I wish I could say I saw this coming a mile away. Or even that I had a pandemic protocol I’d kept on the shelf for exactly this scenario. The truth is, as we watched the Far East struggle with coronavirus, we didn’t anticipate how it would affect San Antonio.

At my branding agency, we briefly spoke about how it might impact some of our product-based clients that source from China and Taiwan, but it wasn’t initially a huge concern. Gradually, as the virus made its way west, leadership began having meetings two or three times a week to try to predict the threat to local business. It wasn’t long before we realized that much of the brick-and-mortar world was at risk of losing everything.  

Almost 70 percent of our client base is made up of brick-and-mortar businesses, and that gave us the benefit of understanding just how bad this was going to get for retail and service based small businesses. What we knew based on intake forms we use when we onboard new clients is that the vast majority of these small brick-and-mortar businesses came to us with profit margins below industry standards. Most don’t have more than one full payroll and fixed expenses in their checking accounts. Maybe 10 percent have their operating procedures and policies documented. Many do not have an e-commerce website, and most who do use social media simply use if for awareness, but have never successfully run an ad campaign. We knew we had to act fast.

By March 20, we had a brand crisis team assembled, with an official COVID-19 policy in play and a list of support services for both existing and new clients distributed. Within days, we received our first call from a young lady who had attended a class I taught at Launch SA months ago asking if I could help her pivot her business to an online model. A couple of days later, a franchise we work with gave us a call to let us know his time table for scaling the franchise would be expedited with cheaper real estate on the horizon. That was the moment we knew we were going to get slammed. 

A lot about our day-to-day has changed. Our dynamic, three dimensional pitches have become Zoom meetings that just don’t have the same pizzazz. It has been a challenge to maintain a healthy work-life balance, as we work to execute our crisis response for our brand and those of our clients, all while adjusting our regular operating systems to remote processes. 

Although we still use our project management software, our team now communicates mostly through WhatsApp and have daily check-ins to make sure everyone is still safe and healthy. We also do a lot more mental health check-ins, as the virus has elevated our stress levels.

We expect to have brand issues come up for a small percentage of clients based on isolated incidents or industry specific occurrences and budget time for that. However, this pandemic has left no industry and no business untouched. Even those not immediately and directly affected will feel consequences in the next 18 months. It is our job to mobilize on our brands’ behalf now. 

On a personal level, day-to-day life has also changed. My son attends a private preschool, so we don’t have much by way of an online curriculum. Our teachers have done a beautiful job of sending us resources and video tutorials, but it’s still quite an adjustment. I spend late nights scheduling and planning his curriculum and my days toggling between my home office, helping my son with school, and making time for my husband to get his work in, too. Most days it feels like a bit of a relay race.

I do worry about my son missing out on the socialization at his age. As an only child, he no longer has the connection to kids his own age. We video call his friends and cousins, but I know he misses the human contact with his classmates. He just had his fifth birthday, and we had to change his party to a Zoom party and delay his birthday trip to Disneyland. 

Despite these circumstances, I am grateful that my family, team, and friends are safe and healthy. Interestingly, this has even had a positive affect on our business. Our firm specializes in the development of a brand’s infrastructure, so this is where we shine. Our clients that need to pivot offers, reputation manage, and make policy decisions for staff are now seeing the full benefits of having that infrastructure in place.

Our community is seeing firsthand that it is the businesses that have been able to build a brand that are weathering the storm. They have the patrons donating and lobbying on their behalf. And they are the brands that will have a line of fans waiting for them when they reopen their doors. I fully believe that once the shutdown is over, there will be an outpouring of support for the brick-and-mortar businesses that serve as the backbone of our communities. 

The advice we give to clients hasn’t changed. With the stimulus packages, forgivable loans, and grants being made available to small businesses, we are hoping to see that the lenders are also supporting small businesses with the tools they need to evaluate how to best utilize these funds. For example, when shops first started shutting down, several began offering curbside or delivery. Soon the trend caught on and everyone was making the offer, but not everyone was developing out a version that made sense for them. Should they have pickup all day or only for limited hours? At what volume point would they have to move from wholesale to retail purchasing, and would they still show a profit?  Is delivery or pickup the better option? Should a limited menu or services be implemented to help manage waste?

We continue to advise our clients to respond, rather than react. We advise them to use data and test out pivot offers in controlled and measured environments before going all in. What works or is trending for coffee shops doesn’t necessarily work for casual dining. It’s wise to slow down and set your course before speeding off. We tell them to grade every policy, decision, message, and offer against their core brand identity. And we tell them that every problem creates an opportunity for a brilliant blue ocean strategy yet to be discovered.

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Zahra Cruzan

Zahra Cruzan is the Founder and Chief Brand Strategist of Brand Author, a brand development firm based in San Antonio, TX. Her boutique firm specialises in creating custom franchise models and creating...