This may not be a topic many small businesses want to talk about, but I believe it is important to discuss crisis communications. By creating a communications plan and following some smart branding rules for small businesses, you will be able to survive uncertain times.
In early 2020 we were hit with a pandemic no one could've planned for. Small businesses were trying to figure out how to respond, what to communicate, and how to communicate it. It was confusing and some people got it right and others got it really wrong. Unfortunately, many businesses did not survive not because of financing or lack of a plan. Many small businesses failed because they did not have a method to stay on brand and use that branding as a way to tie their customers to them during those scary times. So let’s create a plan so that if times become hairy again, we can face those challenges with knowledge, strength and conviction about how our brand deals with uncertainty.
What are smart branding rules for small businesses during scary times? What are some things we should be doing to prepare for uncertainty?
Develop Your Core Message
First, when following smart branding rules for small businesses, you need to have a core message. What I mean by a core message is that many small businesses did not base their message on their product or service, but based on their customer's motivation. This is where I think many small businesses were successful during the pandemic.
For example, take a look at the local small restaurateurs in your community. Many of them stayed in business because they already established themselves as more than just a restaurant. They established themselves as members of a community. Maybe they're a community hub for gamers, or locally brewed beer aficionados or Non-GMO foods or locally sourced produce. The fact that they made their core message about something other than food gave them the ammunition needed to survive. They did not lose value because they were unable to deliver the food.
You need to develop a core message, not about your business, but around your customer’s motivation and desires. You're serving the customer’s needs and wants. Remember that the customer is coming to you to solve a problem and that problem is (for the most part) not just about your product or service. 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 fulfill the motivation and communicate around that motivation.
Excellent Example of a Core Message
A company that has communicated well is Jeni's Ice Cream. This example shows a company that is delivering a message that’s not just about ice cream. When they had to stop production due to a listeria outbreak at one of the dairy farms that they use, they were able to persevere. 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. So, instead of just selling the pints that they knew were not affected by the outbreak, they took the whole production offline. As a result, they entrenched themselves in the minds of their customers, as a company whose core value is safety over everything.
A core message that is not necessarily related to your product or service. Now in a moment of crisis, you may have to message according to what crisis you're in but it will keep you on track to follow this next rule.
Align the Core Message with Your Customer Story
The good thing is if you have an alignment with your customer, it can be relatively easy to figure out what your core message should be. Develop your core message and then align that with your customer’s story is another smart branding rules for small businesses.
Because Jeni Britton Bauer was aligned with her customer, she was able to make sure the communication plan around safety was what the customer needed and aligned with the customer's motivations. Once they moved past that crisis, it is not necessarily a part of their core messaging, but it was during a time when they needed to be able to communicate clearly to their customers. They understood that their customer is not paying $10 a pint for a gamble on safety. So they acknowledged that and they are aligned with their customer story.
Be Proactive about Communication
The next smart branding rules for small businesses is to be proactive with your communication. You should not be waiting until people ask you for your response to a crisis. This is something that happened with many small businesses during the pandemic. They did not know what to do or how to respond, so they went silent. Please don’t do this.
You need to stay in alignment with your customers and have a core message ready to roll so that you can respond to a crisis in a swift and clear manner. When Jeni’s Ice Cream had to pull their ice cream from the shelves, they used signage to explain what was happening. They wrote blogs and social media posts updating us on when they'd be back on shelves. They were very proactive in their communication. This is how they were able to recover so quickly is that they held tight to that rule of proactive communication.
Collect Feedback and Adjust
Another rule to follow during crisis times is collecting feedback and adjusting. Its a good idea to be collecting feedback from your audience on a regular basis. But during a crisis, collecting feedback and making sure that you're adjusting based on that feedback is paramount. It might be tempting to close off communications until you're sure of your messaging. To close off feedback so you won't have to sift through potential negativity. But let me assure you, your customers want you to succeed. But, they also want to feel seen and heard.
I understand that the comment section poses a challenge because people can share feedback and also share misinformation. You might want to turn off communication channels that are going to encourage misinformation, but still give people the opportunity to communicate.
Why should you be open to feedback? Because as small business owners, we are always following our customer's lead. If you are going one way and your customer is telling you to go a different way, you need to listen. Having a method of collecting feedback and listening to that feedback, especially during a crisis, is important to your customer.
Be Flexible and Nimble
The last smart branding rules for small businesses is to be flexible and nimble. One of the biggest benefits of being a small business is that we can be quick, right? When things are changing within your business, you need to be reacting quickly to those changes.
This is not the time to spend a week deciding what to say, how to collect feedback, or how to stay in alignment with your customer’s story. During a crisis, you want to be able to focus on resolving the crisis. Do not spend all of your time figuring out how to communicate about the crisis. If you follow the previous rules while not in a crisis, you will already be flexible and nimble when a crisis presents itself.
If COVID-19 taught us anything, its that the longer you're silent, the more assumptions fill the space. It is important to be proactive and very flexible and nimble with our communications that we're making during a crisis. This does not mean to be reckless but to be thoughtful.
Take time to listen to customer feedback and make necessary adjustments. You need to be flexible with your brand and follow where the customer is going, then maybe you can survive during a crisis.
You might even be able to thrive during a crisis
To make your business grow and flourish, you want to follow where your customer goes instead of forcing them to follow you. The pandemic taught us that the businesses that were flexible, nimble and followed their customers were the ones that succeeded. We saw a lot of businesses who took advantage and utilized outdoor spaces to accommodate the customer. They made quick and innovative adjustments that saved their businesses.
More than anything, my hope is that you are staying in business no matter what crisis comes at 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.