In an uncertain future, here are some casino branding items to consider while planning for 2021

As casino operators, we are no strangers to business interruptions—flooding, construction, hurricanes, norovirus… you name it, we have probably experienced it.

But no interruption has had quite the same impact as the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and the ensuing pandemic. Between stay-at-home orders, the uncertainty of our own economic and physical safety, closures, and the fact that our core customer base has been declared far and wide as more susceptible to the disease, there is no denying the industry is at a point of transformation.

This period could very well be the inflection point we will look back on as the time everything changed for us as an industry and individually as marketers. There is a widespread belief that the economic and social impact of COVID-19 will require brand marketers to shift their strategies either, slightly and temporarily as some believe, or perhaps, more drastically and permanently.

Last fall, my partners at Casino Marketing Monitor (Mary Loftness and Mike Mezcka) and I launched the first comprehensive study of casino marketing in the U.S. Among the questions we asked was about branding and team member understanding of the brand. Sadly only 13 percent felt team members had a complete understanding of the brand, and 26 percent indicated there was a level of confusion among the team.

If there is anything good that has come out of this crazy time, it is the opportunity to reflect on our brands and their meaning to customers and team members and—moving forward—rebuilding the brands we steward.

According to the Bynder “2020 State of Branding Report COVID-19 Edition,” 13 percent of queried marketers believe that the pandemic will have a permanent impact on branding, while 17 percent are more optimistic and feel that the effects are only short term. However, the majority of those surveyed (57 percent) believe that COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on branding and marketing, but it will not be transformative. Additionally, one in two brand professionals sees the development of new messaging, content and campaigns in response to COVID-19 as their highest branding-related priority.

Fifty-three percent of respondents saw the development of new messaging, content and campaigns in direct response to COVID-19 as their highest branding-related priority. Fifty-two percent of those surveyed felt “somewhat concerned” about making missteps that could affect their brand image, while 27 percent are “very concerned.”

For some of us, the halfway point of the year is the time we start thinking of the next year. We look at what we did, what we learned and what we hope to do differently, but how do you plan for the months and year ahead when a “new normal” hasn’t even been established? What follows are some items to consider:

Brand health checkup: Because consumer expectations and priorities have shifted, now is the time to assess your brand health. How can your brand evolve to meet the changing needs? Formal research is my chosen way of understanding these needs, but social listening can be an excellent way to illuminate topics related to your brand and your competition. What is resonating? What is believable and not? How can you take what you learn and build upon it to improve messaging?

Intent is everything: Consider the initial intent of the brand. What was it you (or those before you) imagined it to be? How do your policies and marketing reflect it? What are the changes you can make now to refocus the brand?

Rely on the core: From a personal perspective, I can tell you one of my biggest frustrations staying at home has been the need to be around people and have fun together. For those of you who were in the casino marketing business at the end of the Great Recession, you may recall the Yankelovich study that pointed to the desire consumers had to “let go” and enjoy themselves again. Now more than ever, we have to rely on the distraction and entertainment portions of our brands.

Walking on eggshells: As marketers, we have been walking on eggshells. Before COVID-19, we had clear goals and a path to them. There were segments we were targeting for increased play or visitation (or both). There were efficiencies to be identified. Those desired outcomes have not necessarily changed, but our paths have.

The dynamic of how our customers behave has changed, and we must make an equal pivot. Our advertising has generally been designed to deliver a sense of winning and excitement. Today most advertising is focused on humanity. How can we strike a balance between maintaining a human connection while still sustaining our businesses and eliminating confusion between casinos?

Time for change: To determine the changes you might need to make, you will need to ask yourself some questions to build the appropriate brand plan.

Has your positioning shifted or does it need to change?

Have the dynamics of selecting a go-to casino changed? Is price becoming more of a factor? Were you convenient before, and perhaps now someone else has filled that position?

How have consumer options shifted? Online gaming may have been a novelty before and now holds a more relevant position. Has an online solution replaced your casino as an option? Will this shift be long-term or temporary?

Honing your message: While our informational messages have been focused (rightly so) on cleanliness and safety, we should bear in mind that these are not the messages that become memorable or motivating in advertising. Consumers are looking to make connections with brands, and Nielsen research continues to support that emotional ads perform 2.5 times better than ads based on attributes. Although I recognize that we get many opinions encouraging the use of attributes in advertising, our responsibility as stewards of the brand is to maintain an appropriate balance.

The fact is that even before COVID-19, consumers were willing to trade up to brands that could deliver safety. The difference now is that it has become more prominent. Yet concepts such as value, cleanliness, safety and service in communications tend to fall on deaf ears. People have to experience them before they believe them, but you can “sneak” them into your messages by using the images that deliver those sensibilities. It is a little like showing them rather than telling them.

The job you do: For two years now, we have enjoyed the discussion during Casino Marketing Boot Camp of “Jobs-To-Be-Done” theory. We use it to home in on brand positioning because it forces us to focus on the notion that customers hire us (or spend money with us) for a specific purpose or “job.” When we cease doing the job, they find a replacement.

Has the job customers hired us to do in January changed since then? And, how does our brand and messaging adapt to this new paradigm? How do we communicate with customers and demonstrate how we bring value to their lives?

Recovery marker: At some point, we will move back into a sales mode. This point will be our recovery marker—the moment when we will start more actively marketing and creating programs and processes that will allow customers to feel a sense of normalcy. This will be our new normal, where we can start meeting our pre-pandemic business goals.

There are reams of research that point to the long-term adverse effects of ceasing to advertise, but we cannot turn back the clock. When there is no revenue, there has to be a cut in expenses. It is time for us to move forward now. Scale up on channels that align with the behavior shifts of our customers. Consider how to integrate television (both broadcast and streaming) with digital. We have all increased our time spent with television and digital, often multi-screening as we work and play.

It is time to over-invest in existing customers—not over-invest in rewards, but rather in communications. By working through these changes, we can earn consumer trust and recover enough to thoughtfully plan for what comes next, even if we do not know quite what that means just yet.