Authenticity is a buzzword that's been so overused in marketing that it has nearly lost all meaning. But right now amid the global pandemic that is COVID-19, authenticity should be the cornerstone of any brand communications your business undertakes right now.

I’m going to voice a controversial opinion here. It’s one that I've already been raked over the coals for in certain marketing circles, but I stand by it 100%. In fact, I'm doubling down on it because these are extraordinary times which call for extraordinary vision. Here’s the deal:

This is NOT the time for selling.

Now is not the time to send out tone-deaf, opportunistic, upbeat sales offers to your stakeholders—either internally or externally.

I'm not saying this to heighten fear, but if we don't name it we can't tame it: These are scary times. Consumer behavior typically contracts amid fears, especially when those fears are existential (toilet paper hoarding notwithstanding).

This IS a time for authenticity and leadership.

Right now, the only brand messaging you should be engaged in is leadership.

Traditional marketing gurus are pushing back on this, insisting that the market has to keep going so we need to keep selling goods and services. It is true, capitalism requires a constant stream of money exchanged for those goods and services.

I believe that the best marketing is no marketing. What I mean by that is if your brand communications are thoughtful, sincere, and demonstrate both empathy and leadership, you won't have to sell sell sell. Your audience will be attracted to your leadership like a moth to the flame. Simply put, the best marketing is simply giving a damn, being real, listening and responding with sincerity.

The lowest-common denominator approach to sales-driven marketing is to learn your customer’s “pain points”, then exploit them. It’s why you’re probably seeing lots of popup ads for hand sanitizer from “brands” that didn’t exist two weeks ago. Hand-sanitizer in time time of COVID-19 is as rare as a four-leaf clover. Predatory capitalism looks for vulnerabilities in the market and then exploits them.

Every business needs to make money. Triple bottom line companies realize that business can make more than money. We can create positive environmental, social, and economic change across the globe. 

The havoc the coronavirus is wreaking on our systems, our society, and yes, our markets clearly indicates how desperately we need to not only flatten the curve of the epidemic. We also need to flatten the curve of unchecked and predatory capitalism.

Flattening the curve of predatory capitalism

I’ll say it again: all businesses need to make money and even though we are on lock-down and the market is tanking, that is still true. Thus, the marketing engine needs to keep moving.
But many companies and leaders are failing to recognize that greater sensitivity is needed with all brand communications, whether it's via email or social channels.

Authentic leadership is authority marketing.

By now, we’ve all seen the emails from every mailing list under the sun telling us "we’re here for you during this crisis". These messages are bland and ubiquitous to the point of being meaningless.
A much stronger approach to both internal and externally-facing communications is to adopt the stance of the servant leader and ask:
Of course we all need to make money. We live in a capitalist society, not an ashram. People are worried about losing their jobs and homes and paying the bills (not to mention finding ever more elusive toilet paper). They want community, connection, and caring.
Authenticity in communication for mission-driven businesses and individuals is my specialty. I help executives and business owners communicate effectively through the written word. And I can tell you with certainty that right now the most effective marketing you can do is to take the seat of the servant leader, ask what’s needed, and then speak not from your bottom line but from the bottom of your heart.

The rise of the servant leader

The term servant leader was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf, who recognized that the power-centered authoritarian leadership style so prominent in our institutions was failing on many levels. Greenleaf took an early retirement from his corporate management work to found the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, which describes the servant leader thus:

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership…shares power, puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

So, how can I help?

Small businesses will be most severely impacted by the COVID-19 market fallout. Women and minority-owned businesses will be impacted exponentially more.

Women owned businesses receive less than 3% of VC funding; for BIPOC business owners that number is only 1%. These business owners are also more likely to pay higher interest for business loans, meaning that securing the finances necessary to carry them through this difficult time could be out of reach.

I'm a small business owner myself. I'm just as nervous as anyone. but this much I know to be true: to some extent or another, we are all in the same boat. It is time to get in and start rowing.

This is a time for service and community, a time for engaging your stakeholders and audience through open, transparent dialogue. Going silent now could actually hurt your brand; people are looking for reassurance (but not platitudes). Don't be afraid to talk with your community. Tune in to what they're saying. Ask questions. Make one of them: How can we help?

To be sure, this is not the time for tone-deaf sales and marketing emails, but it is absolutely an opportunity for the servant leader to emerge and lead reverentially.

Stop selling. Start leading.

Seriously, don't try to sell anything. I know, it goes against most marketers' instincts and training. But this is no ordinary sales quota problem to solve.

Instead, listen actively. Engage your audience. Then start a dialogue. But don't do it because you think doing this now will lead to a sale later. Do it because you honestly care about your community and the wellbeing of something other than your profit margins. Center the wellbeing of your audience and they will reward you with gratitude.

Gratitude may not pay the bills, but it is a kind of currency of the soul—worth more than its weight in toilet paper during the current crisis.