Brand management has never been easy. Finding ways to communicate effectively and appropriately in the COVID-19 era, when consumers are deeply anxious about their families and their future, poses an even greater challenge. Marketers must rewrite the familiar playbook to achieve performance and campaign goals in the short term while doubling down on efforts to build brand and trust for the long run. 

Before companies can show they care, they must understand the dramatic shift in consumer needs at a time of crisis. This calls for “acknowledging the social, financial and other realities of this pandemic, empathizing with people’s concerns and offering practical solutions.” The report also highlights good reasons why marketers should “not disengage” from the moment, but rather ensure that their marketing and communications reflect the new reality. While consumers don’t blame business for their troubles, the report reveals that people are looking to companies to help them get through the tough times and lead the U.S. out of the crisis. 

Improving financial health through transparency

The report shows how actions companies take today can ultimately drive positive brand attitudes and influence consumer purchase preferences when the skies clear. All businesses will likely benefit from the advice to “stay in touch with your humanity”—but the recommendation is especially pertinent to the financial service industry in these troubled times.

Let’s face it. Americans are emotionally drained and financially strained. The pandemic’s perfect storm of market and mental conditions spotlight companies that step up to help consumers plan and protect their financial wellbeing. Investing in feel-good advertising or Pollyanna phrases about how we’re all in this together is a fail. A comprehensive strategy to address consumers’ immediate day-to-day financial concerns can build brand affinity now—and strengthen trust in the future. 

It’s a blueprint that Credit Sesame, a consumer financial health management platform, is following to help consumers who have been affected by the COVID-19 fallout. The majority of Credit Sesame customers, along with more than half of Americans, live paycheck to paycheck, struggling to balance the competing goals of paying bills and saving money. To serve this customer base, Credit Sesame, which launched in 2010, after the last financial crisis, started out providing consumers access to free credit scores and information to democratize access to credit and financial wellness. 

Today, the advanced machine learning and AI required to help customers improve and manage their credit also equips Credit Sesame to create a new category within personal finance. In March, Credit Sesame extended its offer with Sesame Cash, a new digital banking service that integrates cash and credit. It doesn’t just help consumers manage their wallets in one place: Credit Sesame also deploys its expertise and computing power to analyze consumers’ finances and their repayment ability against their credit to provide its customer base of 15 million with personalized recommendations and advice. More than half of customers see credit score improvements within six months, with one in five achieving a boost of 50 points or more.

Marrying personal finance advice to digital banking is a winning combination on two fronts. For consumer lenders, it makes Credit Sesame a more valuable business partner able to ensure customers are more qualified and less likely to fall behind in payments. For customers, deep insights into cash flows and dedication to driving financial inclusion are capabilities they can count on as they struggle to improve credit scores, pay down debt and save money. 

This week the company took its efforts a giant step further, launching SesameThrive. The platform provides consumers budgeting tips, virtual tools and calculators, personalized credit recommendations and the latest information around government assistance programs. “Through SesameThrive, we are creating a one-stop resource for consumers’ entire financial journey to help them minimize the impact of COVID-19 while steering them on a path to financial stability and recovery as soon as possible,” Adrian Nazari, Credit Sesame CEO, said in a statement. “We don’t want to just help them survive this difficult time—we want to help them thrive on the other side of it.”

Rewriting the marketing and messaging playbook

The SesameThrive product exemplifies how Credit Sesame sides with customers, doing what it can to help them establish a better path to financial wellness. Now the focus is on rewriting the playbook to match the mission (helping customers make informed decisions to grow their cash and credit) with the messaging (showing empathy with real people and their daily problems). During New Rules Of Marketing Engagement, a live chat series where marketers discuss the impact of COVID-19 on their plans and priorities, Jana Jacobs, Credit Sesame’s Director of Product Marketing, discussed efforts underway to redefine customer engagement. It’s not about advertising to audiences; it’s about connecting with them, she said. Content and campaigns must show a company is “conscious” of customers’ problems and avoid “appearing tone deaf” to their concerns. [Full disclosure: I produce the 8-part live chat series in close collaboration with CleverTap, a project for which I am paid.]

While Jacobs says she and her team are developing new ways to communicate in a crisis, the underlying rules of engagement are not new. It’s back to basics, she told the panel, starting with a strategy anchored in a “customer-first” mindset. For the time being the company has  shifted attention from acquisition to retention, spending more budget on campaigns and content (including the SesameThrive platform) that support members through this challenging time, driving connection and building trust. “This is the time for companies to lean into consumers’ need for empathy and information that can serve as a reliable source of truth at a time when they need it most,” Jacobs said after the chat.  

In practice, this means “pulling back from the focus on growth and honing in on what we can do better for our existing customers and how we can deepen those relationships,” Credit Sesame’s Nazari told me in an interview. “Right now, it’s about protection and helping our customers withstand the shock at a time when their finances are distressed, and their incomes are impacted.” He’s also preparing to draft the “next chapter” in the marketing playbook. It’s one where Credit Sesame, drawing from a decade of customer insights, fuels a virtuous cycle of trust, engagement and, ultimately, advocacy. “Customers want guidance to prepare for financial recovery post-COVID-19, but they expect personalized advice and recommendations that show we know where they’re coming from and can help them get where they want to go.”

Business decision makers are people, too

Companies also need to inject humanity and empathy into their B2B communications. This is the view of Charles Orlando, Head of Global Communications and Brand at CleverTap, a mobile marketing platform that helps companies convert, retain and grow their users at scale.In his latest post on LinkedIn, Orlando provides a go-forward plan for B2B companies, encouraging them to get away from business as usual. Doing anything else, he warns, is to “brand oneself tone-deaf (at best), or alienate the very people/prospects we are attempting to reach and engage (more likely).”

Instead, he says, marketers must adopt advertising and communications that reflect the new reality and address “four critical, human psychological needs.” Essentially, Orlando gives Maslow’s hierarchy of needs a refresh for marketing in a pandemic. Maslow’s theory in psychology divides our human needs into five levels, placing the most basic needs at the bottom of the pyramid and elevating our most complex needs to the top. Marketing and messaging, which has tended to emphasize top-of-the pyramid aspirational goals and status-seeking, must be rebalanced to address basic human needs for connection, security and stability. 

“Brands who are trying to sell products and services to companies are competing with the fact that critical survival needs of the individual are not currently being met,” Orlando observes. He identifies four deep desires we share as humans in these unprecedented times: 

  1. Acknowledgment that we are not alone
  2. Connection to a person, brand or entity that is offering help
  3. Guidance on how to navigate through the Evolving Normal
  4. Hope that things will not remain this way 

The priorities for business professionals in a B2B marketing scenario are strikingly similar.  Using the same lens, Orlando concludes professionals have four requirements: 

  1. They want to connect with others to solve current problems.
  2. They want guidance to plan for the future. 
  3. They require actionable solutions from trusted sources.
  4. They will not be pushed into a purchasing decision in an uncertain environment.

Whether B2B or B2C, acknowledging and accommodating customers’ new normal calls for a holistic strategy refresh, not just a “we’re here for you” subject line. Deploy innate human empathy along with business acumen to discover the messaging mix that’s right for the times. Test and learn, and be prepared to adjust…which is wise advice even outside of work these days.