We were recently asked some questions by Douglas Magazine for their web series: Marketing During Covid-19. Here’s what we were thinking at the beginning of May …

Julie and Ken Coward founded Holy Cow Communication Design in 1997. Based in Sidney, BC, they’ve worked with some of Vancouver Island’s best-known brands as well as a wide range of clients from international corporate clients to single person start ups, not-for-profits and government agencies. They count Hillside Shopping Centre, Help Fill a Dream, Saanich Peninsula Hospital and Healthcare Foundation, Shoreline Medical, BC Boat Show and the Office of the Auditor General of BC among their clients.

We asked them to share their perspective and advice on marketing during COVID-19.

How would you describe the during-COVID and post-COVID consumer on Vancouver Island, and how do you anticipate they have changed, and will change, as we move through the pandemic?

Consumption for the most part has changed from desire to survival with general reduced spending, particularly discretionary spending on non-essential products and services. We are learning quickly what is truly important and what purchases are made under the guise of “If I get this, it will make me happy.”

Consumer behaviour is always evolving; we have seen new behaviours being adopted with a dramatic increase in online shopping (for some consumers, it’s the first time they’ve shopped online), which means a changed consumer mindset that will likely stay even after physical distancing regulations have been relaxed.

As we navigate this new normal I hope people begin to see that the things we felt were important may not even be “things” at all. Your relationships with friends and family and your health are really the things that should hold a spot at the top of your list. There has always been a strong push on Vancouver Island to shop local and support local — we see that this is only being strengthened currently.

This pandemic hit us at Holy Cow too, fast and hard. The day that we realized that how we do business was about to change will be with me for the rest of my life. We’re all friends at Holy Cow and the day we had to ask half our staff to look to government assistance in order to be able to make ends meet still chokes me up. Many of our clients were having to do the same thing. Projects we were moving forward on had to shut down fast. The BC Boat Show in Sidney was due to be held last weekend and it was down to the wire over whether it should proceed or not.

As we cope with this extraordinary challenge, how can businesses — either those still open or those who have closed but intend to reopen — keep their brands top of mind?

It is said absence makes the heart grow fonder. Let’s hope that’s the case for our local businesses too. The obvious move to online services will be easier for some businesses than others. If you’ve adjusted your business model during the pandemic or created a new product/service, let your customers know.

Connect with your customers on social media, check in with them. Is there an opportunity to create a special offer to get people interested again? Social media and accessing your customer base through email (and good old-fashioned window signage) is a great way to let customers know you are still open for their business. Forward-thinking businesses will also want to be able to identify how their consumer will behave post-pandemic. What will their emerging wants/needs be?

What kind of messaging/creative approach do you recommend that brands take right now to maintain and increase share of voice?

Back to basics: it’s a time for honest conversations through any media that you feel comfortable using. Not everyone will be in the position to launch a full multi-media campaign but social media is an easy way to communicate without spending a lot. People are hungry for news, and especially good news, so talk about the little successes you have managed during this trying time.

One of our successes was being asked to create a “Flatten the Curve” logo graphic (pro bono) for Victoria Public Health which they will be using on shirts and vest to be worn by the front line COVID-19 testing staff (heroes). I’m hoping to see Bonnie Henry wear that during one of her future presentations, and you can bet if I do, I will be sharing that nugget within my circle. Right now, consumers are responding well to brands that they perceive are doing good in their own communities.

Anything you think businesses should be particularly focused on when it comes to their marketing and advertising strategies over the next three months?

People will be hungry for things to go back to the way they were, but our actions need to stay in line with Provincial advice. All businesses should be taking advantage of the support and assistance that is available, whether that’s federal or through local resources like the Chamber of Commerce.  If they haven’t done it already, the next few months will be critical to compete in the digital space.

Many businesses will already have moved to an online model — look at what your competitors are doing and see how your approach compares. It’s also time to update consumer profiles; in times of upheaval it’s amazing how quickly people change their habits, ensuring that you are in touch with your audience’s needs and preferences is key in being able to target them effectively.

What marketing advice do you have for businesses in general during this time?

Your worst purchase of 2019 is most likely that 2020 business calendar planner but hang onto it and believe that there are months ahead that you will be able to put it into use. Everyone is in re-evaluation mode. Are there aspects of your business that will need to change to bring people back in the days ahead? Will you be ready to do things differently? Don’t forget that everyone is dealing with an unprecedented situation. Take carefully any advice that tells you that there’s a certain or right way that things should be done.

Communication is always key. Even if you can only tell your customer that you don’t know yet how you are going to proceed with your business, at least you are keeping the lines of communication open. I’ve never experienced a time with such a strong spirit of “we’re all in this together”; there’s a will to see business resume, and desire in our local economy to support those who have managed to continue trading. Show your audience the people behind that story and help them understand that their custom is meaningful and part of this bigger idea of keeping our economy afloat.