Strategic communicators have long known that one size does not fit all when it comes to reaching consumers.
Local preferences, taste and culture factor into the strategy to inform and engage.
This need to tailor messages is even more pronounced during the pandemic, given the vast differences city by city, state by state and country by country in the extent of the outbreak and measures to mitigate that have changed everyday life.
For example, businesses have opened up in parts of China while they remain in lockdown in New York and elsewhere.
"Companies were already struggling to keep up with changing consumer behaviors before the pandemic,” says Andrew Cosgrove, EY Global Consumer Knowledge Leader and Lead Analyst. “Now it's even more critical for companies to anticipate how consumers will change and respond to specific segment needs."
As some retail was beginning to unlock doors in the United States, only one-third of American adults surveyed April 20 said that they will feel safe shopping in a mall after stores reopen, according to a study by retail predictive analytics company First Insight Inc.
And in unprecedented times, it’s especially vital to take a frequent read of customers’ intent, even fears to remain relevant.
There are lessons to be learned even at this relatively early stage of the pandemic timeline.
Starbucks is one of the companies to watch given its global footprint. It was one of the first large corporations to experience the pandemic given its presence in China. But it is also one of the first to have experienced the days coming out of it and provides some lessons in pacing communications.
“Since the beginning of this global crisis, Starbucks has made decisions that prioritize the well-being of our partners and customers, support health and government officials, and responsibly serve our communities,” Kevin Johnson, Starbucks President and CEO, said on April 28. “This principled approach is showing steady business improvement in China where today, substantially all existing Starbucks stores have reopened with modified operations, new store locations are being added and customer engagement continues to grow with each passing week.
“We are leveraging our experience in China to inform our actions in other markets, including the U.S., where we are now entering the ‘monitor and adapt’ phase to reopen many more stores with best-in-class safety protocols.”
While Starbucks aims to have its lattes taste the same in different parts of the world, it knows that it has to make business operations and marketing adjustments on the local level. It is making decisions store by store.
Johnson said that Starbucks will advance its competitive position “through continued improvements in our digital capabilities and innovative store formats.” Utilizing a regional adaptability model, business goals are aligned with consumer intent. Starbucks also communicates their preventative measures to address how they’re meeting their patrons’ needs.
- Floor markers and in-store signage will mark proper, socially distanced areas to stand, and cafes will also limit the number of customers allowed inside
- No seating areas will be open
- Customers can also use Starbucks Delivers to have their drinks brought to their door through Uber Eats and a “contactless” hand off
As Starbucks knows, one of the biggest questions for marketers is how and when to proceed. Messaging needs to be sensitive to the times, not tone-deaf.
It wasn’t until the beginning of May that Starbucks brought advertising back to the U.S. Ads were to include a variety of messages, including spring beverages, Double Star days for loyalty program members, Happy Hour deals and reminders about its app, ordering ahead and delivery.
Starbucks wasn’t the only company to revise its playbook as the pandemic took hold. Understandably, marketers took pause in March when the scope of COVID-19 was within focus. According to eMarketer:
- 49% held back a campaign launch until later in 2020
- 45% stopped or paused a media campaign midway
- 38% paused all advertising until later in 2020
- 34% scrapped campaigns pre-launch
How this will play out in May and thereafter is a big unknown. But what is clear is that decision making is more complex and definitely more local. Knowing how consumers feel in the moment – and crafting messaging that is appropriate – is essential.