We are writing a new chapter on how to communicate in crisis. Today’s pandemic disruption is stimulating change inside of businesses across many levels. Over the last month we've seen companies take on different communication strategies in a day by day changing marketplace.
We’ve seen brands adapt to this crisis at different speeds. The common thread of the companies out in front of this pandemic versus the companies catching up often has to do with how they operate from the inside.
To further understand how a leading brand is communicating and embracing new business practices in this time of crisis, Bob Fish, co-CEO and founder of Biggby Coffee, took some time to chat about the company’s response and strategy moving forward.
Can you tell us about your “get a cup on us” community effort providing free coffee to first responders and healthcare heroes? How did this effort mobilize?
I have to thank Mark Bernstein of Sam Bernstein law firm for having called us with this opportunity. It was a remarkable phone call to receive. One Michigan business looking at another Michigan business to help get the word out. We mobilized the idea in a week.
Everyone leaned into it and it felt like the right thing to do.
The one thing I think about Biggby coffee is our brand values going into the COVID-19 crisis, are the same brand values we have right now. As a matter of fact, It’s like Biggby coffee was built for this particular moment. Our purpose is to support people in building a life they love. It’s not like we got to the crisis and had to pivot and decide who we were going to be now. This is who we are. The opportunity to stand up and say who we are in this moment of time has been frankly a luxury.
Given where we are right now, and seeing businesses shift overnight toward more digital processes, what is your view of the current state of prioritization of new technology?
I keep hearing language about “getting back to normal.” In a previous webinar I did, I wanted to hit people with an anvil on their head to say don’t be delusional, it’s not going back to your version of what normal was. If you don’t hop on the horse right now you are going to be in a lot of trouble. When you reach that moment of going back to normal everyone else is going to have forward momentum. Let me personalize the role of technology a bit further.
I have a traditional parental gap with ideology, social norms, etc from my 22 year old son. I used to kind of make fun of him because he would spend all his time behind his computer and engage with people online. My perspective (to paraphrase as an old dude) was believing I needed to see people in person all the time.
Then the crisis hit. I realized my son was right. I was apprehensive about change. I was fearful of change. I was dragging my feet on change. And yet, it was all just sitting right there. I think people need to look at this moment, see what’s working (and there is a lot that's working really well) and fully embrace it and lean into it.
If you haven’t embraced technology to run your business digitally, there couldn’t be more of a time to do this given things aren’t going back to where they were 30-60 days ago. While the country will be open again, brands are still going to have some semblance of how we are operating today. Some operators will lean in more than others.
One great example of this is when we got into crisis mode. We realized we can’t just keep updating word documents for our teams to read on a day to day basis. So we created town halls, using Zoom, every afternoon for the first three weeks since this all started. We had full attendance from all of our owner operators. We could update them, take their questions, their concerns, their anxiety’s, and answer them—all in real time. The other thing we did was to present a problem to our community to resolve and bring back to us, which we would distribute to the system. The pace of which we were changing and modifying what needed to be done was lightening. We could create major procedural changes within 24 hours rather than a calendar quarter in the past, and we wouldn’t have touched as many people.
Here I was thinking that as a 57 year old—the only way you can have a meaningful conversation with anyone that has relevance—is in person. But here we are in a zoom call and I can’t tell you how much closer we feel to our owner operators using video technology. Compare this to the idea we had to go to a marketplace, find a meeting space big enough, hope everyone comes, then talk to them in a room. This is 10 times more effective than that. I am more stimulated by these opportunities than I probably have been in 15 years.
Not every leader can be as introspective or humble and lean into opportunities they may have not embraced as much in the past. What’s your advice to other business leaders on this approach?
I am a really big believer in vulnerability. When you lean into your vulnerability, which can be a little scary as a leader, it takes your authenticity to a ten. People begin to trust you more for what you are saying, because they know if you are wrong you'll say so. That is extraordinarily powerful and I believe in that strongly.
What is the role of marketing in this time of crisis? Is it really just balancing a new tone?
We had to pivot because when the COVID crisis happened we were in the midst of celebrating our 25th year anniversary of Biggby coffee. So from a marketing materials perspective it was all about celebration and sprinkles, and boy did that feel a little bit wrong within about 12 hours.
We had to go back to the drawing board and straight into our brand values. I don’t think messages should be about promotion, but rather about leaning into what you stand for. We came up with “we are here with love.” That’s always been there for us.
I think when a brand is what it says it is, what marketing does (generally speaking) is tells people what to expect of you, whoever you are. When someone goes to the retail application whatever you told them must meet them or it’s a disconnect. We’ve always been on the same mission. People, people, people, people, product. Nothing changes on that.
To give you perspective and to restate our purpose (which is to exist to support you in building a life you love) our vision is to change workplace culture in America. We think if we go through enough interactions of supporting people and building a life they love we will change workplace culture in America.
What guidance would you provide to the business community and brands impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Disengage from fear and blame. It can be a negative space to be in. As human beings, it’s the place we can end up being in really easily. The definition of courage is doing something you are afraid of anyway. I often look at small business or entrepreneurialism in that same breath. Being an entrepreneur, or going into a small business is doing something that you might be afraid of anyway, you take that risk. I would just ask people to turn up the dial on walking towards their fears and not away from them.
Adam Chandler is COO and co-founder of Eulerity, a marketing platform which powers successful small businesses & local enterprises by simplifying digital marketing and the impact on point of sale. With two decades of experience leading revenue and operations teams across various technology firms, including Yahoo!, Adam develops and executes Eulerity’s operations, revenue, and go-to market strategy.