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Communicating in a crisis

How should fashion approach talking to customers amid the coronavirus outbreak?

“I’m all set to help out in the warehouse, if needs be,” wrote Johnnie Boden, founder of the eponymous lifestyle brand, in a recent email to customers. Promising that the business was doing its utmost to keep trading normally, despite shuttering stores amid the coronavirus outbreak, the entrepreneur added: “My family are too! But please don’t expect me to sort out an IT drama.”

Upbeat and refreshingly personal, while reflecting the severity of the situation facing fashion – Boden also expressed his concern for the brand’s wider community – the message offered one example of how to communicate in a crisis. Unexpectedly, fashion brands and retailers are having to talk to customers about very serious matters, such as closing stores, shutting off the supply line and the steps taken to protect staff.

Just this weekend, Primark wrote to suppliers asking them to halt production, as it closed all of its UK and Ireland stores.

Please support businesses as you normally would, as we all need them to survive

Tim Little, owner and creative director of premium footwear brand Grenson

“There are two main issues for retailers to consider: how do they communicate the impact on their business and what they’re doing to take care of their employees,” Frances Griffin, senior strategist at marketing agency MullenLowe Open, which works with brands including Sloggi and Ikea, tells Drapers.

“You have to be up front about any change to the service level you can provide, and be very clear about how you’re adapting ways of working to keep people safe.”

Double-edged sword

As if communicating clearly in a fast-moving, uncertain climate were not hard enough, fashion faces a difficult marketing dilemma. On the one hand, businesses need to drive sales now more than ever to ensure they can stay afloat, pay their bills and, crucially, their staff.

On the other, there is little consumer appetite to buy fashion. Ill-judged marketing messages will feel insensitive and inappropriate. Customers will see straight through any attempt to profiteer from the national crisis. Those who get marketing wrong in the current climate face long-term reputational damage.

Tim Little, owner and creative director of premium footwear brand Grenson, addressed the tension in a post to customers on Instagram.

“First, in case any of you feel that is inappropriate to be marketing our products at such a time, I would like to explain that it is crucial that companies like us continue to operate, as we employ a lot of people who rely on us.

Showing that you care about the current situation and still earning a living aren’t mutually exclusive

Fashion brand consultant Elizabeth Stiles

“Please support businesses as you normally would, as we all need them to survive. To that end, we have decided to reduce all of our prices by 20% at for the next two weeks to keep things moving. This is our first-ever mid-season sale where you can not only buy new season styles, but also our core classics at a reduced price.”

Fashion brand consultant Elizabeth Stiles argues: “There is a lot of noise for consumers at the moment and retailers are worried about adding to it. But showing that you care about the current situation and still earning a living aren’t mutually exclusive, although you do need to know your customer inside and out to know how to communicate properly.

“Now is the time to focus on what you’re good at, what makes you stand out and what customers really want from you. Focus on bestsellers. Double down on what your audience loves and what they know you for.”

She urges brands to maintain a consistent tone of voice: “If you’ve always used some humour in your messaging, then it is OK to carry on. If your brand already talks about issues like mental health, then it’s fine to talk to customers about how they’re feeling. Stay true to the brand values.”

You don’t want to be being seen to profiteer from a situation like this

Founder of a lifestyle brand

The founder of one lifestyle brand tells Drapers: “We’re investing money into marketing online. The power of email is that you know that will reach your customer directly. You have to make sure that the tone of that communication is appropriate. You don’t want to be being seen to profiteer from a situation like this.”

MullenLowe Open’s Griffin adds: “As well as messages about what they’re doing to keep people safe in stores, fashion brands and retailers have been reassuring customers that they’re managing orders, that deliveries are on track and trying to maintain an illusion of business as normal.

“That’s the right thing to do: they have to keep selling as much as possible – that’s not immoral. What would be a mistake is to try and take advantage of the situation in any way.”

Promotion dilemma

Whether or not discounting is the best marketing strategy is another difficult decision for retailers in these troubled times. Many have opted to run promotions they hope will resonate with customers in attempt to dredge up sales. Both Asos and Topshop, for example, have offered blanket discounts of 20% and 30% off everything respectively.

“We will have some quite enticing messages but probably on stock that we would want to be getting rid of anyway,” says the managing director of one high street retailer.

“There might be a phase when retailers start doing 20% off everything to just try and get some cash – but that won’t last for long, because it exhausts your good stock, so that when all this finishes and people go back to trading, all you’re left with is rubbish and you’ll be left in a worse position. It’s that fine balance.”

One of the most underused tools in crisis communication is social listening

Nicola Kemp, managing editor at agency Creativebrief

Marketing expert Nicola Kemp, managing editor of insight specialist Bite at marketing agency Creativebrief and former trends editor at Campaign magazine, urges brands and retailers to listen as much as they talk to customers.

“One of the most underused tools in crisis communication is social listening,” she explains. “Retailers need to be really mindful about what consumers are worried about and use social listening to inform the tone of their marketing communications.

“Businesses often think about how to broadcast, when what they should be doing is listening to discover how to respond to consumer needs.”

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Retailers including In The Style are practising “extreme customer service”

Kemp also points to what she calls “extreme customer service” as one effective ways brands are approaching communication amid coronavirus.

Initiatives started by retailers in the grocery sector, such as Pret a Manger, which was giving NHS workers free hot drinks and 50% off food until it closed its doors this weekend, and restaurant chain Leon, which was giving hospital workers free food, have been emulated by fashion brands. Little Mistress is offering NHS staff 60% off, while In The Style is donating 10% of all sales to Age UK.

“Think about what you can deliver to customers above and beyond the usual rules of engagement in marketing,” advises Kemp. “Initiatives like Iceland opening stores earlier for vulnerable people are unprecedented but completely designed for the needs of customers.”

Social backlash

All businesses, including fashion retailers, need to be mindful about who they are communicating with. Frustrated consumers have taken to social media to complain about a deluge of coronavirus update emails from retailers where they have only shopped once or twice, often many years ago.

“You need to think carefully about why it is you’re contacting customers and which customers you are contacting,” adds Kemp. “Consumers don’t need to hear from you if they last purchased four years ago.

“In the current climate, consumers are receiving a lot of messages and it can quickly become overwhelming. I wouldn’t recommend stopping all marketing emails – people do need moments of joy and escapism. Just be really mindful of whether the person you’re emailing is engaged.”

Reviewing any prescheduled marketing messages set to go out over the next few months to check if the content is now inappropriate or insensitive is a must.

Whatever you’re saying will be judged on the climate we’re currently in

Frances Griffin, senior strategist at marketing agency MullenLowe Open

“Understand that whatever you’re saying, whether it relates to the coronavirus outbreak or not, will be judged on the climate we’re currently in,” adds MullenLowe Open’s Griffin.

Crisis communications and PR expert Louisa Clack, who has worked with brands including Waitrose and Nurofen, urges retailers to take a collaborative approach to any communications relating to how businesses are handling the crisis.

“It is very important that any crisis communications don’t just come from one person. Messages should be looked at by a communications expert, someone from operations, from sales, from human resources and from legal to ensure what the company puts out is in the best interest of customers and employees. A cross-departmental approach means nothing gets missed.”

Continuing to communicate with customers about crucial business operations, and where possible, create sales, is key in the current climate. However, there are some fine lines for retailers to tread when it comes to the tone and relevancy of messaging. Honesty and transparency should be retailers’ top priority when communicating amid the coronavirus outbreak.





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