store Ikea knew that the value it brought customers was helping them create a home where they could feel safe and comfortable, regardless of what was going on outside. Even as its stores were forced to close, it was there with heartwarming ads that encouraged people to stay at home.

Understanding how you add value will be even more important this holiday season. More than ever before, customers want brands to stand for something bigger. That’s perhaps why 65% of U.S. consumers who plan to shop this holiday season say they will shop more at local small businesses.1

So ask yourself, what can you do to add value? Are you providing helpful resources that help people educate themselves? Can you help customers affected by the pandemic? Are you contributing to the communities in which you operate? How are you marketing this to build trust with customers? Taking the time to think about these questions means that when world events throw you a curveball, you’ll know how to respond.

An illustration of a snowflake falling on a store, overlaid with a pie-chart wedge represents that 65% of U.S. consumers who plan to shop this holiday season say they will shop more at local small businesses.

3. Stay on top of emerging trends, no matter how fast they change

When New York City, where I live, went into lockdown in March this year, it became impossible to get an online grocery delivery, as demand outstripped supply. It’s something we saw playing out in the Google data: Searches for “grocery delivery service near me” went up 200% globally.2

The things people are searching for online can offer clues as to what to expect next, even in a dynamic, fast-changing environment.

Tapping into this type of Google data means that, rather than being caught off guard by a new trend, you can get ahead of the curve. For example, when I was CMO at online fashion retailer Farfetch, Google Analytics and Search data showed us that, in 2014, sustainability was becoming more important to customers. Knowing this, we were able to quickly shift, letting customers choose more environmentally friendly packaging. More importantly, though, because we got ahead of the trend, we were able to approach the issue strategically and come up with a longer term solution. The team later launched Positively Farfetch, which has made the company a leader when it comes to sustainability in the industry.

The things people are searching for online can offer clues as to what to expect next, even in a dynamic, fast-changing environment.

4. Make decisions quickly

In ordinary times, we marketers have the luxury of taking our time to develop perfect plans, spend weeks bringing together focus groups, and test and retest our strategies. This approach can lead to analysis paralysis, and in uncertain times, it’s often important to move fast.

Instead, focus on making the best possible marketing decisions with what you know now, and make adjustments as people respond and new information comes in. Understand that, when establishing a marketing plan in today’s climate, there is a good chance it will change, and set it up in a way that allows you to pivot.

Marketers should instead look to embrace the unknown, baking it into their strategies from the start.

For the team that I lead at Google Shopping, that has meant communicating more with cross-functional teams to stay on top of market trends and competitive behavior. We were already working closely with PR when we noticed that other brands were starting their holiday communication and sales events uncharacteristically early. That allowed us to quickly pull together our own “shop early” message and go to market four weeks earlier than planned.

Planning for the unknown

In the face of uncertainty, it can be tempting to assume that making plans is an exercise in futility, something bound to fail. But this holiday season, marketers should instead look to embrace the unknown, baking it into their strategies from the start. As I look forward to 2021 with my own plans, my team and I have made sure our strategy is not too dependent on market conditions and that we have messaging ready for several scenarios.

How this happens will be different for every brand and industry, but by following these four steps, marketers can ensure that whatever fresh challenges arise, their plans will be agile enough to adapt.

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