Q: What advice do you have for people who were just getting ready to promote their new business at the time the tragedy hit? Should we hold off on promoting our products and services until the dust settles (although we don't know when that will be)? I feel almost guilty to hiss about my new business when it has nothing to do with our country and its security or the firefighters and rescue workers. As I donate funds to help the wonderful heroes of our nation, I realize that is what Americans will be wanting to do for quite some time instead of buying nice and fun things. I have a big heart, but now what happens? Should I change my business goals?
A: Earlier today, I flipped on my radio and tuned in to a Washington, DC, classic rock station (a typical station with a format like hundreds of others across the country). I was stopped in my tracks by the sound of the Jimmy Buffett song "Margaritaville," with its lighthearted melody and lyrics about whiling away happy hours in some tropical place. At first, hearing the song seemed all wrong somehow, but by the time it ended and the first commercial came on, I was remembering happier times. The ad that came on was from a major hardware chain and featured bug zappers-pretty normal stuff. But the second spot in the commercial break was from a gun dealer. While the hook, or premise, for the spot was the imminent opening of hunting season, instead of the more commercial copy that might have run before September 11, the spot featured the owner of the store providing guidelines on gun safety and concluded with a public service announcement-like warning to never put away a loaded gun. Perhaps this was in reaction to the death of the 3-year-old boy who accidentally shot himself with the gun his father brought home following the terrorist attacks.
Those attacks and the prospect of war have shaken all of us to the core, and we now react quite differently-whether to an old song or to the way a product is advertised. In fact, a Roper Report released on September 24 revealed that only 22 percent of Americans feel it's a good time to buy the things they want and need. Yet this same survey showed nearly 60 percent of Americans say they are optimistic about the future of our country, and an even larger majority, 70 percent, say they're optimistic about the future of their own personal situation. So it remains to be seen whether Americans' optimism about what lies ahead will soon outweigh the current low consumer confidence.
The extent to which the current situation will affect your marketing plans and goals depends largely on your industry and the product or service you market. There's an old rule of thumb: If customers aren't buying what you market, then stop marketing until they're ready to buy again. Right now, the businesses most affected by the current situation are in the travel industry, including hotels, car rental agencies, tourist destinations and convention centers. Financial products and services are also affected, and many firms have reduced or halted their advertising. Most ad agencies and their clients are evaluating their present campaigns to eliminate those with images of the New York City skyline, violent images or themes, and broad slapstick or cynical humor which may strike the wrong chord during these more somber times.
Sales of luxury goods are likely to be down, and marketers should focus on value. The radio spot from my local hardware chain could run as is because even now, people will buy a bug zapper for their patio at a good price. But the gun dealer was wise to create new spots that communicate on an emotional level that's in-tune with present feelings. Right now, successful marketing messages will focus on making an emotional connection with the customer-as long as it rings true. This is a moment for humility and heartfelt compassion, and over-the-top flag-waving may come across as insincere and manipulative. It's also an excellent time to focus on public relations and networking by becoming involved on the community level.
Entrepreneurs still have products and services to market to consumers who need them. So the issue isn't whether or not to market your company; it's a matter of refining your message, approach and timing. We can't go back to how we felt before September 11, but we must move forward with confidence, or the terrorists will have succeeded.