Chances are, if your company has had the right plan for growth before the crisis, you might not even have to change all that much now to continue on your journey of sustainable growth.

Two months into a global lockdown, it seems our public discussions have become trapped in a repetitive loop, whether around the political or economic consequences, or, as I’ve been concerned about, the best way forward for small businesses and startups. In this impatient age, I think we’re all finding it extremely hard to accept that some solutions don’t appear within a few weeks. To be sure, this crisis is causing extreme economic hardship for many people and especially in the small business sector. But there are no shortcuts or quick fixes, and neither will there be a sudden moment to resume the previous plans and momentum.

"For many companies this crisis could be a wake-up call to refocus their growth and marketing plan."

If anyone actually had enough time between emergency financial planning, childcare and video calls to follow the discussion in the marketing and growth community, the debate seems to be about ‘not letting a crisis go to waste’ and whether to invest in cheaper advertising. At the same time small business leaders are justifiably concerned about access to funding, so many are rightly confused how to balance all these views. However, this discussion seems to be missing the point - for many companies this crisis could be a wake-up call to refocus their growth and marketing plans on their fundamental, long-term growth opportunity.

Growth strategy first, tactics second

Yes, most advertising channels are significantly cheaper which is a great opportunity if you know how to use them well or are committed to exploring how to do so. People’s everyday lives have changed quite significantly and many are changing their habits which from a marketer’s perspective opens up the possibility to find new audiences for products, brands or distribution channels (e.g. e-commerce) which people didn’t consider before. By now, those fortunate enough to have kept their incomes are interested in two topics: comfort and reflection. People will pick up on products and messages that can increase their comfort while they’re staying at home. They’re also likely reflecting on their situation and the future they’d like to shape, without thinking about the virus or the current news. So there are major opportunities for brands addressing these interests.

Before getting to this tactical level of communications and advertising though, many companies might be missing out on the possibility to slow down and reflect on their own situation. Have you been chasing targets? Trying to grow as quickly as possible? Keeping up with competitors, and satisfying investors’ expectations? Where previously you might not have been thinking about reviewing and adjusting your plans, with the current slump in demand and physical restrictions, you might just be able to get that extra bit of space from investors’ and customers’ expectations to analyse if your business is following a sustainable path. I’d like to briefly take you through how I define sustainable growth and the steps to follow to get back on track efficiently.

Think about marketing rather than advertising

One of the secrets to unlocking sustainable growth is to be completely clear on the difference between marketing and advertising. While some companies might decide to stop or reduce their advertising, or explore new channels, there is no good reason for any company to stop their marketing. By this we mean building and strengthening relationships between your brand and your customer in a way that adds value for both, whether through communication, products or services. People might be distracted or limited in their consumption right now, but this shouldn’t change the goal of building long-term relationships with your ideal audiences.

Sustainable growth for most startups is best achieved through Slow Growth thinking. Slow Growth thinking is the attitude to take the necessary time and effort to build a sustainable growth framework before scaling it to grow into a big company. This requires companies to choose the right metrics which reflect the fundamentals of business success, including the strength of your customer relationships and the cost-effectiveness of your growth marketing framework, rather than excessive focus on ‘fast growth’ or top-line customer acquisition. Based on these metrics, it’s crucial to set growth targets based on internal capabilities of the business, and there’s an opportunity right now to make necessary adjustments.

The three key steps every company should go through at this point are to slow down to get very clear on their brand and value proposition, to identify how best to add value to their audience right now, and to identify a combination of activities that increase awareness amongst their audience in order to help as many people as possible.

Understanding your mission and adding value now and in the future

Slowing down in a startup or small business seems like a luxury but it’s sometimes necessary to reflect on where you’ve got to and make corrections to stay on the right path. Sometimes it needs an external shock to allow yourself to take this necessary headspace. Take a moment to understand what it is your brand stands for and the value it can create for your core audience. This isn’t the same as your product or service, but it’s the real reason for people to build a relationship with your brand while keeping everyone in the business motivated.

Your product or service might be impossible to buy for customers right now or they have limited funds for it, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t willing to keep a relationship with your brand or for new customers to start one. Provided you keep adding value. This could be done by serving your product in a different way, using your expertise to help your audiences or to identify different use cases that have become more relevant now.

Here are three examples of companies going through this journey: First, our friends at Coconut, a London-based Fintech startup, are on a mission to give freelancers the financial security and knowledge to focus on the work they love doing. Their main offering is an app-based accounting and tax tool. But they also emphasise the value of their community and with freelancers being one of the hardest hit segments right now, the Coconut team’s focus has been to facilitate discussion within the community and take their views to government. Creating this feeling of belonging for their audiences is a key part of their value proposition to freelancers.

Secondly, one of our clients, Dark Horse, is a leading innovation consultancy in Germany. Their commitment is to helping companies and individuals shape their future in a more sustainable way, guiding them through developing more relevant products and better organisations. One of their offerings has been a range of workshops and seminars which had to be put on hold for some time. But their expertise in embracing uncertainty is more relevant than ever, which is why they decided to offer free email courses on Design Thinking methods and an extended programme of online courses until physical workshops are possible again.

Finally, my own business, Newton Bell, is a digital growth company, driven by the motivation to help startups and innovative companies reach the biggest possible audience by establishing sustainable growth marketing. Our main service is to implement our framework of paid and non-paid digital marketing channels. With many startups being cautious and uncertain about what to do with their digital marketing, we’ve decided to offer more guidance through preparing written content, webinars and coaching sessions.

Using this understanding to continue growing your business

"The best marketing isn’t looking to get immediate sales, but is focused on establishing valuable long-term relationships with customers."

All three companies are using their existing resources to strengthen relationships with current customers and establish new ones, which is completely in line with their brand mission. This enables them to continue growing their business, at least by expanding their audiences. They might not buy anything right now, however the best marketing isn’t looking to get immediate sales, but is focused on establishing valuable long-term relationships with customers.

Whether they make their first purchase now or in a few months doesn’t impact their value to your business if you are taking the right long-term view on growth. Unfortunately many companies spend too much on acquiring customers because they’ve set their targets based on the wrong factors or are trying to rush things along. Now is a great time to revisit how you can ensure your growth marketing is highly cost-effective and sustainable. Going through this process will strengthen your business beyond this crisis (and the next one).

The foundation of cost-effective growth marketing is to understand customer journeys for your offering, to focus on customer lifetime value, and to optimise your conversion across your entire funnel. Only then can you make a decision how to use paid advertising (digital or otherwise) and to what extent. If paid ads have previously been too expensive for you, then the cheaper rates could give you another chance to include them in your marketing mix. But rates will go up again so the focus needs to be on making the whole combination of channels work - this requires putting effort into highly tailored content and your organic marketing channels as well.

Why it might be a good idea to continue investing in your growth

So once you’ve established how to add value and crafted an effective growth marketing framework, it’s most likely a very good idea to invest in some paid and non-paid marketing activity, to grow your audience for your brand. Slow Growth thinking shows how trying to grow too fast can destroy businesses, but on the other hand, going too slowly will increase the pressure in the future to hit your targets. Keep in mind that squeezing more advertising spend into shorter timeframes pushes up costs, so it’s best to smoothen this out. As long as you have a cost-effective growth framework there is no reason to stop right now, because this is exactly what creates great, sustainable businesses - the kind of brands customers and investors love.