Now that we are basically on the other side of the "crisis" part of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, I think that it is really important that we talk about crisis communications.
During the beginning of COVID in early 2020 most of us were flailing like maniacs, trying to figure out what to say, how to say it, what to communicate, how to communicate it. It was a just complete mess and some people got it really right. And other people got it really wrong.
And unfortunately not having a plan and getting it wrong was fatal, for a lot of small businesses.
A lot of businesses did not survive and it wasn't because of a loan program that didn't get. That could have been a factor in the business failure, but the actual reason why so many of us went out of business is not because doors had to be closed.
A lot of small businesses failed because they did not have a method by which to really stay on brand and actually use that branding as a way to tie their customers to them during those scary times.
And so let us stop flying by the seat of our pants and make a plan so that if, and when, things get hairy again, we can face those challenges with knowledge and with strength and with conviction about how our brand deals with these sorts of things.
So what are the rules? What are the things that I think we should be doing if we're going to prepare?
First things first - we need to have a core message.
What I mean by a core message and where I think a lot of businesses were really super successful in COVID was that they had a message that was not based in their product or service, but more based in their customer's motivation.
For an example, look at several of the local small restaurateurs in your community. Many of them stayed in business because prior to COVID-19 they'd already established themselves as more than just a restaurant. They'd established themselves as members of a community. Maybe they're a community hub for gamers or a community hub for locally brewed beer or a community hub for Non-GMO foods or locally sourced produce.
The fact that they'd made their core message about something other than the food on their menu gave them the ammunition they needed to survive.
With that community based core message, they were able to stay in business because they were able to communicate that core message without losing any value because they were unable to deliver the food.
This is what I mean by not having your core message be surrounding your delivery of the product or service.
Your core message should be about what your customer's motivation are when they work with your organization.
If you can deliver a core message around your customer's motivation, then it doesn't quite matter what happens in the world, you can still solve for that motivation and you can communicate around that motivation.
Developing that core message is huge. The idea though, is that the core message is not about you. It is about your customer. It is about their motivation.
It is about their desires. We're serving what the customer actually needs, what the customer wants. We have to remember that the customer is coming to us to solve a problem and that problem is (for the most part) not just about our product or service.
Let's take a look at a company that has done this well Jeni's ice cream. Jeni's ice cream is one of my absolute favorite examples of a company that is delivering a message that isn't just about ice cream, so when they had to stop production due to a listeria outbreak at one of the dairy farmers that they use they were able to persevere.
Jeni's stopped production was not because they couldn't figure out where the pints were. They stopped production because they thought it was more important for their company to communicate safety as a value than it was to keep their revenue flowing.
They felt like the brand would have better customer relationships and better customer value if they communicated, "we care about your safety" more than "we care about selling you ice cream."
And so instead of just selling the pints that they knew were not affected they took the whole production offline, emptied the shelves. They just completely went to zero from scratch, did full cleans and then came back stronger, bigger, better because of it. And they have now essentially entrenched themselves in the minds of their customers, as a company, that's core value is safety -of our safety.
That's what I mean by developing a core message that is not necessarily related to your product. Now you may, in the moment of crisis, have to develop that core message according to the crisis you're in, but that's a great thing, because it will keep you on track to follow the second rule.
Now, the good thing is that if you have an alignment with your customer, it can be relatively easy for you to figure out what that core message should be.
Now, Jeni Britton Bauer was aligned with her actual customer. And because she was aligned with her customer, she was able to make sure that communication plan around safety was really what the customer needed and would align with the customer's motivations.
Once they moved past that crisis, now years and years later, that is not necessarily a part of their core messaging, but it was during a time when they needed it to be because they needed to be able to communicate clearly to their customers.
Develop that core message, then align that core message with your customer story.
Jeni's did that really well. They aligned their message of safety with our story as consumers of ice cream, as people who want the best.
Essentially, they understood that their customer is not paying $10 a pint for a gamble on safety. And so they acknowledged that and they are aligned their customer story.
That alignment...changed everything and it made it a lot easier for them to communicate their core message of safety.
The other thing that Jeni's did and that we all need to do - if we're going to be branding our businesses in a smart way - is to be proactive about that communication.
You should not be waiting until people ask you for your response to the crisis.
This is something we saw a lot with small businesses during the pandemic. There were so many of us who didn't know what to do and how to respond, so we went silent. Of course, this is a really bad idea. We need to stay in alignment with our customers and have a core message ready to roll so that we can respond to a crisis in a swift and clear manner.
Using Jen's as an example, when they had to pull their ice cream from the shelves, they used signage to explain what was happening and they wrote blogs and social media posts updating us on when they'd be back on shelves.
They were very proactive in communication. And they were proactive and the entire time, and even to this day, when they are launching a product and doing things, they are extremely proactive about communication. Because that is a value that they hold, that we, as someone who is willing to pay $10, a pint for ice cream, I want to know what is going on with my $10 pint ice cream.
And that was one of the things that made them able to recover so much more quickly is that they really held tight to that rule of proactive communication.
And then the next rule that is going to help you, if you are a small business and you're trying to communicate during crisis or difficult times is collecting feedback and adjusting.
Start collecting feedback from your audience on a regular basis.
During a crisis, collecting feedback and making sure that you're adjusting based on that feedback has is paramount.
It may be tempting to close off communication until you're sure of your messaging and to close off feedback so that you won't have to sift through potential negativity.
Let me alay your fears by noting that most of your customers want you to succeed. They want you to be successful. But, they also want to feel heard and seen.
Cutting off all means of feedback will make the customer feel unseen and unheard.
I understand the the comment section on a blog or social media may be a challenge because people can share feedback, but they can also share misinformation. You might want to turn off communication channels that are going to encourage misinformation, but you absolutely still want to then give people the opportunity to communicate.
Why should we be so open to feedback? Well, in all reality, as business owners we are always following our customer's lead.
If you are going down a path and your customer is telling you, you need to go on a different path or you need to move to the side on that same path. You need to be listening to your customer. So making sure that you have a method of communication, a method of collecting feedback, and that you are listening to that feedback especially during a crisis.
The last rule that we really need to be following, if we are trying to be smart with our branding, trying to be smart with our small businesses is to be flexible. Be nimble.
One of the biggest benefits of being a small business is that we can be quick, right? Like you are a small business owner.
You should be able to make relatively massive changes in your business, relatively quickly. And so if you are in a position where something is happening, things are changing - you need to be reacting quickly to those changes.
This is not the time to spend a week or two deciding what to say, how to collect feedback, what the customer's story is and how to stay in alignment with it. During a crisis, you want to be able to focus on resolving the crisis - not spending all of your time figuring out how to communicate about the crisis.
If you follow the previous rules - now, while you're not in a crisis - you'll be better equip to be flexible and nimble when a crisis presents itself.
If COVID taught us anything, it was that the longer you're silent, the more assumptions fill the space, right?
It is way more important that we are extremely proactive and very flexible and very nimble with our communication, with our moves that we're making during a crisis.
Now being flexible and being nimble does not mean that I want you to be reckless.
That's not at all what I'm saying. I am not saying that you should just make moves and figure it out later. That's crazy talk and we'll run you out of business. What I am saying be thoughtful.
If you decide on Monday that you're going to go down one path, but you're getting feedback, you're doing this process, you're putting out the messaging and you realize, wait, we need to adjust our customers. Then you need to take a couple of days and figure out if that secondary path is the right way and then move to the secondary path.
We need to be willing to be flexible because if we can be flexible with our brands and actually follow our customers where they're going, we can stay in business during a crisis.
We might even be able to thrive during a crisis.
We can actually do things that are going to make our businesses grow and flourish because we're actually following our customer where our customer is instead of trying to force our customer to follow us again.
The pandemic taught us that the businesses that were flexible, nimble and follow their customer are the ones that succeeded.
We saw a lot of people who had locations that had the potential for outdoor space started building outdoor spaces for people. There were lots of people who made fantastic quick adjustments that saved their businesses.
More than anything, my hope is that you are staying in business no matter what crisis comes towards you at any given point in time. But that is going to require some very smart branding.
Now that you have thought through these core concepts, I am going to challenge you to take this one step further.
We have a small business brand audit that really helps you to walk through your small business and determine where you are right now.
It helps you identify your customer's perspective and help you position your brand based on your competitive evaluations.
It also helps you to align yourself through mapping your customer's motivations.
All of these things can actually help you to determine again where your small business sits on the path to actually being a brand.
This self guided brand audit is completely free and available to you at this link: Small Business Brand Audit.
I encourage you to go ahead and download that small business brand audit is completely free. Click the link to get yourself started, and I will see you on the inside of the brand audit.