For many businesses, the last quarter of the year is often the most important. With people spending money on gifts, food and other holiday essentials, Q4 is typically the busiest and most profitable.


This year, however, looks very different. COVID-19 is still a major health, financial and social crisis. With so much uncertainty facing us, it’s tempting to pause all marketing efforts.


While business leaders definitely need to practice financial responsibility during these challenging times, completely eliminating any type of promotional spend will likely backfire. It sounds counterintuitive, but during an economic downturn, the right approach is usually to invest in your marketing efforts rather than to cut back. You don’t want to be caught flat-footed and find yourself lagging your competitors during this important period of time.


That said, creating an effective marketing strategy for this holiday season requires insights on the major shifts happening in the consumer landscape and an understanding on how your company can meet shifting customer needs.


Listen before you blast


A big misconception about marketing is that it’s all about spamming people with ads and emails. The Covid crisis and the Black Lives Matter movement are both reminders that we can all do better at listening to each other and asking smarter questions.


Tuning in to your customers is particularly important at this time because of how much and how frequently things are changing. At Rival Technologies, we recently partnered with our sister company Reach3 Insights to capture ongoing insights on how COVID-19 is transforming people’s day-to-day lives. In one study, 76% said they’ve picked up a new habit since the pandemic, and of those people, 89% plan on sticking to their new routines.


Before you begin planning your marketing efforts for the holiday season, take a stock of what has changed for your customers. Don’t assume you know what’s going on—engage your customers in a conversation and get quantitative and qualitative insights to inform your decisions. 


Toss the old playbooks


Despite living in unusual times (or perhaps because of it), many consumers still plan to celebrate key holidays this year. This is particularly true for occasions that are religious in nature or that typically involve families. In our research, 76% of Americans said they’ll “definitely” or “probably” celebrate Thanksgiving this year. For Hanukkah and Christmas, those numbers are 85% and 84%, respectively.


Celebrations, however, will look drastically different. “Small and local” is the theme this year. Consumers told us that they’ll forego traveling to other states, keeping their gatherings small and only with the people most important to them.


From a marketing perspective, this change has huge implications. For one, using visuals that depict big family gatherings will look out of place, if not completely out of touch. Given that people won’t be holding big gatherings, marketers also need to revisit their playbooks on merchandising, pricing, channel and delivery.


As you’re developing your strategy, don’t forget about the underlying emotions of your target audience. People still want to create celebrations that are memorable and meaningful. And while anxiety and stress are high, our research shows that many people are eager to give back to their family, neighbours and community. During these very emotional times, marketers have an opportunity to tell compelling stories that speak to the underlying motivations and aspirations of consumers. 


Put safety first


While consumers are eager to celebrate, they’re doing so with safety in mind. For example, many people are scaling back their Halloween activities since many traditions associated with this holiday (trick and treating, bar hopping, etc.) aren’t conducive to social distancing.


Safety is particularly important for certain businesses like restaurants. A study conducted for Modern Restaurant Management revealed that when deciding to visit a restaurant, safety protocols trump everything else. Sixty-five percent of guests want restaurant staff to wear masks, while 62% would like to see social distancing measures practiced within restaurant premises.


Regardless of your industry, prioritizing the health and safety of your employees and customers makes business sense. It’s also the right thing to do. What are your customers’ expectations around safety protocols? Create an experience that exceed these expectations. From a marketing perspective, it might also make sense to communicate your efforts around safety to your customers. Health safety may not be the sexiest topic, but it is top of mind for customers at this time and will affect their purchasing decisions.


Provide value—to your customers and community


If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed, it’s that the businesses that provide the most value to their customers still win the long-term. This is the time to pay it forward. Whether it’s as simple as eliminating shipping fees or creating free virtual events, there are many ways you can boost value for your customers. 

This could also take in the form of giving back to your local community. Supporting charities and non-profits will not go unnoticed by your customers. If your company is fortunate enough to be able to give back, do so.


Continue the conversation


Because of the COVID-19 crisis and the current political landscape in the US, we’re living in such a fluid and unpredictable time. Businesses need to have ongoing conversations with their customer communities and continue to capture insights on what’s changing and what’s not. The marketing challenges facing businesses are enormous, for sure, but those that maintain consumer closeness are in a much better position to come out on the other side thriving.