Why Small Businesses Will Struggle

The global pandemic COVID-19 has ground the world economy to a halt. In North America the markets erased years of gains in a matter of weeks, and is set to go lower still. Oil future are in the negative, the curve has yet to flatten in the US, and unemployment numbers are skyrocketing. It’s safe to cry out like chicken little, “the sky is falling”. Indeed it is. Many business have been hard hit, not just small to medium sized ones, although they have faced the brunt of the effects and have fewer resources behind them to stay afloat. When it comes to response to COVID we have seen a handful of healthy ways to respond and keep your brand alive during pandemic times. We’ve also seen abject failures. Which one are you?

Here are some web marketing thoughts on branding to help you through this time.

1. Build brand awareness through online sales and free shipping.

Amazon isn’t the only place that can offer free shipping. Consumers now have expectations when it comes to online purchases. Namely, free shipping. That can be a heavy expense for the small business. But if there’s margin to continue operating with added shipping costs, the decision should be easy. The caveat, you need online presence in the first place to even make this an option to customers.

Companies with even a small online presence have been able to amplify their brand message to those customers. For many retailers, having a mechanism to connect with your past customers and fans is key to making sales. If the primary sales mechanism is lost (a retail location), then you have to get creative. I’ve seen many local business in my own city of Calgary drum up sales by offering free home shipping (complete with no contact delivery). If you have a mechanism to purchase online, or even simply feature products online, you have a chance to make a sale. Setting up an online storefront isn’t hard either. With basic tools you can be up and running in hours, and there’s no shortage of options to choose from. The most popular would be WordPress, WIX, and Shopify. They all present options to have a professional storefront, accept sales, and take care of billing/shipping, at the touch of a button. We can help with this, and get it working in a hurry.

This isn’t to say you’re going to be making more sales without your retail front, but it does mean those who have worked at their online presence, including social media, have options to survive. If this isn’t your business, then it’s not too late to act, but time is running out. Getting your products or services out in the open in front as many eyes as possible will give you a chance to earn revenue, but also create a sales channel for the future.

2. Build brand awareness through service

There are brands that are doing great (ice cream shops?) and offer an incentives to add to their goodwill. Some companies are providing discounts for frontline service providers. Others are changing store hours to accommodate at risk demographics. Still others are making donations to those in need. If you have the ability to serve and give back to the community in the hardest times, don’t hesitate to tell that story. But note, there is a difference between telling a story and selling a story. There’s a difference.

Take for example the Alberta Government and their recent frenzy of giving away PPE to other province’s. Initially, they were telling a story of doing their part to strengthen national identity. But then a week later word got out Alberta was short on quality PPE, and started handing out Chinese knock-offs to their own front line workers. Ministers then went on Twitter to champion a new storyline, promoting volunteer PPE drives in the community. One left a bad taste in eyes of many voters, the other was seen as a signal of solidarity.

3. Bad COVID response can kill your business

Florida, and other red states, are among the laughing stock in the US. They’re also putting the most vulnerable in extreme risk. Many states are in fact looking to relax isolation restrictions just in time for Spring. Other businesses are trying to circumvent rules to either stay open, or embody the narrative that “freedom” rules over government intervention. But is this a good idea?

Forget what experts are saying (unanimously in favour of maintaining social restrictions). The weight of popular opinion is squarely in the camp of “don’t do it!” Your business shouldn’t approach a global pandemic with a cavalier attitude. For example, don’t make fun of customers who raise questions about your businesses approach to COVID service rules (assuming it’s still open). Customer won’t merely talk to themselves, roasting the business on social media, but businesses who don’t follow the rules (or social norms), will get a slew of negative online reviews as well. Few businesses can recover from a slew of bad online reviews. We saw a coffee shop respond to a customer with a Hitler meme to decry the question of too many people on the patio. That business will have a hard time getting people to forget about their misgivings during COVID.

Do you want to be that business that took a lazy approach to COVID? Some might think they’re clientele will reward them by circumventing the rules. The vast majority, however, are not in this camp, and would do well to be creative in coming up ways to do recommendations 1 & 2 above, rather than the lowest common denominator–business as usual. You should also think of what the masses will think about your brand and how it handled COVID. Yes, everyone received an email from the CEO about what a company was doing, but you need to pay attention to your activities even when business is down. You want to ensure COVID policies in house are up to date so you’re not making the news as a source of outbreak. You also don’t want to get caught with your hand in the cookie jar. As small businesses look for federal relief funds, you don’t want your brand to be seen as taking corporate welfare when it shouldn’t. Many large corporations and brands (Ruth’s Christ steak house for example) are within the rules of taking advantage of federal assistance, but customers don’t like it one bit. Will it harm their brand when things return to normal? Most definitely.

Everything Has Changed.

What we know is this, consumer behaviour will forever change. Are you prepared? We’re NOT going back to normal. There isn’t a time or place where consumer behaviour won’t shift as a result of unprecedented social changes as a result of COVID. That makes the importance of maintaining and enhancing brand awareness, even during a pandemic, all that more important.

Stay safe out there.