My family’s first day of social distancing was on my birthday. Awesome.
The decision to close my daughters’ schools had been announced the night before, although we knew it was coming. People were finally waking up to the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic.
The first priority for my wife and me was to maintain a sense of normalcy for our daughters, ages 6 and 9. Come up with a routine that would somewhat resemble their school schedule, keep them as active as possible, and figure out ways for them to interact with family and friends who they may not see for months.
As my wife and I were scrambling to homeschool our kids while working full-time from home, I was getting bombarded with marketing emails and social media posts.
Many were well-intentioned but a bit tone deaf. Others were sales pitches dressed up as offers to help. Some were flat out exploiting a crisis.
Very few seemed relevant or important to me at the time.
As a writer, this was probably the first time in my career when I didn’t know what to write.
I’m not talking about writer’s block. I’m talking about knowing the appropriate thing to say.
I figured a lot of other people were in the same boat as me. Scrambling. Anxious. Uncertain.
And I knew many others were facing much more difficult circumstances on a daily basis.
Was I really going to write about content writing ? At that point, would anyone care? When businesses are trying to stay open and avoid laying off staff, who am I to say they should do X, Y and Z?
There’s a time and a place for that message, but this wasn’t it.
So I decided to write nothing.
I started reaching out to clients to see how they were doing, but I didn’t publish a blog as I normally would.
Instead, I observed. Listened. Read. Waited.
One thing that jumped out at me right in my own backyard was the way my local bagel shop responded when the pandemic really forced people to change their habits. Local restaurants have been hit hard, and Vinny G’s Bagels & Deli in lovely Florence, NJ is no exception.
But they stepped up in a big way.
Instead of pretending to have a magic marketing formula in times of crisis, I’d like to share the story of what I’ve seen from Vinny G’s. Truth be told, this isn’t as much a marketing story as it is a survival story that has turned into a feel-good story.
My hope is that organizations of all sizes, but especially small businesses, can learn from their example.
Communication, Communication, Communication
In our little town of 12,000 people, many small businesses rely on Facebook and word of mouth to communicate with customers. On the first day our town really started to stay home, Vinny G’s offered a dose of reality to their customers.
The owners came right out and said that Vinny G’s might not have the cash flow to reopen if forced to close. They encouraged the community to support local restaurants and businesses that do so much for the community throughout the year.
They also asked if anyone had a contact at the local Amazon distribution center, which might be interested in placing large lunch orders. Someone must have made a connection because they were fulfilling an Amazon order while my wife was picking up lunch last week. Nothing like a little networking and a warm referral.
Feeling the pinch, Vinny G’s announced reduced hours of operation and a scaled-back menu to control costs. Each time they tweaked their hours and services, these changes and the reasoning behind them have been clearly communicated to the community.
Days before the State of New Jersey limited restaurants to takeout, Vinny G’s took it upon themselves to announce that they were suspending inside dining, eventually moving to delivery, curbside pickup, and window service only. They stopped their popular Food Fest Friday takeout promotion to prevent people from crowding outside their restaurant, even though it would have been legal.
The point here is that they were being proactive to protect the health and safety of their customers instead of waiting to be told to be responsible by the government.
Being Good Humans
Since day one, the message has been, “We’re all in this together.” As it should be.
With each social media update, Vinny G’s has thanked the community for their support. Every single time. Feeling and expressing gratitude can help anyone get through a crisis.
Vinny G’s also happens to realize that all individuals, families, and businesses are facing unique challenges.
For example, many families have found empty shelves at grocery stores during the pandemic. To make matters worse, parents who relied on schools to provide their children with breakfast and lunch each day had the option to pick up meals from school, but this isn’t always possible for working parents.
Two days into social distancing, Vinny G’s offered to order eggs, bread, lunch meats, cheeses, and other products for people in the community through its only vendor. This would not only provide people with access to the food they need, but they could also take advantage of bulk pricing.
No upcharge for this service. Customers pay what Vinny G’s pays.
A few days later, Vinny G’s announced that they would be closing an hour earlier each day but offering free lunches for kids. They started with grilled cheese or cream cheese bagels for an hour each day.
Because of the overwhelming response, Vinny G’s now offers special kids’ lunches for about two hours each day – soup and a sandwich, mac and cheese with chicken and broccoli, burgers or hot dogs and tots, pasta, pancakes and eggs, etc.
Free lunches for kids. No questions asked. Doesn’t matter where you’re from. Just make sure a parent or guardian is there. They’ve been feeding anywhere from 15-50 kids each day.
From a Vinny G’s Facebook post, dated March 20:
We are truly humbled and overwhelmed with joy with how the community is coming together to support us. We’ve had people come and give us donations. We’re so thankful. Thank you. We’ll be able to hand out OJ, chocolate milk or water to go along with the meals for the kids. We are lost for words from all the love. From the bottom of our hearts. Thank you. Thank you.
Less than a week after announcing free lunches for kids, the local newspaper published a feature on Vinny G’s and their free kids’ lunch initiative.
The outpouring from local residents has been inspiring. “A blessing,” “you guys are the best,” “great service to our community,” and “customer for life” have been some of the recurring themes in thank you messages on Facebook.
Keep in mind that Vinny G’s is still in survival mode. Nobody knows when life will return to normal. Even if they take a big financial hit, which they probably expect to absorb, they’ve said and done all the right things. They’ve shown who they are and the values that drive them.
In a nutshell, Vinny G’s has gone all-in with the community they serve, and this community has given every indication that they’re ready to reward that goodwill over the long haul.
As a customer and neighbor, this kind of story makes me proud of our little town of Florence.
A Few Closing Thoughts
As I was watching a recent coronavirus press briefing, Dr. Birx said:
There’s no magic vaccine or therapy. It’s just behaviors. Each of our behaviors translating into something that changes the course of this viral pandemic over the next 30 days.
I think this also applies to how businesses of any size approach marketing and communication, especially in times of crisis.
Everyone knows this isn’t the time for marketing as usual. But if you’re looking for a best practices guide for marketing during a pandemic, you’re not going to find it. We’re in uncharted territory.
Ultimately, brands will be defined by what they say and do.
Basic marketing principles still apply. Get the right message in front of the right person at the right time. During a period of uncertainty and anxiety, these basics get a bit more complicated.
We all need to be honest with ourselves about the realities our audiences are facing and how relevant our brands are to them at this moment.
For every person using their free time to binge watch Tiger King and clean out their closets, there’s another person struggling to get work done, homeschool two kids, care for a baby, and pay the rent.
For every person enjoying extra family time, there’s another person feeling a sense of loneliness and isolation.
For every person feeling safe at home, there’s another person putting on a uniform, an N95 mask, or a grocery store apron and entering a potentially lethal environment.
Knowing and respecting the audience and nailing the message have never been more important. Transparent communication and being a good human have never been more important.
For many businesses, short-term revenue increases will likely have to take a backseat to long-term brand equity. I’m not saying it’s inappropriate to seek new clients and try to grow your business. You just have to proceed with caution and sensitivity.
I would suggest focusing on your current clients. Find out how they’re doing and what they need. They might not want to talk about it, and that’s fine. If not, at least they got the message that you care.
At the end of the day, relationships are everything. We should be asking, “What can I say and do to earn and maintain someone’s trust and provide value in a way that respects their current reality?”
Those who know me understand how much I despise clichés, but I’ll say it again. We’re all in this together.
Show empathy. Be authentic. Be grateful. And be a good human.