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How Your Small Business Can Redefine Its Brand During COVID-19

Making safety and communication part of its identity can help your company thrive

A woman is cleaning the counter of her store while wearing a mask and gloves

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En español | The first hint Patti Gibbons had that something was wrong was a Saturday evening in March. The 60-year-old owner of Heavenly Soaps went to her local Costco and found it packed. “It was worse than Christmas Eve,” she says. The next morning, she turned on the news and realized how serious the COVID-19 pandemic was becoming. She knew she had to make some big changes to keep her small business afloat.

Gibbons isn't the only owner of a small or midsize business facing the challenges of COVID-19. According to a survey by Main Street America, 3 in 4 businesses have had their revenue cut in half since early March. More than half (57 percent) reported that revenue dropped by 75 percent or more, and 80 percent had closed at least temporarily. As these businesses pivoted to remain viable, they reinvented everything — from their business models to their staffing procedures.

"At the heart of most entrepreneurs, there is the need to continually iterate and optimize your business,” says Amanda Brinkman, host of Hulu's Small Business Revolution and chief brand officer at Deluxe Corp., a technology and financial services company based in Shoreline, Minnesota.

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During tough times, every small business should consider how its brand — the characteristics that are the company's identity and lead customers to choose it over its competitors — can adapt successfully. The following are parts of a business's brand that companies need to address both during and after the pandemic.

Focus on safety

Virtually every business is going to have to address health and safety protocols to keep their customers and employees safe. An employee or customer getting sick at your place of business can have huge ramifications for your company, Brinkman says. So review how you will enhance cleaning and disinfection, provide personal protective equipment (PPE), and establish social distancing measures your business will use. That may mean rearranging furniture or installing barriers. You may need to choose single-use or disposable items when possible.

"Your commitment to health and safety needs to be very visible and right at the forefront,” Brinkman says. You should be thinking about the people who are nervous about coming to your place of business and do what you can to make them comfortable, she adds.

As social distancing requirements became the norm, many customers sought to limit contact with those outside their own home. An April 2020 MasterCard survey found that 79 percent of customers were using contactless payments for necessary purchases, driven by a desire for safety and cleanliness. While some customers want to head back into stores and restaurants, others want to protect themselves and their families. As a business owner, you need to think about your customers’ needs and provide products and services accordingly, Brinkman says.

Improve your digital presence

Gibbons was able to keep her small Monroe, Washington, retail shop open initially, but when stay-at-home orders came from the governor's office, Heavenly Soaps closed from March 24 through May 5. But her customers still wanted their products. So she immediately got to work, communicating with customers that she could still ship to them. She studied Instagram and Facebook marketing methods and began using them to target new customers. Gibbons had upgraded her website earlier in the year and, serendipitously, her checkout options now included “store pickup.”

She also gained a new awareness of how to present products. “It gets down to things like learning how to take better pictures or make your pictures look more inviting. I've purchased some new soap dishes that look like a clawfoot bathtub and put my soaps in there so it's more appealing to the eye,” she says.

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Be sure that basic information about your safety measures as well as up-to-date hours of operation are available on your company's website or social media pages, Brinkman adds. Share the measures you're taking to enhance safety, and list any changes customers may encounter when they go to your business.

Gather and use feedback

Get feedback on how customers want to hear from you now. Some may want regular updates on social media, while others may want more in-depth information in an email or newsletter format. Then keep in touch. “The number one thing right now is that people really expect brands to be visible,” says Charlene Tassinari, cofounder of San Francisco-based Canvas & Co.

Tassinari and cofounder Carly Potock — the team that created Google's first digital-video brand strategy team for small and midsize businesses — say that customers want to hear from you now. They want to know how your business is responding to the pandemic, as well as everything from how you're getting involved in the community to how your operations have changed because of the pandemic. It's also important to be mindful of tone and sensitivity to current events. To help brands navigate the shifting messaging landscape, the duo created a five-step framework for adapting messaging during times of crisis.

It's likely that your business has changed during the pandemic. In a recent CNBC/Survey Monkey poll, 72 percent of small business owners said the outbreak is likely to permanently change the way they run their businesses.

Once you have adapted, it's time to look at which changes are sustainable and desirable, as well as how they will affect your business. Think about what your business, at its core, is equipped to do, says Brinkman. Now is the time to pay close attention to how the changes you've made affect customer attitudes as well as how much they cost to maintain to determine their viability, she says.

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