A crisis offers the opportunity to rethink communication and create stories that will create and nurture customer relationships of the future
The pandemic brought the global economy to a shuddering discomfort and pounded the business landscape. For especially the startups, the last fifteen months or so have been challenging.
Startups in the buildout phase often use equity to grow at a breakneck pace. Their valuations have had a correction, especially the businesses where there were serious question marks over short-term profitability.
Even as revenues took a beating for many during the last five quarters or so, operating costs and debt servicing took a toll on many startups.
Unlike large corporations, startups usually don’t have the luxury of dipping into vast cash reserves, they need to cut costs to escape short-term fluctuations.
In this tough scenario that was witnessed, could they have used communication more effectively to weather the storm and emerge stronger? At a CommsChat session we hosted on LinkedIn, we invited a couple of startup founders, a senior journalist specialising in writing about the ecosystem with a book on India’s most successful startup– Flipkart under his belt; and the founder of a public relations firm to discuss the role of communications for startups in this unprecedented crisis, where the potential waves are keeping the business sentiments in check.
“From the accounts of investors and entrepreneurs, this phase has been mentally challenging and severe on operational activities. But that doesn’t mean the startup ecosystem wouldn’t emerge stronger from this. Some companies have the cash to ride this out.
Digitisation is expected to accelerate and segments such as education technology, content, groceries, and online health services are expected to thrive,” says Mihir Dalal, a journalist with the premium business daily, MINT, and author of Big Billion Startup: The Untold Flipkart Story.
Speak honestly, don’t obfuscate
A crisis offers the best opportunity to rethink communication and create stories that will create and nurture customer relationships of the future.
Customer engagement during the pandemic is perhaps more important than in the days when the world was normal. Not only do customers appreciate the timely communication and critical updates, but they also value the reassurance of the availability of essential products and services.
For instance, the restaurant industry is one of the many sectors that have been hit badly due to the pandemic. How can startups communicate positively in a manner that inspires confidence among consumers and is of use to them?
“For instance,” says Sachin Pabreja, co-founder and chief innovation officer, Eazydiner, “We redesigned the customer loyalty program to win the confidence back. Dining out is undoubtedly going to change dramatically in the post-COVID world. People are going to be much more conscious about hygiene and safety. We have, therefore, worked on a crowdsourced idea to create a program to bring back people to fine-dining.”
At Zoomcar, a self-drive, car rental startup too, the communication got centred around the issue of hygiene and sanitisation. “We have posted videos of our processes to highlight the efforts taken to build further brand trust. It’s there in our booking process for all consumers to see. We use WHO promoted materials to ensure maximum safety,” says Greg Moran, Co-founder and CEO, Zoomcar.
Besides customer engagement to strengthen relationships, startups also need to adapt and offer information that communities need. By providing empathy and care during the time of crisis, companies can build long-term goodwill.
“Brands usually turn their focus from consumers to the community as the target and need is to reach out to the community that is putting up a fight against the pandemic.
The crisis is the time to make a brand more humane and sensitive so that the customers can feel proud to be associated with the brand”, says Kunal Kishore Sinha, founder, Value 360 Communications.
For Sinha, there are several examples of companies that upped the game when it comes to communication in order to be relevant to the communities they serve. Morris Garages India and Droom Technology sanitised the cars of the police in the country, Mahindra & Mahindra worked with public sector enterprises to bring down the cost of expensive ventilators to shore up the health infrastructure, and Diageo India pledged to produce around 300,000 litres of hand sanitiser at its manufacturing units to keep up with the demand.
According to Dalal of MINT, the best communication strategy for brands in a crisis of this kind would be not to exaggerate the claims of the work they may be doing and cut the waffle out and get to the point as soon as possible. “You can talk about the brand’s uniqueness only if that’s really the case, else you instantly lose credibility; highlight the relevant industry context of the brand, its positioning; figure out what kind of stories the reporter and the publication typically pursue and design pitches accordingly,” he says.
For a PR agency, crafting the narrative for a startup offers two extreme challenges. One, the startup may be a genuine innovator that tries to create a category of product or service that doesn’t exist. Two, when a category gets cluttered, the media tends to stay away for the fear of repetition.
“Over the years we have signed up brands that were pioneers of a category. To pitch a category-builder takes a lot of convincing and perseverance. But dealing with an overcrowded category full of ‘me too’ brands is the other extreme. There was a time when over a dozen brands competed in the hyperlocal delivery business. That created fatigue in the media and it became difficult to make the media look at any new player no matter how innovative,” explains Value 360 Communications’ Sinha.
Media and PR agency: Managing expectations
The media values stories that are rich in verifiable data and insights that marry the empirical and anecdotal. Startups that understand this mantra are always likely to score better.
Just as in any other sector, the media too has been ravaged by the pandemic. Newsrooms today find themselves in unchartered territory.
While truth and accuracy are non-negotiable, the pursuit has to be carried out with significantly fewer resources but with ever greater responsibility.
Almost all media organisations have devoted their dwindling resources to the all-important issue of the pandemic. Startups need to be mindful of this and must tailor their communication with the media accordingly.
The most pertinent stories at this time may be about survival in the face of extreme odds, how startups are reimagining their business models to suit the new normal or public partnerships that make a tangible difference in fighting Covid-19.
“Journalists are swamped by press releases and COVID-19 related newsbreaks today. The best option for a startup is to stick to the point and highlight the uniqueness, brand positioning and future plans in the context of COVID-19,” says Dalal.
That is something that even PR practitioners agree with. “Create and invest in building a story that makes the startup relevant today. Understand what the media is interested in and see how you can engage by providing something relevant. For example, the media would start talking about business continuity and what companies are planning to do post lockdown. Does your brand have a story that fits the bill?” asks Sinha.
What do businesses expect from PR firms in these challenging times? “We expect a focus on super tight communication that’s very precise to ensure its relevance for the current customer reality. All brand communication campaigns need to be extremely aware of the current scenario,” says Zoomcar’s Moran.
Content can build the business organically
In times of crisis, the public appetite for information is almost insatiable. This pandemic is all the more unique because being homebound, people are consuming an unprecedented quantity of content. Businesses that create credible content are more likely to win the public’s trust.
blogs, explainer videos, downloadable guides and webinars that involve experts have proved to be effective tools in the targeted outreach to customers during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“Brands with a potent content marketing strategy can win the trust of their consumers much faster than it would take with any other form of marketing,” says Sinha.
Every crisis comes with many opportunities. After the 2008 crisis when the traditional economy was grounded, it gave rise to the new economy that was led by technology and digital transformation.
Similarly, the COVID crisis is an opportunity for startups to provide solutions to the current problems that we face as a society. Smart storytelling through owned-media platforms can certainly shift the needle.
“Content marketing is quite critical for our brand given that it’s really an experiential offering at the core. As such, we always focus on user-generated content and really meaningful content that strikes an emotional chord. That resonance is always sought after,” says Moran.