A Look Beyond COVID-19 in Marketing to Rural America
OUTdrive Episode 2: Solocast with Cliff Callis
Hello and welcome to OUTdrive, a new weekly podcast that takes you down the roads of rural America, from a marketing perspective. I’m Cliff Callis, host of the show and President of Callis, a full-service advertising agency that specializes in marketing to rural America.
Today, I want to talk to you about something we’ve all been dealing with the last several months, and that’s COVID-19. The coronavirus has undoubtedly impacted the way we all do business and is likely to continue to impact how we do things for some time to come. Out here in rural America, our journey through the pandemic has been different than the journeys of larger cities on the coasts and heavy metropolitan areas.
I want to talk about where we’ve been, where we stand today and what we can expect to see in the future from a marketing perspective as a result of this virus. We’ll take a look at the phases of response along the way and changes in rural America consumer trends as a result. And lastly, we’ll talk about some things your brand can be doing right now to be successful as the market recovers.
So the first thing I want to talk about today is the fact that this process, our path through COVID-19 is a journey. There have been ups and downs, waves and bumps and progress and setbacks. COVID-19 has really been an unprecedented crisis situation for our communities, for rural America, for our nation and the entire world. Our path towards recovery from COVID-19 is a journey. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to simply pick up where we left off prior to the pandemic. We’ll have been through an emotional experience together. We will have grown and changed, our customers will have grown and changed and our perspectives may be altered.
Brands that acknowledged and embraced the changes in consumer sentiment throughout the journey of this pandemic in their communications strategies and in their recovery planning will come out poised for success as the market begins to recover and we enter what becomes our new normal. So I want to talk a little bit about the phases of this journey, so we all can have a better understanding of where we’ve been to help guide where we’re headed.
The first phase of the journey we went through in rural America in response to COVID-19 was an “Immediate Response” phase. Here we were monitoring the situation closely. We were ramping up communications to keep our customers informed of changes that would impact how they were used to doing business with us. Brands that shared educational and supportive messages hit the mark here in rural America. We saw a lot of brands quickly restructure their business to be of service to their community and customers, which was really an amazing thing to watch, and it really speaks volumes about the pride, grit and ingenuity we see in rural America everyday, even throughout the course of a global pandemic.
The second phase of our journey through COVID-19 was a “pivoting” phase. Right now, we’re at the end of this phase and heading into the third phase which is the market recovery. We’ll talk more about that in a few minutes.
There have been and continue to be a lot of unknowns with COVID-19 being a new virus. Throughout the pivoting phase, rural American people have been overwhelmed with information. With the way the main-stream media has reported about COVID-19, it has been a challenge to know what to believe and what not to believe. In rural America, we were a little bit behind the initial spread of the virus. It took some time for it to travel from the bigger cities on the coasts across the country into the communities of rural America. As a result, what we saw on the news didn’t necessarily coincide with what was being reported on a national level.
However, throughout the pivoting phase, we were still closely monitoring consumer sentiment. We were further adapting our businesses to the current situation. Brands that knocked it out of the park during this time shared educational messages that fostered community unity and positivity.
To give you an example, I was fortunate enough to be able to lead a Zoom conference that was broadcasted through Facebook Live for our regional hospital here in Sedalia Missouri. On that call we had Bothwell Regional Health Center CEO Lori Wightman, Bothwell’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Phil Fracica, and JoAnn Martin, Administrator at Pettis County Health Center. The topic was Facts vs. myths related to COVID-19. In this live event, we shared important educational messages with social followers and the Sedalia/Pettis County community in a meaningful and engaging way and the response was terrific. Bothwell’s rural American audience greatly valued the open setting of sharing timely and accurate information from a source they could trust. This live feed video was an innovative and educational approach that fostered community unity and positivity.
Right now, we’re entering the market recovery phase, the third of the three phases in this journey through COVID-19. In this phase, when the time is right, we want to re-engage our customers in new ways and inspire them with creative campaign executions and call-to-action campaigns. Over the course of the last couple of months, we’ve been making preparations to get here. We’ve been working on strategy and messaging to help lead brands into this new normal we’re going to experience for a while and help them grow with the economy as the market recovers.
Here’s some things we’re going to have to deal with in rural America though to successfully navigate a market recovery. First, consumers may still avoid going out too often. They may consciously and unconsciously spend more time at home or in places they consider to be safe. In addition, there are likely to be changes reflected in people’s daily habits, activities and consumption patterns.
In regards to consumer sentiment during the market recovery in rural America, there is likely to be pent-up consumption, feelings of excitement to be back to a new normal, cautious optimism and the continuation of newly learned behaviors. Brand messaging should continue to share positivity and optimism to take advantage of opportunities for business growth and to re-engage customers.
Some specific trends we expect to see in rural America coming out of the pandemic are that consumers are going to be refocused on healthy living and a balanced lifestyle. And this focus is going to shape their decision making and buying behaviors. Another trend we expect to see is that unmanned retail and digital automation will grow as people have adapted to new models and ideas for operating. In addition, there has been significant growth in tools and technologies that enable remote working and many businesses are likely to be using new tech going forward. After months of online schooling, e-learning will continue to grow. And last, another trend we expect to see will be the higher-aged demographic markets that were forced to adapt to digital solutions are going to have become and will stay more tech-savvy than ever before.
We’ve been asked this question a few times so I wanted to take a moment to address it here. That question is: What should I be doing right now to lead my brand into the future as the rural American market begins to recover? The answer obviously varies some based on the product or service, the industry and unique circumstances with each brand, but in general here are a few nuggets that should be relevant to most brands.
Marketing Your Way out of COVID-19
First, develop some fresh creative assets. A proven marketing strategy for re-engaging audiences is introducing fresh creative materials. It captures the attention of audiences and makes them aware that you have something important to say. With the unique characteristics of the unprecedented COVID-19 situation, fresh creative can be more important than ever.
Brands rely on strategic creative to maintain relevance. Pre-pandemic creative assets may not be able to hit the desired mark. Messaging is extremely important and will need to be developed strategically entering the “new-normal.” In addition, strong call-to-actions will be important to give customers the nudge they need to get going again.
Second, ramp up your digital marketing efforts. Younger demographics have grown up with digital at their fingertips. As a result, digital is a very effective way to reach younger audiences. Throughout the COVID-19 situation, many older demographic markets have been forced to adapt to digital solutions. Think about the platforms that have grown over the course of the pandemic. Think about social media, Television and OTT (internet streaming TV), online shopping sites and apps and make sure these are considerations in your marketing media strategy going forward.
Third, think experiential. Think about customer experiences you can provide when the time is right and consider working Live Events into your recovery marketing strategies. Think about ways you can bring people back to physical locations. Consider hosting customer appreciation events, tours or other types of on-location activities and align strategic campaigns with moments of celebration at these events. Providing experiences can be a great method to re-engage and reactivate rural American audiences.
Last, incorporate strategic promotions. Strategic promotions are another tried and true marketing strategy effective in activating and engaging rural American audiences. Promotions give people an incentive to take action. Whether it’s emailed discount coupons or other forms of savings, leveraging loyalty and rewards programs, promotional items with purchases or engagement promotions on social media channels, strategic promotions can help activate and rejuvenate rural American audiences.
I hope you’ve found this solocast helpful as you’re navigating your brand through this last leg of COVID-19. When all of this passes, which it will, we have the opportunity to come back stronger and better. As we wrap up here today I think the question I’d like to leave each of you with is: Are you going to take advantage of that opportunity?
I do want to take a moment to thank Hong Kong agency Sinclair & Company, who is several weeks ahead of us in experiencing this situation, and AMI, the Agency Management Institute for their insight and ideas which have been invaluable in producing marketing content related to COVID-19.
We hope you’ll be with us every week here on our podcast and that you find OutDrive to be entertaining and educational. I look forward to spending some time with you, driving down the roads of rural America with some really great people. Sit back and enjoy the ride…and we’ll see you next week!