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How D2C Brands Can Sustain Topical Surges

Jaime Lee

Head of Content Strategy @ AdRoll

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When an unusual global event strikes, some products are naturally going to be winners — and for little reason other than circumstance. During the COVID-19 pandemic, as people remain at home and health and hygiene become the most important issues of the day, numerous health, wellness, and home product direct-to-consumer (D2C) brands are seeing a huge influx of customers. In the U.S., 32% of consumers have purchased more health and wellbeing products, and 45% have purchased more cleaning supplies. The sales surge is so massive, businesses are struggling to maintain production levels that can keep up with the pace. 

However, there’s a timeless saying: “This too shall pass.” No sales surge lasts forever, and sooner or later, consumption levels will be restored to normal supply and demand. For D2C brands, the question is how to keep a trajectory of growth, even after the panic subsides. Here are some tactics to help brands and D2Cs sustain an unforeseen topical surge.

Frame the Solution to the Changing Consumer Mood

In the COVID-19 pandemic, sales of disinfectant products and hand sanitizing gel have gone through the roof. And it’s not just the global household brands, like Dettol and Lysol. Smaller brands are also soaring, with CleanWell, a local producer of hand sanitizers, reporting growth in sales of 400%.

Consider this fact: There has been an incredible spike in sales of these products despite the fact that washing hands with simple soap and water is actually more effective.

This serves to demonstrate the power of framing. After the panic calms down, marketers must consider how to build a story around products that will continue to drive consumer interest and sales. The way to do this is by first identifying the pain points of the target audience. During an unpredictable or unusual global event, like COVID-19, this is not something that can necessarily be done in advance. Without knowing when the surge will calm down, and what the consumer mood will be like, it is difficult to predict future pain points. Therefore, keeping a constant finger on the pulse is crucial. 

Make sure to monitor consumer sentiment on social media, track customer activity on the brand’s online store, and closely follow sales patterns to try and determine what the future might bring. For example, if the crisis ends sooner than expected, consumers may find themselves “stuck” with excess cleaning products. That could present an opportunity to create a marketing campaign about cleaning tips and hacks that show how the brand’s products can be used in new and different ways.

Create a Buzz

Going viral around a new product or event is every marketer’s dream. In a topical surge or during a special event, relevant brands can join the bandwagon with the help of smart marketing tactics. For instance, when the final season of Game of Thrones aired in 2019, it generated a load of marketing campaigns. Cosmetic brand Urban Decay launched a limited edition Game of Thrones makeup collection inspired by the women of Westeros, and dating app OKCupid implemented Game of Thrones badges to help users identify fellow fans, to name just a few. 

Brands can also create their own marketing buzz, as did fast-food chain Popeyes with the long-awaited release of its chicken sandwich after a two-year development process. An edgy Twitter campaign aimed at rival Chick-fil-A was the secret ingredient to get the internet talking about it. The result? The chain had one of its best sales quarters in two decades.

Marketing “buzz” is actually just word-of-mouth marketing taken to the extreme. Recommendations from friends and family are one of the most important drivers of brand success, with 92% of consumers believing what their friends and family tell them about a brand or product, rather than advertising. After the COVID-19 panic has subsided, D2Cs must look for angles to build word-of-mouth and generate excitement around their brand offering. 

Build a Retention Marketing Strategy

Acquiring new customers is generally much more difficult and typically costs 5x more than retaining existing ones. During a sales surge, whether due to a crisis or some other event, the hard work of getting new customers is already done, and without much extra effort on the part of the brand. This is the ideal time to work on developing a retention strategy aimed at turning those new customers into repeat customers.

There are several ways to do this. For example, the sales surge probably added many email addresses to the brand’s distribution list, so an email marketing campaign is one useful tactic. New customers can be offered special deals via personalized emails, such as a discount coupon on a second purchase, or 20% off a suggested product based on their previous purchase. Similarly, customers who provided their mobile phone numbers can be targeted via SMS campaigns, which have an impressive average open rate of 98%. Another tactic is retargeting customers via social, search, display, or native advertising networks.

Connect Customers With Complementary Products

Topical surges are only as good as they last. Game of Thrones marketing campaigns naturally subsided once the series was finished and the hype died down. The same is true of the current coronavirus crisis. While demand for hand sanitizer, online fitness programs, and home deliveries have all spiked, normal levels of consumption will return when the crisis is over. 

D2C brands can sustain a surge by offering other products and experiences that complement the customer’s new needs. For example, after the lockdowns are over, consumers will be in a rush to get out of their homes and enjoy face-to-face experiences. D2C brands can team up with other companies and run co-marketing campaigns that offer consumers a get-out experience. Household product brands can sponsor local marathons. Health brands can provide discount coupons for camping equipment. For D2C brands that also have a brick-and-mortar presence, post-crisis is the time to push campaigns and strategies in-store. Also, brands can analyze which products customers stocked up on most during the surge, then see what complementary products might be a good fit for an upsell or cross-sell strategy.

Focus on New Beginnings

For any brand that enjoyed a surge during an unusual event, particularly in the vulnerable time of COVID-19, the post-crisis message should be positive and uplifting: “We got through this together, and we’re still here for you.”

D2Cs that provided a great brand experience and solid customer service during a surge can use that goodwill to focus on new strategies and drive continued customer loyalty. Start by analyzing the purchase trends and online habits of customers during the crisis, and find ways to support and encourage a similar pattern of behavior. 

For example, during the pandemic, there has been an increased focus on health and wellness in the home, including indoor games, self-care products, and online learning. Despite the circumstances, many consumers are discovering the benefits of these new habits. After the crisis is over, D2C health and wellness brands can focus on encouraging customers to continue with these self-care routines that they discovered during isolation. The key is creating a brand message that helps customers remember their positive brand experience during the crisis, and channel that goodwill into a post-crisis reality.

Be Proactive and Communicative 

After a topical surge, brands must take steps to continue the conversation that already began, in a direct and real way. That means keeping up social media activity and campaigns. It can also mean testing more intimate marketing strategies to strengthen the customer relationship, such as a video message from the company CEO, or a personalized email campaign (personalized marketing experiences are shown to lead to a 20% increase in sales). 

When a sales surge subsides, it is tempting to want to relax and enjoy the momentary respite. However, a period of increased demand opens up many powerful opportunities for brands to maintain and even boost new growth. Now is definitely not the time to be resting on laurels. Now is the time to connect, communicate, and check in with customers. After all, 64% of consumers say they want brands to connect with them.

Remember — a Topical Surge Is By Nature Short-lived

Whether it’s the holiday season or a global event like the coronavirus outbreak, panic-buying trends and sales surges don’t last forever. For D2C brands that were propelled into the limelight for even a short time, the end of a topical surge is a great opportunity to leverage the momentum and boost brand awareness and sales in the long term. This can be done by smart retention strategies, personalized campaigns, and co-marketing initiatives that boost the visibility of a brand — even when it is no longer #1 on the consumer shopping list. That’s the key to sustaining D2C sales — through the topical surge and beyond. 

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