How to approach your summer marketing when summer is cancelled

Normally, by this time of year, summer product sales would already be in full effect. Then around the Fourth of July, summer products would give way to back-to-school products. (Which, in turn, would give way to Halloween products around the time school starts.) This year? Not so much. Because of almost universal stay-at-home and lockdown orders around the globe, the timeline on seasonal products is looking very different than normal. 

In other words: For once, the summer sales season may actually happen over summer itself.

If you got a marketing email today from a company promoting its coolers by showing a bunch of people hanging out at the beach, what would you think? Your first thought probably would not be, “What a great cooler, it’s helping those people really have fun at the beach.” It would be, “Oh, that’s one of those beaches that really should be closed and those people are putting themselves and countless others at risk.” Based on the statistics, people understand the need for continued social distancing—so the majority of your customers are most likely seeing everything through the lens of the pandemic. 

Right now isn’t the time to go about business-as-usual with your summer marketing. Imagery of summer activities like cookouts, beach parties, family gatherings, or even kids playing on playgrounds is just a reminder of what we don’t have right now and many of us won’t have this summer. 

In this article, we’ll go over some tips for keeping your summer marketing effective and appropriate for the unique circumstances of this current global situation.  

1. Show how your products will make this particular, unique summer better

While some areas may attempt to go back to “life as usual” during the summer, in many parts of the U.S. and around the world, summer will resemble life right now: Smaller groups (if any groups at all), lots of immediate family time, virtually no air travel, more indoor time, and little to no beach time (at least not guilt-free).

Think about how your target customers will likely spend their summer. Then figure out how your products can enhance what they’re doing. The Bluetooth speaker you marketed last year as being great for the beach? Now it’s great for the backyard. The linen shirt that someone would wear to a party? Now they’re wearing it at a picnic with their significant other and kids. 

Here’s an example of an email from the high-end clothing retailer Childrensalon. A few months ago, were they planning to frame the marketing around their children’s summer line to focus on wearing the clothes at home? Almost certainly not. But now they’ve quickly adapted to the reality of the current situation and repositioned the clothing as being good for “exploring the garden, climbing trees, or simply relaxing at home” with edits, such as Lazy Days.

Children Salon markets its summer clothes differently because of social distancing.

The structure of your marketing emails and social media promotions won’t deviate too far from normal: You’re still showing off your products, still demonstrating their unique value proposition, and still making it clear to your customers how those products will enhance their lives. The content, however, has to be different. This summer requires a different type of product photography and a different framing of your products. You may even find yourself promoting different products than you’d initially intended because of behavioral shifts. 

2.  Rely on content to help position your products for the summer

Not every product makes sense for the summer. Not every product jumps out as something that will meet a customer’s immediate needs right now. That’s where good content comes in. Show (through pictures) and explain (through copy) how your products will enhance your customers’ lives during this unusual summer.

Here’s a great example of storytelling from Kenny Flowers, a Hawaiian shirt company. Apparently, the founders were supposed to get married in Maui this spring, but had to postpone their wedding because of the pandemic. They tell that personal story in this email, but not in a sad way, just a way that’s humanizing and engaging.

The founders of Kenny Flowers share their personal story in this email.
Via: Milled.

Then they announce they’re still rolling out the new prints they made for their wedding. Because they told their personal story before going into the sales announcement, the launch feels like something they’ve earned the right to do—it doesn’t feel like they’re forcing a situationally-incongruous product on a market that doesn’t need it.

Step two of a marketing pivot: Explain the reasoning behind a current release.
Via: Milled.

And finally, they give suggestions of how customers can still live it up in Hawaiian shirts, even right now. (“Sit back, crack a cold one, and update your Zoom background to a tropical locale.”) It’s an extremely effective use of content to tell a story, sell a product, and explain how a product that’s not an organic fit for the current situation can actually make life a little better.

Using email marketing to bring relevance to the current situation.
Via: Milled.

This summer is also a case where user-generated content can tell the story for you. Look for social media posts where your customers are showing off ways to use your product during this particular summer, then feature those posts on your own social media, in your marketing emails, or on your blog. There’s a strong element of social proof there—let your best customers demonstrate how your products will make this summer better. 

Finally, beyond your summer marketing, this is a good time to focus on your email content overall. Customer spending may be down for you right now—it’s down for a lot of businesses. As a result, it’s crucial to try to stay the course, so your customers will come back when we emerge on the other side of all this and spending starts to rebound. Put a focus on content-oriented emails—emails that provide something interesting, informative, and entertaining to customers first and try to sell something as a secondary consideration. Those emails will help you keep your subscriber base engaged, so they’ll stay on your list and continue having your brand top-of-mind—which will be big assets when they’re ready to spend some money again.

3. People will need traditional summer products later than usual

As we said in the opening of this article, the schedule around summer marketing looks like it will be quite different than usual this year. In past years, stores would push to sell swimsuits and beach toys in the spring—by August, they’d be moved to the clearance rack.

This email advertising mega-clearance at Swimsuits For All went out on July 14th last year.

Last year, swimsuits were on clearance by mid July.

This summer? It’s entirely possible people will really want summer products late into the summer, as more public spaces cautiously re-open and/or the trajectory of the viral spread slows to the point where people are more confident around crowds.

Keep an eye on the developing situation in the areas where your customers live, and market your products accordingly. If beach season is starting on August 1st, advertise your beach products in late July and through mid-to-late August.

4. It’s ok to postpone a launch or campaign

You may have a new product or products you were planning to sell this summer. Or you may have planned a major email campaign for the summer on your email marketing calendar. It can be hard to postpone or cancel—after all, you’ve put in a lot of work and probably a bunch of money, and you really want to stick to your airtight plan. But right now, major plans are changing in unprecedented ways. The Olympics, March Madness, the Masters, Wimbledon, and countless other gigantic sporting events have been cancelled. Tons of major movie releases have been pushed to 2021. Even Oktoberfest, San Diego Comic-Con, Burning Man, and the Scripps National Spelling Bee are off. The lesson that applies to your business is: It’s ok to postpone your launch until a later date, especially if you think it could yield much better results during a more “normal” time.

You won’t be the only one. 64 percent of marketers say they’ve already held back an advertising or marketing campaign until later this year—and 44 percent have indefinitely cancelled one.

Another survey found only one in seven marketing campaigns are now going on exactly as planned. This isn’t the time to roll out something big, knowing you won’t be able to maximize the results, simply because it’s on the calendar.

Instead—consider working on something more relevant instead. Around one in four marketers have launched a new campaign in the past few months they hadn’t previously scheduled.

Oscar Mayer, which would normally focus on big summer cookouts of family and friends, made a quintessential COVID-19 marketing pivot—and put together a marketing campaign all about social distancing. They scrapped whatever summer marketing plans they had in place and created the #FrontYardCookout—encouraging groups of people to have their own socially distanced cookouts while their neighbors do the same. Oh, and they’ve also tied the promotion into donating food to Feeding America (which we’ll get into more in the next section of this article).

Oscar Mayer pivots to the "front yard cookout."

If you do decide to go forward with your summer campaign, it’s still wise to adjust it to show you’re not being willfully oblivious to your customers’ reality.

Here’s how sustainable clothing brand Outerknown handled their summer product launch. It’s clear they didn’t want to postpone all the way to next summer, but they changed their imagery (every picture with a person shows them doing something solo) and addressed the current situation head-on. As a result, their summer launch doesn’t feel tone deaf; they’ve reframed it so they could go ahead with their launch by giving it proper context.

5. Tie your product to a charity

It’s a great idea to tie your marketing into a charity right now. (And there are, of course, reasons that extend beyond the marketing benefits to do so—little things like “healing the world” and such.)

By tying into a charity, you can help mitigate the “sales-y” aspect of your summer product marketing; rather than coming off like you’re selling a product that your customers may not need right now, your sale has another, more admirable purpose.

Here’s what Bea Iturregui, VP of brand partnerships at the marketing agency Cycle, has found with charitable tie-ins to summer products in the COVID-19 era:

Consumers are shopping right now, but if the brand or influencer is doing something that is for the betterment of humanity, that’s something consumers are drawn to. If shoppers are looking at a swimsuit right now and one is donating 10 percent to charity versus another one that is not, most seem to be opting for the one donating.

Here’s an example from men’s clothing brand Rhone, which is promoting its new summer arrivals on its eCommerce site—and its charitable initiative.

Rhone promotes its summer line and its charitable initiative.

6. Give your automations a once-over

There’s always a question of how often you should update your automated emails—and, well, now’s a really good time. While you may not want to add a seasonal summer motif to your automations considering the circumstances, you should take a look at your copy to make sure it’s all still accurate now and going forward.

Does your welcome series promote activities that aren’t happening right now or this summer? Do you need to adjust the shipping times you’re quoting in your transactional emails? Has your returns policy changed? Should you send replenishment reminders earlier than normal because of supply chain, warehouse, or shipping lags? Do all your emails contain hours for your physical stores that aren’t currently accurate?

For this summer, and beyond, it’s important that your emails reflect the current situation with your brand so you’re not sending out incorrect information or unintended-but-tone-deaf messages.

Key takeaways

This is not going to be a traditional summer—in fact, it’ll probably be the least traditional summer of our lifetimes. As a result, traditional summer marketing techniques won’t apply.

As you’re working on your marketing for the coming months, there are some key ways you’ll need to adapt and change to perform better (and not misfire) in the current era.

  • Show how your products will make this summer better. The ways your products would make a normal summer better may very well be different than the ways they’d enhance this unique summer. Make sure your product positioning, imagery, and copy reflect life as it currently stands.
  • Lean on your content. If it’s not obvious how your products fit into a pandemic summer, use your content to tell a story to help your customers understand their role. And also consider scaling up your content-driven newsletters in general to keep customers engaged until sales begin to bounce back.
  • Summer will happen later this year. Normally, brands advertise and sell summer products in the spring—and have them on clearance by July and August. But this year, as public spaces and gatherings potentially open up later in the summer, customers will want and need to buy those products deeper into the season.
  • It’s ok to postpone a campaign. The majority of marketers have held back an advertising campaign already since the pandemic began. So it’s ok to postpone or totally readjust a campaign or product launch you had planned.
  • Tie in to a charity. Customers are more receptive to brands that give some portion of their sales to charities right now.
  • Update your automations. This is a great time to go over your automated emails to make sure they reflect the current mood—and also the current state of your business when it comes to things like shipping windows.
Sam Greenspan
Sam Greenspan is a Marketer at Jilt based out of Southern California. He's a veteran blogger as well as an author, board game inventor, and recovering t-shirt collector.

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