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Company-customer communication in times of crisis

Communicating in a crisis

by Joumana Brihi

If we add to the current economic conditions consumers’ ‘panicky’, erratic behaviors and the spread of rumors triggered by such reactions, then we might better understand the worsening of the crisis and the gloomy outlook of years to come. The truth is that people’s behaviors are largely driven by the need to be safe, because, like Mark Twain described it back in his day, “the average man does not like trouble and danger.”

Driven by the natural inclination to run towards safety and ‘follow the herd,’ consumers at the early stages of the financial crisis seemed to have found refuge in safe deposit boxes, convinced that their money would be safer inside the box, a story that made the cover of Time Magazine. The tendency to overreact in the face of uncertainty is also likely to drive the behavior of many companies in times like these, causing them to slash communication efforts. In fact, it has been proven historically that investing in brand building during crises brings significantly higher returns than taking the Draconian measure of cutting off communication altogether.
Even for those who choose to carry on communicating, many may translate their struggle for survival into hard-sell communication and aggressive discount promotions, which often look like desperate attempts to generate ‘quick wins’ in terms of sales. This approach may in fact further dampen consumer confidence, since it could strike consumers as yet another apprehensive reaction that can only justify and further exacerbate their own fears, in addition to which it is very likely to have a negative impact on the image and brand equity of corporations.
In fact, the first thing that companies need to do is to ‘reshuffle’ their priorities in light of the crisis and for their communication efforts to reflect this reshuffling. Companies cannot therefore continue to communicate the way they did during times of economic prosperity and thus need to rethink their approach to communication. During times of crisis, the chief priority for companies becomes simply to ‘keep going’ and to overcome the challenge of maintaining their customer loyalty, while also struggling to survive in a world where consumerism is declining sharply and the population is increasingly risk averse. So how can corporations successfully achieve this through communication?
One of the most effective approaches may well be to render communication more personal and ‘reassuring’ in order to demonstrate a true understanding of customers’ concerns and expectations in dark times. The focus should therefore be centered on the consumer, with a shift from ‘mass communication’ to more personalized communication that reflects the companies’ caring attitude and aims at creating long-term bonds and a sense of partnership with their customers. The bottom line is that corporations should be able to convince their customers that they care about their welfare and comfort more than they care about their own profit margins and that they are willing to sacrifice their profits in order to address their customers’ needs. The underlying message is also that in times like these, corporations need their customers more than ever before in order to survive.
Another important practice, which in fact goes hand in hand with the personalization of messages and demonstrated care for customers, is for companies to further emphasize quality and value for money, as well as any ‘economical’ solutions that they can offer to their customers. This should be mainly driven by the realization that customers have truly ‘tightened their belts’ and that they will start to think twice before purchasing a product or service. An example of a corporation that is trying to leverage the ‘value for money’ proposition is Walt Disney in its recent television commercials for its famous musical Mary Poppins, showcasing members of the audience saying, “So well worth the money, and the uplifting of the spirit in these difficult times.”
Companies may also need to start realizing the need for a ‘back-to-basics’ approach to communication. Rather than ‘promising the moon’ to their customers, they might therefore need to dust off old books and focus on the basic attributes of their products and services — using non-gimmicky communication that offers customers exactly what they need rather than overstated messages that promise to “bring the world to their doorstep.” This back- to-basics approach could be the answer for many in the most troubled sectors, such as banking, vying to regain the public’s confidence in their capacity to provide them with basic ‘safety’. An example of a bank that is trying to do that is the State Bank of India which published an advertisement in October 2008 merely reading, “Fixed Deposit: No Volatility, All Safety.”
Which organizations will show that they are made to last will very much be determined by their capacity to endure this crisis. Those that succeed in adapting their communication strategies based on a good understanding of consumers’ psyche will certainly remain competitive, while others may find it a lot more difficult to readjust and to climb back down the profitability ladder. Companies that used to make billions are now losing billions, but like Kipling said: “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same… yours is the earth and everything that’s in it.” The moral is that today’s corporations need to show some resilience and to carry on communicating in good and bad times alike.

Joumana Brihi & Ramsay G. Najjar S2C

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Joumana Brihi


Ramsay G. Najjar

Ramsay G. Najjar is founder of Lebanese communication experts S2C

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