Communication and teamwork

It’s always been important for a business to develop a clear marketing strategy, including identifying target markets, setting goals and enabling the measurement of effectiveness. However, as 2020 showed us, it’s equally important to have the ability to be flexible within that overall strategy. Sue Davenport, group marketing director at Liniar, takes a look back over the last 12 months and explores the outcomes and lessons learned.

According to Marketing Week and the IPA Bellwether report, the Covid pandemic drove a record decline in UK marketing budgets in 2020. The net balance of companies cutting their marketing budget fell to -50.7% in Q2, which is worse than during the 2008 recession.

In August, the Harvard Business Review reminded us: “Companies that have bounced back most strongly from previous recessions usually did not cut their marketing spend, and in many cases actually increased it. But they did change what they were spending their marketing budget on.”

The latter strikes a chord with Liniar’s own history. Our innovative 70mm window system was launched in 2008, and despite the worst recession in modern times was successfully marketed to an industry ready for a new innovation, beginning a growth curve that continues to climb today. We saw no reason to change this philosophy during 2020 – nor to cut marketing budgets – but our methods, messaging and channels certainly had to adapt quickly.

Last year more than any other, marketing communication became one of the most business critical marketing functions at Liniar. Internal and external comms were the main focus, requiring quick, decisive execution to keep everyone updated about the ever-changing situation. New channels were established and existing methods strengthened, with more frequent engagement than ever before.

2020 began as normal at Liniar. We had a strong pipeline of new product development, a marketing strategy aligned with the company’s strategic plan and tactics for promotional campaigns to help customers understand the selling points of the Liniar product range.

In March, as a UK lockdown became increasingly likely, the senior management team (SMT) grouped to discuss and review our business continuity plans, including the possibility of home working for those who could, and the previously unfathomable idea of having to close the 24/7 Liniar extrusion plant if necessary.

We needed a way to keep in touch with our 500+ workforce, all at once, if we had to close. We decided text messages would be most direct, so we went straight to the basics: collecting mobile phone numbers on manual sheets with the owners’ permission and inputting them into an online SMS system.

For customers, we had a good database of contact details, plus an established email newsletter which was sent out each fortnight. Both were to prove invaluable over the coming months.

Within 24 hours of our internal meeting, the decision for a temporary closure was made. Our flat structure enabled us to create and agree the overall messaging quickly, and we shared the customer communication with telephone calls backed up by emails, social media posts and website updates. We closed less than a week later, remaining closed until May 11.

During the early weeks, reassurance was our main priority: reassuring employees at their most anxious time (we confirmed we’d pay everyone 100% for the first furlough period); reassuring customers who needed to know that we’d continue to stay in touch as a critical partner for their business; and reassuring suppliers they’d still be paid on time for the raw materials and goods we’d received before lockdown.

The SMT met daily via Zoom, discussing and agreeing our response to the ever-changing situation. Following each government briefing, we clarified how changes may affect employees and customers, enabling us to send decisive emails and texts out within hours (often many times each week) as events unfolded.

We created an employee-only webpage, adding clear updates and notifying staff of these via text message. At the same time, we allowed our HSE team onto site to carry out risk assessments and prepare our facilities for a socially distanced return to manufacturing.

We launched our PPE project while the majority of our team was on furlough leave, manufacturing protective visors to donate to key workers. This was welcomed by employees and customers alike as helping the national efforts, and we were swamped with volunteers and offers of help.

The project meant we had to effectively launch a new product to totally different (to us) target markets, with no data. Social media came into its own here: our posts were shared by hundreds of people, with engagement the highest it’s ever been for our business page. Despite the challenges, we succeeded in donating over 35,000 visors (still ongoing) where they were most needed.

As time went on, we used our employee website page to communicate updates about reopening the site, the Covid protocols we were putting in place, guidance about returning to work, and even holidays and pay.

We wanted our staff to look after their physical and mental health, so we reminded them about our ‘employee assistance scheme’ with free access to counselling, alongside sharing other useful resources.

The Liniar sales team were among the first to be reinstated after the initial three-week furlough period, conscious as we were of the need for personal communication alongside other channels. This became increasingly critical as supply chain issues and raw material force majeures began to impact our ability to supply enough products to meet the huge increase in demand.

Customers were able to share our messages with their own customers in turn, to help explain what was happening at the top of the supply chain; we ensured our messaging was relevant to a wide audience.

Feedback has been that, even when news was not what they wanted to hear, customers appreciated the fast, direct communication, enabling them to manage lead time expectations as best they could across their own customer base.

At the same time, installers knew they could access us directly on social media, and we responded to questions day or night. Our small team had to be both knowledgeable and speedy.

Our sector saw plenty of sales opportunities as homeowners couldn’t go on holiday and were confined to homes, but companies without a strong digital presence suddenly needed help.

With an online media centre active for the last six years, Liniar was able to quickly help customers find what they needed and offer advice on digital marketing. The Liniar Sales Guide came into its own: produced in a handy PDF, it’s used by sales teams at every level of the supply chain for quick, efficient marketing campaigns and remote selling.

Throughout this time, we stuck to our original advertising budgets, recognising Liniar needed to maintain a presence in the marketplace on behalf of its customers. We continued producing the articles and advertisements that had been booked in advance with the industry trade press.

Most Liniar ranges soared in popularity – in particular decking, fencing and patio doors – so with organic search doing really well we were able to reduce our digital PPC spend on these items. This focused and reactive approach meant better targeting, resulting in more relevant enquiries.

The sudden onset of the pandemic accelerated progress in certain areas significantly, not least of which was the use of technology. 2020 was a learning curve for all UK businesses with many adapting and flexing during the last year to great success. We’re convinced that our strong supplier relationships and rapid decision-making and communication helped Liniar to return to normal operations from January 2021, returning to its usual ‘steady ship’ presence in the industry.

My take-aways are:

  1. Accurate customer contact data, held in a central place, is essential.
  2. Not all customers read emails; a multi-channel approach is always best.
  3. Don’t try to disguise ‘bad’ news. Tell it straight for clarity; customers appreciate directness.
  4. Having the ability to post quickly on your website and social media channels is crucial.
  5. Don’t cut marketing spend to zero. Maintain a presence in your chosen market so customers know you’re around and contactable.
  6. Employees feel more engaged when communication is frequent, varied and positive.
  7. Doing good regularly and sharing community activities with the workforce results in a happier culture.
  8. Recruitment can make or break a business. With the right team on board, anything is possible.