Thoughts

COVID-19 | Moving From ‘Containment’ Phase To ‘Delay’ Phase – What This Means For The Luxury Sector & What Brands Can Do To React Digitally

Thoughts from Ben Askins, Managing Director at VERB.

Before going into the detail there are three caveats worth noting. 

The first is that everything I have written here is focused on the next 2-3 months. Far cleverer people than I will be able to tell us more around how long we think Covid-19 will be impacting us but the most consistent estimate has been around the 2-3 month mark and so this piece is geared towards exactly that, what brands should be doing over the next few weeks in order to both maximise new opportunities and also mitigate losses. To be clear, this is not how we would usually approach this. We at VERB always aim to plan and work three months ahead of time to ensure we can be as prepared and planned as possible but we are facing a pocket of unique spending patterns and data and so strategies need to reflect this. I have really tried to gear this towards accessible and easy to implement strategies that should be actionable within a few days. 

The second, is that everything I have written is assuming that brands are setup to allow for all channels to react, quickly and in unison, whether it is Paid, SEO, CRO, Email, Social etc. I appreciate a lot of brands still keep their channels relatively siloed but it is critical that brands do everything they can to ensure channels are run holistically rather than on their own as the results will be that more effective to ensure maximum success. 

Finally, my background has always been within the luxury and premium sector. Therefore when I refer to specific industries such as fashion or hospitality I am referring to the top of each vertical. I believe there is a huge amount that brands can do to learn from each other so there will be a lot that is applicable to all but there will be differences and worth bearing in mind.  

Two women wearing masks
Photographer: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Brick and Mortar Companies  

I am going to start off by talking about the hospitality and travel sectors and indeed, any business whose core revenue streams are dependent on customers visiting their establishments as the early numbers suggest they are going to be amongst the worst hit initially, and we are already seeing this with the recent travel bans and flight groundings along with a huge number of businesses adopting a work from home policy limiting access to brick and mortar locations.  

The first step if you are a brand of one of these companies is to look at SEO and re-run a full keyword analysis on where your current traffic pool is coming from. This is an exercise that is likely to be done around once a quarter but even if it has been completed recently unless it has been done in the last few days, it is worth redoing as patterns are shifting on an almost daily basis as can be demonstrated by a short tail example of ‘London Restaurants’ below. The priorities of this piece need to be a fundamental understanding of a) which keywords are currently bringing in the most impressions and b) which keywords are generating the most relevant traffic for your business. There are a variety of tools that do this however our preference at VERB utilises ones such as Moz and Screaming Frog. 

Once this is done, and the most relevant data is ready, there needs to be a careful assessment on your current PPC campaigns, specifically against that of your SEO analysis above, asking the question around attribution and which key terms can be absorbed by SEO with little to no reduction in conversion. 

Now I am not advocating to stop PPC, it is one of the most valuable channels when it comes to conversion, however, we can already see in search patterns that a number of the core search terms are already declining in volume and with less traffic to target, we are at risk of PPC cannibalising the limited traffic available.  By instead tapping back on PPC spend, it allows SEO to own that lessening space. Alongside this, you will likely be seeing less media being spent anyway on PPC due to the declining interest and less opportunity for ads to be served. Either way the result we will see is saved spend with which we can reappropriate. 

Now the next stage is key, the temptation will be to reinvest that saving towards a broader set of PPC key terms however at this point the priority needs to be to supplement the declining search volume and push more leads to the top of the sales funnel. What that means literally for brands within sectors like hospitality, is that we need to boost the number of people searching for terms that we know are already driving conversions towards bookings and one of the easiest ways to do this is to push your savings towards Paid Social. 

Paid Social is one of the most effective channels when it comes to inspiration and it can allow us to influence an audience to search the terms we have identified as the most likely to convert. Please note that creative is key here, in fact there are statistics that suggest creative plays a part in nearly 70% of ad recall. With strategy in mind, the highest conversion you are likely to see is around branded terms and so I would gear most of the ad creative towards brand awareness rather than anything too lifestyle focused. 

This is one of the key points in regards to what I mentioned at the start around some of the options I suggest may not be best practice in a wider sense. For those of you who speak to me on a regular basis, my advice to a lot of brands over the past 12 months has been hammering the importance of diversifying your generic key terms and moving away from an over-reliance on brand and I stand by that, if you look at search terms over the past two years you can clearly see that search patterns are moving away from what we would call ‘brand loyalty’ towards a more exploratory approach such as ‘best restaurants in London’, etc. However, in times of uncertainty customers are far more likely to go to what they know and so the tendency will be to purchase from brands they trust implicitly. This is an extreme version of a trend we have seen a lot in the luxury sector of late, namely that of the personification of brands. Consumers and customers will look at brands and ask themselves the genuine question as to whether they trust them and hold them to account in the same way they would hold their friends, families or colleagues. 

So where does that lead us? Well, it actually leaves us with one of the biggest opportunities at the moment, specifically around domestic tourism. The luxury sector is already feeling the impact from a lack of foreign visitors but at the forefront of all of our minds is that there have been a huge number of flights cancelled the other way, resulting in a lot of employees across the country in a position where annual leave has been booked off and they now have nothing to do. As you can see with the data from the US below this has already led to a spike in terms around ‘Stay-cation’ in multiple regions including the UK. Brands need to consider how they can cater to that audience and how they can tap into the market. 

To take this further, my advice to all those running campaigns to shorten your sales journey and push potential customers straight towards the final few stages of the conversion funnel. The reason being is that the intent to purchase is already there and the lead time is far shorter than you would ordinarily have due to the last minute cancellations meaning you have a far greater chance of capturing a more spontaneous purchase and far less of a CPA cost. Therefore you can assume you have engaged the potential customer with several touchpoints already and you should see some quick hits there. 

eCommerce 

This brings us onto talking more about eCommerce focused brands, fashion being the obvious one but this applies to any brand that has both offline and online revenue streams. There are two initial problems that they are facing, the first is the obvious decline with in-store activity which is only going to deteriorate further. The general acceptance is that a lot of stores will be forced to close in the major European cities before this has passed us and this is going to get worse before it gets better. The second is that for those brands dependent on specific products the virus is going to put a huge strain on logistical and supply chains around stock levels and also on distribution. We have already seen here at VERB issues with client factories’ being forced to close or stock stuck in limbo in warehouses unable to be shipped to the correct distribution location. 

When it comes to stock challenges, we need to look at both SEO and Paid holistically. With SEO, the focus should be on your core keyword base and to consolidate and hold as much of your current real estate as possible. Focus most of the efforts on key terms on page 1 and 2 and halt any longer term priorities unless you have the resource to do this. Paid is where the primary focus needs to be however, in particular on any Paid campaigns you are running that land on specific product pages. The reason being is that when stock dwindles the first items to run out are the most popular styles and sizes, and, you can have the most engaging ads in the world, but if you can only push the outliers of stock then you are going to feel the pinch in decreasing conversion rates which in turn has the knock on effect of wasting a lot of media spend. 

A good start for this is taking a look at your inventory management. There are setups that allow you to create ads that are paused automatically as soon as specific products or sizes go out of stock as the below diagram explains. 

This feeds into the wider effort for Paid around driving down ROAS and media spend whilst having as minimal an effect on revenue as possible. On average a healthy Paid strategy will assign 10% of the budget towards new regions and new audiences. I would advise that this is paused for the time being for the simple reason that no data that is gathered over the next few weeks will be useful when it comes to driving long term digital strategy. 

We are currently in a unique moment of time where it is possible to identify current patterns without necessarily being able to forecast what that will mean in the long term. To give you a real example of what I mean, it is comparable to spending habits on Black Friday which is a day of complete anarchical spending with little to no relevance to what has gone on previously.  So much so that most brands now will set up completely different campaigns just for that one day. This needs to be approached in a similar way but, instead of maximising reach and website hits the focus should be to maintain as much of the revenue as possible whilst looking to avoid wasted spend in all sense, it will require more management time on the account but it will massively help any spend leaks. 

There is light at the end of the tunnel when we look at markets that are a month or two ahead of us in regards to the virus journey. Looking at China, we are seeing a spike in what is known as ‘Revenge spending’ (https://fortune.com/2020/03/12/chinese-luxury-industry-rebounds-coronavirus-revenge-spending/) meaning that the longer people remain in isolation the more likely they are to start purchasing online with limited other availability with which to spend their disposable income. 

However the Chinese consumer is far more inclined to purchase online when it comes to luxury products, the average Western consumer still has a tendency to research online and then purchase in-store once they have had a chance to see and feel the product in person, so how can brands increase the likelihood to do this?

There are two ways that I would suggest, the first is an in depth review of the returns policy and whether it is setup to deal with a mostly online customer base. How easy is it to send options to your potential customer and are there ways to enhance this? A nice option for example is the option to purchase a size up and down for the cost of one unless it isn’t returned is something that has seen success in the past. 

The other is trying to bring the in-store experience to the customer online at their kitchen table. The merits of VR and AR are obvious points but that advice is immaterial as again we are looking at the next two months as the priority not a 12 month roll out. That being said there are a lot of very clever pieces of software such as Go In Store (https://www.goinstore.com/), which allows direct communication to an instore employee and brings that quality of service that brands are so proud of. It has the added advantage of a really straightforward implementation through the use of a custom widget so no brand aesthetic should be lost. 

The final point that I want to raise is around reassurance and how brands can engage with their customers. Like everyone else, I have been hit with an email from every organisation I have ever given my data to, and, due to how rushed a lot of them clearly are, they either missed the mark from a tone perspective or, as in one case, emailed with their entire database cced in. 

An email is a great option providing it is actually telling everyone exactly what your brand is doing to reassure them and what steps you are taking precaution wise, simply saying ‘business continues as normal’ isn’t enough. 

Alongside this, another touch point that is well worth  looking at is the new feature introduced by Google My Business (GMB) to update messaging, opening hours etc for coronavirus. GMB is one of most viewed pieces of any brand’s onlines business estate and even just an acknowledgement will go a long way to reassure customers. 

Finally, make sure this is all backed up on social channels, avoid the generic ‘stay safe and healthy’ unless you are a medically relevant brand, customers are not going to be interested in you wading into what is already an unbelievably saturated market. Offer genuine content relevant to either you specifically or your industry. 

Every day we learn more about this outbreak and so there is every chance these points will become outdated but we at VERB are analysing the situation across all luxury sectors on an hourly basis and are going to be making every effort to keep everyone informed. That being said it is unlikely we will be able to cover everything and so if you have any specific questions or require any help please do reach out to me at ben@verbbrands.com and I will do anything I can to help. We will also be releasing a detailed report later very soon and if you would like a copy please drop me a note with your email. ben@verbbrands.com or get in touch.