For the past couple of months, we’ve all been in a reactive state. Many small businesses have shut down temporarily, and those that have had the opportunity to pivot were only able to focus on immediate needs. For a lot of companies, that’s involved taking a current product or service and changing the distribution model—yoga studios now offer classes online, restaurants that didn’t offer takeout or delivery have started doing so, and events have gone digital. But what can small businesses do to move forward in this current climate? We spoke with brand marketer Antoinette Coleman, a brand marketer with 15 years of experience in the field who has worked with brands like VitaminWater and COVERGIRL, to offer some insights into new strategies that can help you make it through the next six to twelve months.Consider community first“Of course, there’s no perfect road map—you’re going to have to start with a few experiments,” Coleman says. “To begin, think about what your community and your consumers need now, what you expect them to need 6-12 months from now, and how your brand can create solutions for them.” We’ve seen a lot of brands adapting to immediate market needs recently—beauty companies and distilleries making hand sanitizer and fashion companies sewing masks, for instance. And these are wonderful things to do if they’re organic and natural for your brand. But now is also a good time to consider how you can meet industry or consumer demands in the marketplace that aren’t as immediately apparent. Ask yourself the question: What are things your community needs that you may not have realized yet?
Pair these needs with your brand values, resources, and relationships
“How do you combine your brand—your mission, values, and product offering—and what your community needs in order to make a product or service that can drive revenue, or drive engagement with your customers?” Coleman asks. It’s this combination of factors that can create the right alchemy for a product or service that can fit the moment—while staying authentic to your brand.
Challenge your own business models
“Companies often have internal silos, rules, and chains of command that can inhibit the ability to develop and execute new products and business models. How businesses adapt to new opportunities during COVID will determine their future,” Coleman says. “Don’t let internal belief systems and structures inhibit execution and experimentation. If an idea doesn’t work because of your internal structure, then evolve. Instead, encourage collaboration and agility across all business functions.” One good example of a business model that adapted to change recently: restaurant wholesalers in NYC. Their revenue plummeted overnight as restaurants closed due to stay-at-home orders, but many quickly pivoted, repurposing their wholesale platforms into a DTC solution to meet the growing demand for contactless grocery delivery. While the new systems they’re putting into place aren’t perfect, they are working and are creating revenue channels and customer relationships that may last beyond the initial pandemic. According to recent reports, wholesalers like Natoora have recovered almost 100% of their NYC pre-COVID revenue.
“Right now, you need to operate more than ever with a problem-solving, learning, and experimentation mindset,” Coleman says. “For instance, you may think, ‘I don’t have the resources or product development team to come up with a way to sell stuff online. I’m a local store that only sells things locally.’ That may be true, but don’t box yourself in—try experimenting with selling via Instagram, for instance. See if consumers will have one-on-one sessions with you: you can take them through the store and show them products. And as you engage your community, some new ideas might arise.” One great small business example of this that Coleman points to: Brother Vielles, founded by Aurora James. When the COVID-19 quarantine began, James began posting images of her daily coffee routine to her Instagram. “I think it was a way for her to connect with her community and share a ritual that brought her comfort in this stressful time,” Coleman says. “But every morning, she used the same mug, and went through the same process.” Soon, her followers began to show interest in her unique-looking mug, and James realized that there was demand for the item, so she began offering it. However, since the mug is handmade by artisans, demand quickly outpaced supply, and the items sold out each day. Not to be deterred, James quickly pivoted her business model, instead creating a monthly subscription service of artisanal home goods. “The price point is $35, which is very accessible—and much lower than that of the footwear and handbags she normally offers,” Coleman says. “She’s created a new revenue stream for Brother Vielles and is leveraging her network, while staying aligned with her company’s mission and values.” This kind of lateral, flexible thinking is what will help brands move forward right now. It’s worth taking a page from Aurora James’s book: if you’re engaging regularly with your audience and are responsive to their needs and wants, you can perform your own experiments and see what new services or products you can offer that might be a good fit for the present moment. Opportunities are presenting themselves in unusual ways right now—and it’s worth staying open to new engagement models and revenue streams.