The Purpose of Marketing Will Not Change Post COVID-19 but Marketers Must

Updated: Jul 2, 2020

Although the landscape will be different, the purpose of marketing remains the same. Marketers need reminding of this as much as anyone else, says Marketing Week Editor-in-Chief, Russell Parsons


In the space of few weeks in February and March all our worlds were turned upside down. Professionally and personally, a lot of us were forced to live, work and think differently.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about the consequences of the coronavirus crisis. There are so many tentacles to this thing, it can be overwhelming. There is no precedent in our lifetimes for what is happening or what might occur in the coming weeks and months. We are all, to some extent, operating without a compass.

There is deep uncertainty and with doubt comes pontification. We stretch for answers in the quest to make sense of the nonsensical. The marketing industry is particularly prone to overreach. There has never been a shortage of proclamations of profound change. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard from conference stages and read in thought pieces that some established practice or fundamental is dead. That everything you know is wrong, and if you don’t tear up the rule book and start again you are in dereliction of duty. Think prophecies on the demise of traditional media and collapse of the marketing funnel. Bold assertions on the expectation of millennials and younger that has rendered differentiation redundant and purpose paramount.

True to form, there’s been no shortage of predictions of seismic change to the job of marketing, and role of the marketer in the past few months. There is no way back to the old way of working, serving customers and conducting yourself amid the new normal, according to many.

Change is coming

It is true that has a lot has changed. Across the world, marketers are facing up to economic decline more precipitous than any in living memory. Ratings agency Fitch this week forecast a 7.6% decline in GDP across the world, with the Eurozone, down 7.2%, and the US, by 5.6%, among the worst hit. It was relatively easy to shut economies down, starting them up again will be painful, and costly. And this is no ordinary recession where the challenge isn’t just overcoming a drop in demand, there are problems with supply too. Some categories, even entire sectors are facing deep consolidation. Unemployment will spike and those still in work are facing an uncertain future. How long the recession will last, what shape it will take is open to conjecture but one thing is certain – many people’s disposable income will be reduced, their confidence shot and their choices different.

Meanwhile, in ecommerce and remote working we have seen a decade’s worth of digital transformation in two months. Global tracking from Kantar found 32% of households have increased online spend during the pandemic with the same percentage predicting they will stay at the same level post lockdown. And we can all speak to the increase in Zoom calls with colleagues, friends and family.

There is also evidence of acceleration in people’s desire for more sustainable products, and an uptake in intent to buy locally. Kantar’s study found 65% of consumers favour goods produced in their own country. Less quantifiably, others have predicted that economic and societal shutdown is an opportunity to take stock, and rethink capitalism with different indicators of success. Brands with a purpose will become more desirable, some have predicted.

There is and will be plenty of change in behaviour and circumstance in the months and year ahead. How much will be permanent is the subject of debate. Some predict dramatic shifts, others forecast life will quickly return to normal.

Sitting on the fence, the truth likely sits somewhere in the middle. We will buy more online, work from home more. But there will be no wholesale shift. We will see more price sensitivity but conversely, as with previous recessions, some will be immune from the worse economic vagaries. It might well be localism will stick among some, as will the desire for a kinder, fairer commerce. For plenty of others, same as it ever was.

Don’t forget your purpose

Regardless of where you stand it’s fair to say marketers are facing huge challenges. The job is undoubtedly tough. Customers are behaving differently, markets are shrinking, categories are at risk and money is tighter for many.

To paraphrase two marketers I have spoken to in the past few weeks, as much as the pandemic has been a very unwelcome intervention, marketers should not “lose their shit”. A marketers’ task might have been made a whole lot harder but its core purpose - identifying and satisfying customer need in a way that will help the company turn a profit - has not. And that is needed right now more than ever.

Time to step up

The current crisis offers marketers an opportunity to lead. But it’s not going to be easy.

Many have seen their influence diminish over recent years. Others have been shorn of responsibility for strategic oversight and many tactical levers, more have seen their role reduced to marcomms, as laid bare by a recent survey by the Duke University.

With companies looking to protect cash reserves by cutting spend, many marketers have been robbed of the P for promotion. It is innovation in price, product and place that is needed now in many categories. Marketers need to seize the opportunity. Advertising has its place. There is no shortage of evidence to prove the virtues of brand building in a downturn but greater focus on the other tactical levers will improve effectiveness and help marketers through the crisis and out the other side.

Meanwhile, marketers should take the opportunity to do what only they can – be the customer’s spokesperson. It’s a cliché, but undoubtedly true: good marketers are the “voice of the customer”.

Good solid insight is needed. Only then can you adapt to where the market is. Forensic analysis of where customers’ heads are is needed. What they care about, what they don’t, what they are anxious and easy with needs to be tracked carefully, and catered for. The attitudes and behaviour being demonstrated right now are not necessarily indicative of what customers will be thinking, feeling and doing in 12 months.

Customer insight is a marketers’ superpower and It’s what needed by all companies, more than ever right now.

The crisis will impact brands in different ways, the economic downturn will hit all. To give their brand, and their role the best opportunity to survive and thrive, marketers need to remind themselves of all they can be, and all that they can offer. All the job of marketing from strategy through to execution is, and the value it can add to a company.

Marketers are uniquely placed to navigate what’s coming. It’s time for them to show, and shine.

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