Justin Waller, CMO and SVP of operations for the U.S. Chamber, speaks with Ashley Swenson, VP of retail marketing for Staples, about ways to meet the changing needs of consumers.

The past few months of living and working in a pandemic have redefined customer needs rapidly. Virtually overnight, shopping online became preferable to shopping in person, essential items were prioritized over non-essentials and safety took precedent over convenience. Many of these shifts meant that, as a business, your marketing strategies weren’t working as well as before the pandemic.

During our Big Week for Small Business Summit, CO— spoke to Ashley Swenson, vice president of retail marketing at Staples to get her perspective on shifting your outreach to better address your customers’ wants and needs. Swenson demonstrated what she and her team at Staples have learned through two case studies: back to school shopping and small business solutions. Here are some key takeaways.

Evolve your messaging

“Back in the spring, we honed in on a message we thought would be super relevant with our customers about the back to school season,” said Swenson. “At the time we thought, ‘Aren’t parents, students and teachers going to be so excited to go back to normal in the August and September time frame?’”

Obviously, as time went on, Swenson and her team realized the fall didn’t look like what they thought it would be. Some schools are back in session, some are starting later, some are remote and some are hybrid in-person/remote. Swenson calls it a “potpourri of ambiguity.” As a result, the team shifted its messaging to reflect this ambiguity. Instead of “back to normal,” their campaign aligned with this “learn from anywhere” reality.

Here are some other key takeaways Swenson and her team learned from their back to school messaging pivot:

  • Change the marketing mix: Your audience is consuming media in different ways than before the pandemic. In addition, today’s business environment demands nimble, quick ways to communicate. How can you shift your marketing to channels that reflect new media consumption, meet this need for speed and cost less?
  • Understand which products are most relevant: For Staples, some of their high-margin products, like binders and glue sticks, suddenly aren’t relevant in a remote learning environment. Face masks and PPE, however, are very in demand. What products can you change up to meet the changing needs of your customers?
  • Develop content to help your customers: We’re all facing uncertainty, and the more your business can do to help customers navigate these difficult times, the more trust a customer will have in your brand.

We listened to small businesses, parents and teachers and tried to understand what they were going through and what they needed.

Ashley Swenson, VP of retail marketing, Staples

Focus on listening

In her second example, Swenson outlined Staples’ immediate response to the pandemic and how the brand shut down all marketing communications at the beginning of the emergency. For the first time, Staples shut down owned assets, radio ads, direct mail — any and all ongoing marketing campaigns.

“What we were able to do is really focus on our customers,” she said. “We listened to small businesses, parents and teachers and tried to understand what they were going through and what they needed.”

The team pivoted from normally scheduled marketing activities to small business solutions. For instance:

  • Restaurants that pivoted their in-person dining to takeout-focused models.
  • Tips from brick-and-mortar shops that have moved online and found success.
  • Expertise from stores that have figured out how to reopen in a safe way.

How can your business replicate this effort and move from a seller to a provider of solutions? Do you understand what it is, beyond an actual product, your customers need to be successful? Take some time to reach out to customers, talk to them and understand how life has changed over the past few months. It will go a long way toward building brand loyalty.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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