Join our panel of experts to discuss how entrepreneurs can ensure their brands stay current during the pandemic and beyond.

As the nation navigates the pandemic’s psychic toll, B2B and B2C businesses are redefining their brand equity and messaging to meet what the moment calls for and strike a resonant chord.

Eyeing post-COVID success, small businesses are shifting messaging from a promotional cadence to hyper-personalized content tailored to their customer base; tapping data analytics to measure marketing effectiveness; and diversifying services and distribution channels to broaden their brand reach, panelists told Jeanette Mulvey, content director for CO—, during the eight installment of CO— Blueprint, a virtual event series dedicated to providing small businesses with the ideas and strategies they need to reopen successfully.

Here are five key takeaways from the discussion.

Skew messaging from promotions to relevant content

For businesses, tonally appropriate messaging is more critical than ever to meet customers’ pandemic-informed wants, needs and sensibilities.

That’s why reducing promotional marketing to amplify informational, resource-rich content — from how-to webinars to safety-protocol videos — has become integral to an effective brand strategy today, panelists said. It’s about “understanding what your customers are going through,” and serving them accordingly, said Amy Lang, senior vice president of strategy and insights for Staples, who serves a small-business client base.

For example, knowing that wooing back customers meant ensuring they felt safe, a consortium of small businesses in Kennebunkport, Maine formed a pact, dubbed the “Kennebunkport Promise.” The local hotels, restaurants and shops spread a townwide message of their adherence to safety guidelines via radio advertising, ubiquitous signage and even videos demonstrating social-distancing protocols on social media, Lang noted.

Meanwhile Staples, for its part, has scaled back promotional marketing to highlight content tailored for its small business clients, like case studies on companies’ pandemic pivots and webinars on topics from legal issues to PPE (personal protective equipment) requirements — a strategy the retailer expects to continue post-pandemic, she said.

Diversify distribution to widen your brand reach

When the pandemic hit, Loft & Bear Vodka watched its core restaurant and bar business, which made up 70% of its sales, evaporate.

That’s when “distribution became an immediate focus,” said Paul Ryan Elliott, founder and CEO of the craft distillery. To stay afloat, the South Central Los Angeles-based business made a bold pivot, moving its products into retail stores while spreading its e-commerce wings on sites like Drizly and ReserveBar.

That pandemic pivot from a “hyper local” operation to a DTC brand has brought unexpected benefits. “With those changes, we now have a wider footprint,” he said.

We wanted to make sure our customers and job seekers knew that we were out there for them when they were ready to get back to work in a safe manner.

Saïd Eastman, CEO, JobsintheUS

Measure your marketing via free and low-cost data analytics

Sophisticated data analytics tools once reserved for big enterprises with big budgets are now largely available to the small business community for free, or at a low cost, as the digital economy has “democratized access,” said Lang.

In turn, companies would be wise to tap technology like Google Analytics and Facebook engagement metrics to capture granular customer data and measure marketing campaigns against benchmarks like email open rates — insights critical to driving business today, she said.

Pivot your services to meet the moment

As COVID-19 has put much of the in-person economy — from dining to sporting events — on hold, businesses must adjust their brand proposition to serve B2B and B2C customers’ changing needs.

That’s what Sam Kanter, owner of Sam Kanter Events, is doing.

When events became “nonexistent” for the restaurant events business, Kanter launched a COVID consulting arm to address clients’ urgent and unprecedented new challenges, offering expert guidance on creating efficient layouts for guest comfort and safety, while maximizing profitability.

The pivot is a natural outgrowth of its brand, Kanter says. Still, what hospitality clients need now marks a literal reversal of their business expectations pre-COVID. While artfully crafted, densely packed spaces were once central to event planning, “now we’re trying to figure out how to fit fewer people in a space that feels both comfortable and exciting,” she said.

JobsintheUS.com, the hyper-local job board, also shifted gears when revenues from employers advertising on its state-specific sites dried up as hiring froze and businesses shuttered, said Saïd Eastman, CEO.

The site then pivoted to a service-minded branding ethos, becoming a destination for resources and insider advice on both job seeking and recruitment, leveraging trade groups like hospitality and restaurant associations to spread its message. “We wanted to make sure our customers and job seekers knew that we were out there for them when they were ready to get back to work in a safe manner,” Eastman said.

What’s more, JobsintheUS also made the leap from in-person job fairs to online events. Like Loft & Bear Vodka, the shift “opened us up to a bigger audience,” he said.

Make it personal

A personal touch goes a long way in building both customer trust and brand equity, panelists said.

As Loft & Bear Vodka broadens its reach online, it’s also stoking more intimate connections as a DTC brand by talking to customers in real-time about its products, while offering virtual events like tastings and happy hours to help homebound shoppers enhance their cocktail and spirits experiences, Elliott said.

Although results don’t necessarily materialize in the short term, he said, “telling the story behind your brand, and reaching out to one person on your Instagram or your Facebook feed can have a disproportionate effect on your business.”

All told, in the small business community, the value of raw empathy and authenticity cannot be overestimated.

Kanter knows all too well that for her restaurant clients — no matter the grind and tight margins — business is a labor of love forged by close relationships. “These are passion projects,” she said. And in the wake of all they’ve endured amid COVID-19, they deserve to be treated with compassion, “like they’ve lost a member of the family,” she said.

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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Published September 10, 2020