Businesses in reopening mode would be wise to first take note of one key truism: Marketing to consumers who have lived through a pandemic calls for a nuanced grasp of their changed — and changing — wants, needs and newly formed habits.

It also calls for the business community to nimbly pivot their operating models to generate new revenue streams, experts told Jeanette Mulvey, content director for CO—, during the second episode of CO— Blueprint, a new video series dedicated to providing small businesses with the ideas and strategies they need to reopen their businesses successfully.

Here are five takeaways from the discussion.

Adapt and innovate

Businesses in reopening mode have little choice but to “adapt and innovate,” said Dave Smith, partner, president and chief financial officer of public relations firm Penna Powers.

Marcus Jones, founder and president of Miss Essie's Southern BBQ, did just that. The company, which specializes in smoked barbecue meats and sauces for food distribution, was on track to have a record-breaking year. When the pandemic hit, “that just all went away,” Jones said. As big orders from corporate clients — including hospitality accounts, as well as its catering business — vanished from the books, Miss Essie’s essentially pivoted from a B2B business to a B2C operation, selling its foods to Costco, which was busy feeding its essential workers who were toiling around the clock.

“We refabricated our whole process,” Jones said. “It allowed us to still grow.”

Like Miss Essie’s Southern BBQ, sport design consultancy Infinite Scale also watched its business instantly evaporate, as sports stadiums and arenas around the country went dark.

With the sports industry “literally in stop mode,” Infinite Scale pivoted, guided by the ethos to “preserve, adapt and serve,” said Molly Mazzolini, partner and director of brand integration. To that end, the firm swiftly set up its team of designers and product managers to work from home; moved to preserve and protect its client relationships by wrapping up projects in the works; and heightened its service-mindedness by focusing on, “How can we pivot based on our clients’ needs now?” she said.

For Inifinite Scale, the regrouping birthed a new initiative, called the Sports Comeback Program, that offers strategic guidance for the sports industry on resuming play, be it via broadcast-only events or virtual events, and “creating new revenue-generating opportunities,” Mazzolini said.

Your business is what you do, and your brand is what people think you do. So, deliver on your brand promise.

Dr. Talaya Waller, founder, Waller & Company

Spread authentic, safety-first reopening messages to cautious consumers via multiple touchpoints

As the economy reopens, it’s critical that businesses rigorously tailor their marketing to consumers who’ve weathered a crisis, experts said. Then businesses must saturate their digital and physical touchpoints with messaging that both reassures and embraces cautious consumers, said Dr. Talaya Waller, founder of Waller & Company, a personal branding firm.

For companies reopening, “make sure to make clear at every single touchpoint — with signs that you place on your door, to what’s on your menu [if you’re a restaurant] to what you put on your website” that your establishment is safe, she said.

And show them how it’s safe. It’s about “instilling confidence and demonstrating that you’re taking all necessary precautions to protect customers and employees,” said Smith. That’s conveyed by being transparent on what cleaning protocols are in place to the PPE [personal protective equipment] you’ve equipped employees with, he said — moves that build customer trust and create a “welcoming environment.”

All told, “Your business is what you do, and your brand is what people think you do,” said Waller. “So deliver on your brand promise.”

Leverage brand ambassadors

From yourself as the business owner to your employees and your customers, maximize brand ambassadors to spread the good word about your business. So, if you’re an eatery in a college town, that could simply mean offering students free meals that they then promote on your social media feeds to create buzz and generate interest, Waller said.

Study your market to understand customer wants and needs

How does a business today know what the crisis-changed consumer wants and needs? By studying up, panelists said.

“There’s no shortage of research available for any small business to review,” Smith said. There’s a plethora of research available on what customers are doing differently now and what they’ll continue to do in the future — data to inform how to model your business accordingly, he said.

Businesses can also keep abreast of their market by partaking in the myriad industry-specific conferences available, Mazzolini said. “Attend virtual conferences, webinars and podcasts. Most are free or a minimal cost.”

Tap low-to-no-cost marketing tools

Low-cost or no-cost marketing methods can boost exposure for your brand and jump-start business.

“Word of mouth is still the strongest marketing channel that there is,” Waller said.

Surprising freebies are another low-cost way to build good will with consumers and secure their loyalty long term, like tossing a free apron in with a takeout order, which is what Miss Essie’s is doing today, Jones said.

For businesses with zero marketing budget, hire a recent college or high school graduate to help you activate a social media plan, said Mazzolini.

“Now is the time to shine,” Waller said. “There are fewer people to compete with but [also] fewer customers to grab.”