“Ways Businesses Can Remain Relevant During COVID-19” Topic of Princeton Partners Discussion

In late August, Princeton Partners, an integrated brand marketing agency, held a webinar on the ways businesses can remain relevant during a pandemic or other disaster. Much of what was discussed applied to brick-and-mortar businesses, but there were many nuggets that could be applied to tech companies, too.

Speaking were Tom Sullivan, CEO; Kevin Kuchinski, COO; and Shakira Brown, vice president of strategic communications.

At the beginning of the pandemic, many business owners were not prepared to face disaster, especially one that would impact not only their bottom line, but their health and that of their employees. Many middle-market companies were unprepared to make the switch to remote work. “They pretty much shunned the idea of working remotely, and didn’t have the provisions in place to get it done,” Brown said.

Kuchinski added that when COVID-19 sent everyone home, “businesses recognized where they had gaps or holes, almost immediately. And those gaps or holes could be an issue that had been occurring from a personnel … standpoint. Or it could be just something really simple in the financial world: They didn’t have enough cash on hand or working capital reserves for an extended period of uncertainty.”

Sullivan noted that some companies were completely unprepared to participate in the federal Paycheck Protection Program “because they had a lack of advisers and they had a lack of bookkeeping capabilities. We’re talking even about middle-market companies, 50 to 250 people, who didn’t have a strategic plan.” Strategic plans codify where the company is going and where the industry as a whole is going, and they include a company’s mission and values.

More importantly, Sullivan said, owners were OK with engaging in purely transactional business as long as that worked, but they needed to engage in relational business, as well, to sustain their companies over the long term. Business leaders have to ask themselves: Are we in “a business that is going to sustain for the long term? Or are we making deals or just consumer transactions in the short term?” Sullivan added that he thought “the latter is basically a recipe for going out of business.”

Articulate Your Value

The first way to stay relevant, said Sullivan, is to demonstrate, promote and bring to life “the value that you already deliver, because I think that most companies do a bad job of actually articulating their value.” While brands at the top and bottom of the value chain do the best at articulating their value, higher-end brands can do this even better, and “business service brands can articulate value in a better way.”

You should think in terms of reframing your value, Kuchinski said, giving fast food as an example. “Taco Bell had to get more people through their drive-throughs faster to maintain their bottom line and their sales figures, because their restaurants in many parts of the country were closed. So, they … simplified their lineup so that their teams could get food out faster and they can get more people through a drive-through.”

Disney’s streaming service, Disney+, is another example. With Hamilton, said Kuchinski, “they took a well-known, but somewhat inaccessible Broadway play, and they offered it for free to every person who’s a member of Disney+, and I think it helps people to have an experience that they otherwise couldn’t get during COVID-19.” It helped build an affinity for and an attachment to the Disney+ brand, he added.

Brown noted that during the pandemic businesses have been using their parking lots as drive-in theaters. “People want an experience again, right? We’ve been stuck in the house, working from home, doing everything from home, and people miss experiences. So, there are a lot of organizations of all sizes that have come up with ways to add experiences back.”

One way in which brick-and-mortar stores must increase their value to their customers is to clearly communicate the safety measures they’re taking to protect against COVID-19. Some of these measures will stick in the minds of their customers long after the pandemic is over, the speakers said, and others, like airlines sanitizing tray tables, should continue into the future.

Create Long-Term Relationships

A second way to remain relevant is to think through how your business is going to deliver its product or service in ways that will make people want to engage with the product or service, Sullivan said. “It’s not just to get a transaction, but a relationship. So, if everybody embeds the thinking, ‘Gee, how do I have a relationship?’ for the long term, rather than selling somebody on a particular transaction in the short term, then it just changes your whole mindset to think about delivery in terms of a lifetime relationship.”

Kuchinski noted that people in the service industries who often made contacts through meetings, conferences or Chamber events had to adapt their methods by providing content online. Or they offered their expertise to their contacts for free, perhaps to walk them through the Paycheck Protection Program, to help them get the most money they could.

As a professional speaker, Brown noted that she had literally built two sets in her home, complete with lights and decoration. “I recognized that if I am to be booked during these virtual times, that I have to provide the semblance of a professional speaker setting within my own home.”

The Main Mission of Any Business: Serve Human Beings

The third way to remain relevant is to revisit your company’s mission, vision and values, Sullivan said. “You really need to understand your values because the world changes, and it gives you stability.” The mission must be something beyond making money. In fact, it should be always the first mission of any business … to serve human beings. If you don’t serve others in a way that meets their needs and makes them happy, which meets their expectations, preferably exceeds them, if you don’t do that, then you don’t really have a business. You have a transaction machine that may or may not work for some period.”

Social giving is very important, but it should be part of a company’s DNA, according to Sullivan. Referring to diversity, for example, he said, “If you’re just getting on that bandwagon right now, it’s because there’s something missing in your strategic plan. The strategic planning always starts with a mission, a vision — that is, why do we exist? What do we hope to achieve at some point in the future? What are we giving to society that meets human needs, which includes people and our employees? And that’s justice,” he said.  

Kuchinski agreed. “I know a local restaurant that on its own started to provide additional meals for our frontline workers that were working at the local regional health center. And then others in the community heard about this, and they started raising money for a charity to provide more meals because this company, this restaurant had done the right thing.” Companies can do well by doing good, and if they are authentic, and they find ways to tell their story, it helps them stay relevant, he added.

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