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Q&A with Jordan Buning President, ddm marketing & communications

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This article was written by MiBiz senior writer Mark Sanchez MiBiz.

As the business world adjusts to the COVID-19 pandemic and seeks to get back to work, companies will need to alter their approach to the market and how they promote their products or services, according to Jordan Buning, the president of ddm marketing & communications in Grand Rapids. Buning tells MiBiz those changes in messaging and branding and how companies position themselves in the marketplace could very well become permanent.

How has the crisis changed the marketing messaging for companies?

People are kind of uncomfortable with how to talk. I think there are some that have a natural ability to connect and be empathetic. Then there are some that really don’t know how to do that. They’ve known how to talk business, they’ve known how to sell products, and now suddenly they need to connect more at a human experience level and create some level of authenticity, and it’s kind of uncomfortable for some organizations. That’s something we’ve been wrestling around a lot with: How do you talk ‘right’ during this time? There are a lot of things to watch and there are some things we all like and some things that we don’t.

Do you see the pandemic creating a permanent change in how companies try to market and position themselves?

Just because of the global impact of this and none of us have experienced it in our lifetimes, it really is going to change the mindset a little bit. There’s a shift in motivators that we’re dealing with right now. People need to feel safe, they need to be informed and they want some form of convenience that is connected to the safety issue as well. The drivers that you think you knew about your audience are different right now and they’re going to be lasting for quite a while. Whether they’re permanent (or) permanent for the next year, that’s just a reality. So resetting how you understand your audience and how you connect with them are big issues for a lot of companies.

For companies that pulled back their marketing during the crisis, what do they need to keep in mind as they re-engage?

There’s this ongoing challenge of how do you be the brand that you would want to interact with. That’s the ongoing question before you completely roll back. How do we still relate? How do we connect? How do we communicate? That’s an ongoing issue. As they move back into the marketplace, I think it’s almost going to force a lot of people to go back through a strategy process and start asking questions. Is the audience we knew and the messaging we were sending and the products that we were offering still as relevant as they were before COVID-19?

In what scenarios do you see that shift in strategy occurring?

Some people may discover a pretty tectonic shift in the way that they’re going to interact with their customers, and they might need to start over. If the interaction they had was going to trade shows and being able to get their leads there and they just worked their leads for the better part of a year, and (now) the trade show’s gone away, how are they going to connect with them? What are the drivers those people are going to have? Their whole strategy may shift in some cases. What’s the best thing a company can do as it plans a strategy to re-engage with marketing and advertising? They need to start by taking a step back and asking a lot of questions, just like if you were going through a strategy or discovery process or something like that again. Who are we? Who’s our customer? What do they want? How are we connecting with them? Be very intentional
about their position in the marketplace. Our viewpoint is going to be, take the long view. Do we want to fix some symptoms or do we want to solve the problem? That’s the mindset that a lot of these companies need to have as well. Are you just trying to do something really quick, or are you trying to really solve whatever the shifts are in the way that you’re going to communicate with your customers?

What’s a mistake to avoid?

One of the risks they have is ignoring (customers) and maybe by going dark. Maybe it’s even best intentioned, but I think people want to have clarity that you’re there as a resource to them. There was a study done essentially about how people will remember how you dealt with them in a moment of crisis, and that kind of stuck with me as we talked about our own clients. We’re going to have clients that have work that we can bill them for, but if we walk away, we’re leaving an opportunity for somebody else to maybe come in and solve their challenges. They’re going to remember if you were or weren’t there for them. That’s a challenge for a lot of companies. How are you going to find a way just to be considerate in the era that you’re in? That may not mean you’re going to get business from them, but how are you going to be supportive? How are you at least going to reinforce that you’ll be supportive for them?

What are some unique examples of how companies have been keeping their brands out there even as so much of the economy has been shut down?

I’ve seen a lot of organizations doing some pretty good stuff. Maybe they’re just building
informative webinars. I’ve seen restaurant companies or organizations that are giving away their ‘secret’ recipes and all that. Those are innovative ways (to say), ‘OK, I can’t deliver an interaction in the same old way, but maybe I can give them some other kind of value.’ That’s very much the opportunity that some organizations have.

What type of messaging will simply turn off a consumer?

I keep going back to the Trojan Horse scenario. The one where it kind of looks like they’re trying to be your buddy, but they’re really just trying to sell you something. My partner, Mark Blodger, has been saying this a lot: A lot of organizations have to shift from selling to helping. That stuck with me. Ultimately, every organization’s goal is to sell something, and that’s not to be ignored. But the way you do it and the authenticity that you deliver is really the key thing. If you say these buzzwords just to get people’s attention and then go right back to doing what you’ve always done, I think you’re going to lose people.

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