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9 tips for marketing to consumers who changed during COVID-19

Getty Images 9 tips for marketing to consumers who changed during COVID-19
As some shoppers return to brick-and-mortar locations, other will continue to buy online. Be flexible and mindful in your marketing to capture both types.

Brands and retailers need to adopt a new retail reality as consumers emerge from stay-at-home sensibilities of COVID-19. Things have changed.

In 2020, consumers adopted new buying habits like never before. "During this time, consumers were willing to try different brands and even different retailers. Because most buying is habitual, more than ever, shoppers were up for grabs," says retail expert Michael La Kier, founder and principal of What Brands Want. "There are a number of things brands and retailers can do to reinforce that behavior or lean into it."

La Kier, a former Coca-Cola market strategist and corporate lead for shopper marketing and retail strategy at Gannett/USA Today Network, offers these nine tips for retailing today.

1. Know your shopper.

The pandemic shifted many things, perhaps even your customer base. La Kier outlines that some shoppers cut back on spending, some moved to revenge spending (in that they can't go anywhere or do anything fun so they buy what they can), others shop as usual. While you might have had an accurate pulse on your shopper, it's time to make sure you still do.

"Don't assume you know your shoppers' behaviors and habits," La Kier says. This means doing research, focus groups or learning from your online shoppers. "Digital gives you the chance to test and learn," he says. "You can take that learning from online and put it in store. Very few people if any are doing that. Whether you are a natural retailer or mainstream, the key is to understand your shopper. If you are pushing things at them, it's a problem, pandemic or not."

2. Don't assume your shopper knows you.

Many brands and retailers assume consumers already know who they are. But, La Kier says, if you're attracting new customers, you need to start over in a sense to ensure that customers old or new know who you are and what category you are in.

3. Think carefully about tone.

The COVID-19 shopping continuum runs from panic to anxious to eager. "From a messaging standpoint, during the panic and anxious phase, the messaging was, 'We are here for you. We understand.' It was empathetic," La Kier says. Now, as waves of normalcy arise and people become eager to shop again, think carefully about the tone and the messaging used to attract people into the store and drive sales.

"It requires a lot of marketing flexibility to be clear about brand function and benefit," he says. "You can't just quickly move away from being the safest retailer you know." Understand your shoppers and their concerns.

4. Understand digital.

Back in the day, retailers had the luxury of not paying attention to digital—that's not true today, says La Kier. Businesses have to go into digital with their eyes wide open and double down.

"If you think about the mythical consumer journey, there is a point of inspiration—I need dinner tonight; a point of decision—I am going to have chicken with organic Brussels sprouts and Yukon gold potatoes; and then there is a point of transaction—I go into the store and buy and I'm happy," he says.

Post-pandemic, those three points have collapsed. Now, a shopper is online, needs something for dinner and goes to a recipe site. "You find something that looks good, hit a button and the recipe ingredients get put in your shopper's basket," he says. Retailers must understand their shoppers and use different tactics to reach their customers, whether shopping occurs in person or online.

9 tips for marketing to consumers who changed during COVID-19 Getty

5. Rethink discoverability.

Discoverability used to be a much more enjoyable experience. The last-minute purchases next to the checkout don't exist online for the most part. "Discoverability becomes much more difficult online whether general browsing or on a retailer site," La Kier says. And even lingering isn't happening in the retail environment, where an endcap with five-star rated products was once the perfect setup. "Encouraging discovery and lingering will take a while to come back, but brands an retailers will have to do a better job than 'stacking them high and selling them low,'" he explains. "A connection with the brand and a compelling reason to buy needs to be revisited in the new normal."

Whether in store or online, La Kier asks, "What are you doing to command attention? To attract a viewer or shopper?"

6. Close the sale.

Especially online, La Kier says many brands in the natural products space forget to close the sale online. "You can use messaging that makes you feel good about a brand but don't forget to include the attributes and reasons to buy," says La Kier. "You need to understand what is important to your shopper, but don't just put your message out there and expect the consumer to connect the dots. Go out there and ask for the sale." Too often, he says, brands and retailers will have ads online and the call to action is "learn more," when it should be "buy now."

7. Digital is an "and" not an "or."

Omnichannel is here to stay. Yet, the tools for e-commerce are different those used in the store, and the budget to market both in store and online does not magically appear, La Kier acknowledges. He suggests starting incrementally. "When TV first came out, the shows were like watching someone do a radio show. Now they are more immersive with special effects," he says. "Retail going online is like that. What does an endcap look like online? There is more usability and you can offer up a great customer experience. We are moving toward that, but many retailers are still in that stage of radio on TV."

8. Storytelling toolbox.

Many of the brands in the natural products category have the benefit of evoking great mental images to drive credibility. Social media and digital videos are tactics to help drive shop-ability. Shoppable recipes are an example of something that drives inspiration into a transaction, where you can see drivable measures rather than just storytelling. La Kier emphasizes the need to tie the storytelling into purchases, which again is closing the sale. Likewise, COVID-19 has given new life to the QR code, seeing them as a means to connect the in-store environment to online. "If you think about it, it is a means to connect the physical to the digital world. It is a needed connecting tool for this moment," La Kier says.

9. Seasonality still works.

Whether online or in person, people often don't shop for ingredients, they buy for an occasion. "If you can put it together for me and make life easier, I will reward you and make a purchase. If you make me go all around the store, I will likely forget something. You can do shoppable recipes in store, just like they are done online. There is clearly an opportunity to do a better job to lean into occasion-based marketing as we return to the next normal," La Kier says.

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