I’ve been a hypochondriac and germaphobe for as long as I can remember. The kid who always had Kleenex and Wet Ones in his backpack. As I grew, so too did my neuroses and OCD. Be it bugs, germs, parasites or chiggers—everywhere I went, there were triggers. Fortunately (for me), I’m also an attention-starved showman at heart. My desire to entertain, connect with people, host parties and produce events has surpassed these germophobic fears (especially when equipped with a healthy supply of Purell, booze and Ativan).
Naturally, this love of show business, has also led me to a long career in production and marketing—from live events to trade shows and branded activations—all over the world. But in recent weeks, this journey has taken a very strange turn, activating my anxiety with the thunderous roar of cannon fire.
Corona, with a twist of lemon
In December 2019, a mysterious illness was reported in Wuhan, China (not to be confused with hip hop royalty, Wu-Tang Clan). The cause of the disease was quickly designated a new kind of coronavirus, a severe acute respiratory syndrome similar to 2003’s SARS outbreak. Effects of the disease range from mild symptoms—such as fever, cough, and shortness of death—to severe illness and death, especially among older and immunocompromised populations. In February 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the official name would be COVID-19, a shortened version of coronavirus disease 2019—which has since spread to a large number of countries around the world, including the United States.
On February 26, 2020, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the first reported community-based infection of a Californian who reportedly did not have relevant travel history or exposure to another known patient. With the grim reality of community-based infections on the horizon and in the media, President Donald Trump tried to reassure the public even as a Department of Defense document (obtained by Newsweek) noted that officials expected this new coronavirus to become a global pandemic within 30 days. The World Health Organization (WHO) beat them to the punch with their declaration on March 11—COVID-19 was now officially a pandemic. And with more cases, infections and deaths spreading around the world, fears are high and rising with every new day.
Panic in the pantry!
As any seasoned marketer will tell you, the first signs of any major social, political or economic trend or turmoil can be seen in consumer spending behavior. As the United States tops the list as the world’s largest consumer market (according to the World Bank), it’s no surprise that the effects have been especially significant here. According to a new report from Nielsen, fears of a protracted corona-crisis have led shoppers in the U.S. and other hard-hit countries to begin stocking up on supplies to fill “pandemic pantries.”
As panic grows, consumers around the world are actively stockpiling emergency supplies of hand sanitizer, hand soap, medical masks, aerosol disinfectants, toilet paper and thermometers. In addition, oat milk, fruit snacks, dried goods and energy beverages are among the top food and drink purchases seeing a spike as panicked consumers attempt to prepare for what’s to come.
Recess is over, Recession is just beginning
According to the Harvard Business Review, in addition to panic, global financial markets are facing a very real risk of recession as supply chains reel from production slowdowns across the globe. On February 28, stocks suffered the biggest weekly loss since 2008 amid investor unease about economic fallout from coronavirus. On March 3, the Federal Reserve took the emergency step of cutting the benchmark U.S. interest rate by half a percentage point. Then, on March 9, Wall Street experienced what could be called a “crash” for the first time since 2008. Two days later, The Wall Street Journal declared, “Dow Jones Industrial Average’s 11-Year Bull Run Ends.” And on March 12, US stocks had their worst day since the “Black Monday” crash in 1987.
While it’s not a foregone conclusion, market instability continues to illustrate COVID-19 exogenous impact on the U.S. economy—the panic economy—which could very quickly lead to recession in real time.
A mess for marketers and germaphobes alike
For humans, the novel coronavirus is producing fear, infection, illness and death. For trade shows, activations, live events and large gatherings of any kind—production has stopped completely. COVID-19 is like an atomic bomb blast spewing fallout around the world. In a matter of weeks this global pandemic has caused cancellations and postponements, corporate travel restrictions and major airline losses, and total economic uncertainty across the globe. Worst of all, now we’re running out of toilet paper!
But until vaccines or treatments are developed and widely disseminated, only calmer heads will prevail. Next to upping personal hygiene practices, social distancing is widely believed to be the best way to slow the spread of coronavirus. According to Helen Chu, an infectious-disease professor at the University of Washington, “There are people who are walking around who must have it, or have had it very recently, or are about to have it.” For that reason, as noted with an interview in the Atlantic, canceling major public events is a “wise choice.”
While this wisdom resounds in China, Iran and Italy—where the entire country is on lockdown—what does this mean for the future of live events? And with the US now in a similar shutdown, how can marketing agencies, production companies, exhibit designers and event producers survive as normal life is put on hold?
It’s your party, you can cry if you want to.
“When someone zigs, I zag. When they zag, I zig. If they zigzag, I don’t do anything.” This auspicious line from Echelon’s 12for12 video series speaks volumes in the wake of the current coronavirus outbreak. Namely, when everyone zigs—that’s the time to zag. Difficult times always create opportunities; knowing where to look is critical. Below are five timely and tactical steps you can take—right now—to innovate, ideate, and communicate like never before, converting corona-panic into business opportunity
- RAMP UP MARKETING
As the U.S. goes on mandatory quarantine, businesses close and sporting events hobble along without sports fans, now—more than ever before—it is critical to add value by showing your values. In these strange and uncertain times, honesty, trust and authenticity will prevail. It’s perfectly normal to feel scared or anxious. But now is not the time to position or project a false front or rest on your laurels. Instead, let you customers, partners and prospects know that we are all in this together. Now is the time for truth in marketing. Promote your purpose across all channels—and help your clients achieve theirs, whatever the world throws at them. And remember, be real, not fake real. There is no advantage in coating your messages in bullshit or turning tragedy into vaudeville. Wash your hands of that and remember… honesty, trust and authenticity will prevail—status quo marketing will not.
- CREATE NEW OFFERINGS
A wise person (most likely a woman) once said, ‘Don’t be afraid to suck at something new.” As the world moves to a new normal of chaos and uncertainty, now is time to think as far as you can outside your box of standard offerings. Realize that you and your team can and must push a much larger profile of options. The days of complacency are gone. Now is the time to embrace new offerings, solutions, products, business models, ideas and technologies.
Embrace the New! Look to advance your clients’ programs by pushing them in new directions and to new digital platforms. Be it virtual or augmented reality for trade show programs, or machine learning and AI product development. Think back to those proof-of-concepts and experimental projects that were successful—bring them back to customizable way to reach the masses. Lastly, and most importantly, remember that no idea is a bad idea—especially when trying to save what you have worked years creating! Get those fresh ideas out on the table, write them down and push the best ones forward.
- OPTIMIZE OPERATIONS
It is imperative ask: “What MORE can we do when things are so uncertain?” From cutting costs, to moving to a la carte or value-based pricing models, to mitigating panic-driven layoffs by figuring out what’s being left on the table—now is the time to act.
Look at what your company already does and how you can leverage your existing resources in a new way. Do you have a warehouse? Offer drop-shipping storage or unused office space? Rent out part of your building. Have a client with a severely cut budget? Revamp the project to cut costs and be more efficient. This can be as simple as moving from a large trade show presence to a local pop-up experience. Leverage what you know your clients need on a smaller scale, so nothing is left on the table. They key is to keep moving forward and be creative about how you navigate. There are always more possibilities than you have considered.
- LEAN ON TRUSTED PARTNERS
More often than not, day-to-day tasks, trials and tribulations stagnate our spark. While the checklist keeps us focused and on track, it also dulls our sense of purpose and place. But fortunately, the customers who trust you the most are most likely to buy more from you. Oftentimes, they’re friends and colleagues; they want you to succeed. Likewise, you can help them succeed and refresh your relationships by presenting other offerings to your clients. Maybe they didn’t know you had those capabilities—so tell them! And keep the relationships strong by helping them add value while being honest and telling them where you stand.
- GROW YOUR PIPELINE
TALK TO EVERYONE! Now is the time to give to get, show don’t tell, roll up your sleeves and get scrappy. Run to the fire—not away from it! We are all in this together, and many times we have something that can help others. Get in touch with your network. Reach out to folks you haven’t talked to in years. Use your social network to meet new people. This doesn’t have to be done in person; you can join a digital group or attend a virtual conference and contribute that way. Make comments and give advice. Share your story and listen to the stories being told. Most importantly, be part of the conversation and let people know what you do and why you do it. The more you grow your pipeline, the more you can help your pipeline with a positive impact.
Lastly, and when all else fails, DON’T PANIC! We’re going to get through this. But it’s incumbent on you to channel your angst-ridden hypochondria and neurosis into creating something that adds value for your customers. Be small and scrappy, creative and nimble. But more than anything, be honest, be real, and be ready to lend a hand. We’re all in this together. As Echelon’s team of designers, producers, creatives and brand builders at is apt to say, now is the time to “make it, ‘til we make it—together.” After all, global pandemic or not, what else is there?