Telling Your Story During the Pandemic

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As a product marketer, if you told me that you’re worried about this crisis, your business and your livelihood, I wouldn’t be surprised. If you then told me that you’re leaning into the crisis to get your business the attention it needs to succeed, I’d support you. If you showed me copy that said, “Finding the right CRM for the new normal,” I’d take you aside and give you a few suggestions.

I’d show you that “the new normal” is being used. A lot. Heck, we just used it ourselves in a blog image. But the truth is, any use of a trending catchphrase can seem opportunistic at best and lazy at worst.

One alternative could be to go for a straightforward, factual approach: “Blue Apron’s statement on COVID-19.” That’s not fake or opportunistic. But it feels like a huge missed opportunity to connect with the audience.

Blue Apron could have gone with something like, “Resources for eating healthfully during the lockdown.” That’s helpful. Relevant. Contextual. The tone is right. And it doesn’t directly promote the company’s meal delivery subscription.

This was the approach we took in our recent, aforementioned blog post: Morals, Emotions, and Truths: A Guide to Business Storytelling in Today’s World. We didn’t talk directly about our services; being intentional about marketing right now is valuable and worth of focus. Furthermore, the title leaves no question about the content. It’s a guide, and it’s going to help with morals, emotions and truths right now.


Without Context, Your Message Is Just Noise

Why is it so difficult to be heard right now? Two reasons: First, there’s a lot of noise out there. While the news cycles have abated somewhat from feeling like a week’s worth of news every hour, there’s still an overwhelming amount of information and messaging flying around.

Second, we’re all trying to figure out a way forward—not just in our businesses, but in our lives. Best case, people are stuck at home with canceled trips, restless kids and a never-ending stream of food deliveries. Worst case, people have lost multiple loved ones, are out of work and terrified about the future.

That context is important. It affects the ability of your recipient to process your message. And this is where some common marketing pitfalls present themselves.


Pitfall No. 1: Using Generic One-Liners

Generic one-liners (like “the new normal”) seem safe because everybody else is using them, too. It’s contextual for sure, but is it relevant? Maybe. Is it helpful? Unlikely.

These one-liners compound the problem we just identified: Not only is there a storm of important, changing information about this pandemic, companies are also trying to communicate right now. These circumstances create a considerable amount of stress and anxiety for marketers.

The good news is, it’s OK to hit pause while you figure things out. It’s OK to take a beat and give the world a chance to settle into its new rhythm, but you also know you need to get back out there. You are, after all, an essential part of your company’s ability to generate future demand.


Pitfall No. 2: Being Fake or Opportunistic

That brings us to our second major risk: being, or being perceived as, fake or opportunistic. Every communication you send runs the risk not only of being a missed opportunity, but also as seeming disingenuous or inauthentic. This has the potential to do irreparable, potentially long-term harm to your brand. We all remember that universally hated, tone deaf Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad from 2017, which caused the brand’s purchase consideration among Millennials to plummet long after it was pulled from the air.

People will remember how brands behaved during these difficult times. They will remember if you were on their side—and we all need as many people on our side right now as possible. “Together while apart” is something we’ve seen a lot of recently, from universities, performing arts companies and even the New England Patriots (perhaps the phrase is creeping into generic-one-liner territory?).


Helpful, Relevant, Contextual Storytelling: Your Brand’s Path Forward

These pitfall risks can create friction in your efforts to market and communicate right now, and that can ultimately slow you down. The solution? Storytelling.

The beauty of storytelling—when done right—is that you’ve put your customer at the center. It’s an outside-in approach that has your audience, whether customer or prospect, as the hero. Not you. Not your brand. The customer. Your role is that of their guide to help them on their way. And that brings us back to being helpful, relevant and contextual:

  • Being helpful is about finding a way to remove roadblocks for your customer. It may be your actual product, or it may be content you create to help during these times.
  • Being relevant is about now. Your helpfulness needs to be channeled in a way that solves pain points your audience is dealing with today. If your customers don’t care, they won’t stick around to listen.
  • Being contextual is focusing on the why, what, when, how and where of the subject at hand. You need to speak to your audience’s unique and specific challenges today. This takes us full circle to being helpful. Being helpful requires being relevant and putting things in context.

How can you and your brand help during these strange days while addressing the specific, meaningful challenges that your customers are dealing with right now?

Let’s go back to our CRM copy example. That hypothetical company could take a lesson from Salesforce’s message to “Rapidly respond to customers, employees, partners and communities in this unprecedented time.” It’s helpful (rapidly respond). It’s relevant (about this time and how to react). It’s contextual (it calls out appropriate items: customers, employees, partners and communities).

Remember: Focus on your customer. Consider how your hero is struggling right now and what you can do to help them overcome the difficulties they face. Brands we’re advising, with frameworks like our TRIPS Storytelling Messaging, are breaking the mold to achieve authentic messaging that is responding with customers.

Meet your customers where they are today, and they’ll be inclined to stick with you tomorrow.

Matthew Woodget

Matthew Woodget

Matthew Woodget is the founder, CEO and principal strategy consultant at Go Narrative. Follow him on Twitter or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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