Marketing in times of crisis: Mastercard's global CMO shares 4 common traps and how to do better

"It's important that marketers learn from these times to better understand how to show up and communicate in times of crisis."

In times of crisis, people look to leaders for a reassuring voice and a path forward. Today’s consumers expect the businesses they support to fill this role, too. Connecting with consumers on a human level and engaging them authentically will reinforce trust in our brands, build loyalty and win over new customers. 

Conveying that empathy and common purpose can be a game-changer if you get it right - and, getting it right means backing it up. But it’s much easier said than done. Brands that don’t — or stay on the sidelines — can get slammed on social media and punished in the marketplace, where trust means everything. It’s important that marketers learn from these times to better understand how to show up and communicate in times of crisis.

There are four common missteps to avoid in navigating challenges and uncertainty.

Cutting your marketing team. 

Times of crisis touch everyone — not just customers and consumers, but the people who work for you, too. You’ve done well to hire the best talent, and it’s more important than ever to hang on to them. When serious challenges call for a sense of stability and humanity, your team deserves and expects the same. Amid a crisis, retention is even more important: it can take two years or more to fully train a new marketing hire — time you can’t afford to lose. Your employees know your brand more than anybody else, and in a time where companies need to dig deep and remain authentic – our people are invaluable. 

Sailing the sea of sameness. 

Too often, brands struggling to find their voices get lost in a "sea of sameness" — a repetition of similar messaging in many companies’ ads and external communications that becomes generic and drowns itself out. Failing to differentiate makes a brand look weak at best, uncaring or disrespectful at worst. Know your brand’s purpose, find what makes it uniquely equipped to address a crisis, and use that to shape your message. Authenticity isn’t optional — it’s the only way to earn consumers’ respect.

Going silent.

In troubled times, silencing your brand is a marketing trap that’s easy to fall into and hard to dig out of. To be fair, addressing a large-scale crisis from a brand perspective can feel like a game of hazard. When critical situations are layered with often divisive issues, brands can be especially reluctant to address them.

In times of crisis, it’s not a time to be politically correct and act neutral – brands should take a stance, and act toward that stance with long-term purpose. Ignoring a crisis for fear of missteps is a serious mistake. For large companies, it can be especially costly. The bigger the stage, the brighter the spotlight. And when you stand by your consumers during the hard times, they will stick with you during the good.

Putting customers last. 

When serious adversity takes hold, businesses’ knee-jerk reaction may be to protect themselves first and not think about the rest of their ecosystem. Even if this works in the short term, it always backfires down the road if the brand’s partners, customers and consumers feel taken advantage of. 

When faced with challenge and uncertainty, too few businesses are human enough to put customers and relationships first. Brands that do will have an enormous opportunity to build trust at a time when people everywhere are looking for good in the world. Companies fixated only on the bottom line stand out for all the wrong reasons.

There is no one size fits all rulebook for a great crisis. It never takes the same shape twice. The stakeholders change, the voices shift and the players adapt. What we think we’ve learned may not work next time. But we do know that consumers, employees and partners demand leadership from the businesses they support. Brands must earn their trust through empathy, purpose and action.

Raja Rajamannar is the global CMO of Mastercard.

Subscribe today for just $89 a year

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to campaignlive.com , plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events

Become a subscriber

GET YOUR CAMPAIGN DAILY FIX

The latest work, news, advice, comment and analysis, sent to you every day

register free