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The job of marketing in a time of crisis


LAST UPDATED: April 7, 2023

All over the world, governments, businesses and communities are fighting against a modern-day pandemic – COVID-19. The sheer scale of this pandemic is like nothing any of us have seen in our lifetime. Economies are being crippled, businesses destroyed, and lives lost. Whilst this is by far the biggest crisis we’ve had to deal with in recent years, it’s not the first. 

When crises like this strike, marketers are often left wondering how to respond. But all too often the focus is on communications – what to communicate, and if at all. As if marketing’s only job is communications. I‘m not undermining the importance of communication, it’s vitally important. But communication is only one part of a truly strategic and effective marketing operation. And in times like this, it shouldn’t be the only (or first) place we go.

What is marketing after all?

At its heart, the role of marketing is to create markets, not just communicate to them. Marketing is a key strategic pillar of every business, big and small.

Marketing is what gives rise to the opportunity to deliver a product or service. Build a customer base, and drive sales and revenue – it is the backbone of business.

I’m an old school marketer from a pre-digital era. So trust me when I say the true fundamentals of marketing have not changed. We simply have a new set of fancy tools and a myriad of channels at our disposal. The breadth of marketing today can be overwhelming, but if we strip it all back, we’re left with the core ingredients: product/service, pricing model, distribution approach and communications (our trusty 4Ps).

Non-communications jobs to be done

When crisis strikes, rather than directing our energy to what we can say during the crisis, let’s first think about what we can do. Many brands, large and small have real and tangible value they can offer which directly helps those in need, supports their customer base, or demonstrates their purpose in action.


Whether it’s adapting their product or service, pricing model or distribution methods, these are all in the purview of strategic marketers. Innovate here, then communicate that innovation. Some recent examples include Decathalon making face masks, or Dyson making ventilators, more examples can be found here

Not all product or service initiatives need to be directly related to the pandemic. In our world, COVID-19 meant that many of our B2B clients were faced with cancelled events and other physical engagements where much of their demand generation takes place. To help our clients keep their marketing momentum going and still stay true to our own proposition, within a few days we were able to develop a partnership and offer a new video production service to support our clients. We acted first, then communicated.


One of the first and most notable examples of this is Zoom. Whilst Zoom has seen a dramatic increase in its customer base and usage, rather than enjoy the spoils, their response to the crisis was to make Zoom available free of charge to the education sector. I particularly like the instruction from their CEO Eric Yuan, not to ramp up sales or marketing due to the coronavirus crisis.

“If you leverage this opportunity for money, I think that’s a horrible culture.” Eric Yuan, CEO, Zoom

Google has also joined the effort by pledging $800 million to support SMEs, health organisations and governments respond to COVID-19. Many of the initiatives wrapped up in the pledge go beyond the marketing remit, but a consistent theme is the desire to support SMEs — a core segment of their customer base. Despite Google ad revenues taking a hit, part of their pledge involves providing Google Ad credits, directly into the accounts of their SME customers.

On a smaller scale, some vendors and service providers are adjusting their payment terms for impacted customers and setting up longer payment plans, making it easier for them to keep operating, without putting undue financial pressure on them.


With self-isolation mandates and full city lockdowns across the globe, many businesses have had no choice but to adapt their operations to make it both safe and easy for customers to access their product or service. Out of necessity, many small cafes and restaurants have pivoted to offer take away or delivery services, mostly in a bid to stay afloat. Others like Dominos and Uber Eats are responding to the safety needs of their customers by offering contactless deliveries.

If you’re still thinking through your response to this crisis or any others that may follow

Take time to think about what you can first do. How you can adjust your proposition to support customers or the community in general. You’ll be surprised what you come up with. From there, communications can follow and will no doubt be more compelling than ‘we’re here to help’ messages.

This blog was originally posted on our partner site, Firebrand in Australia.