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How to Keep Sane & Keep Selling Through Covid Madness

In my previous life, I would spend my working days advising on, and building marketing plans for companies of all sizes, shapes, and colours. Although that life is now far, far behind me, the way people market themselves within the cake industry, is something I can't help but notice.

I don't often write about it though - but as it's such a crazy time and I've had a few emails asking for a bit of advice, so I thought it might be worth writing this. If it helps one person, then it was worth doing.

First off, I say some things in this article that may come across as negative – but I hope when you read through, you will see that they are not meant as a criticism, nor a judgement - they are just observations and hopefully (for some) will provide a much-needed confidence boost and help keep you selling through these difficult days.

There is no secret sauce when it comes to marketing your cake business – don’t we all wish there were? But there are things that it is very wise to avoid.

This article is about one of those things, along with some tips about how to steer well clear of it and keep focused and positive.

so what's going on?:

From a marketing perspective, the pandemic has really changed how companies are communicating and overall, it has been a positive change. We have certainly seen more personality and humour from many of the big businesses, along with a generally more informal approach to messaging and tone of voice. Their aim: to keeping the ball rolling and the conversation going with their customers - even though many have been unable to trade.

However, not all the changes have been so positive... It seems a rather strange trend has developed in the cake industry (and possibly in other industries too). In my head, I call it sympathy marketing, but let me explain...

When lockdown hit, cakers were immediately affected (some in the exceedingly long term). Celebrations were postponed, markets shut, coffee shops closed, cake classes cancelled, subscription sites suffered falling memberships. Yes, it really was a total disaster for pretty much all of us.

The advice to cakemakers from the cake schools, magazines and bloggers was to find other ways to make money, and gave examples of what this could be (depending on which part of the industry you worked in). On the whole, I think most (not all) of this advice was sound. Many took these recommendations - and did what they could to keep the ends meeting, and I have nothing but respect for those who did. I had to do it myself - I know how hard it is.

But here's the rub, the way in which some cake businesses went about then selling these new or revised products, was, to be brutal, pretty cringey.

There were (and still are) cake business owners staring sadly down at the camera of their mobiles, often in a strange half-light (to add to the mood I guess?), bottom lip quivering and twisting their hair distractedly, whilst pouring out their hard luck stories to anyone on social media who was prepared to listen.

In addition, these business owners also wrote lengthy posts about how unfair it was that their business was in trouble. The tone of these posts was full-on woe-is-me and were often concluded by them asking their followers to purchase from them, based on the fact they were struggling for money.

A small reality check is needed here (I mean it really is):

- Using methods like this to make money is the quickest way to a serious loss of credibility.

- Do these business owners really think potential customers will take them or their business seriously when they hear this sort of message?

- Guilt-tripping people into buying from you is not, in any way, a good idea.

There is an obvious and much-needed line between what's professional and what's personal - don't step over it. It's fine to share you worries and troubles with your friends - but don't be tempted to try and get sympathy as a way of making sales... please!

some thoughts around this :

If you have created new products or services because of the crisis – then why wouldn't you market them in the same way you would have before it hit?

Whether your products are about value, quality, exclusivity or anything else – why did some of us decide to throw all the good work we have done around USPs under the bus - and decide to go for the sympathy vote instead?

Possibly the answer, is that many of us didn't have the same confidence in our ‘lockdown products’ as we did in our ‘pre-lockdown products’.

To give an example, there was a rush of celebration cake makers, offering products such as afternoon tea boxes, quarantine cakes, tray bakes, cake pops etc.

On the upside, many looked great; freshly baked and mouth-watering. However, products like this are of course a few paces back from the bright, beautiful, and often highly artistic creations that many of us are used to making on a regular basis. This would naturally have a knock-on effect when it comes to the creator's confidence in selling these items. It’s fair to say, that many of us are well out of our comfort zone on this one.

Sadly, on the downside, some looked scruffy, poorly packaged, unappetising and were photographed in a devil-may-care fashion, that was not going to have people clamouring to spend their hard-earnt cash.

It was obvious in these instances, that no product development time had been given to what was on offer. It was a (self-imposed) example of one of the things that us cakers rail against most when it comes to customers – essentially it was a rush job – and we all know how much trouble they can cause.

It’s worth noting, that it was in these types of cases where I witnessed sympathy marketing being used to its fullest. It wasn’t pretty my friends.

To sum up:

Be aware that making sales this way will have a very limited lifespan, and is more likely to leave a bad taste in the mouth (no pun intended) of your customer in the long-term.

Many people have suffered such severe hardships of late, that people trying to garner sympathy to sell, is going to become an irritation VERY quickly. And no one enjoys being guilted into parting with their cash.

In addition, social media being what it is, this tone of communication will likely fuel negative comment from others, far more than a positive and considered form of messaging.

On the bright side, restrictions are starting to ease but it will take time for the order books to fill up again and there is obviously a risk of further lockdowns. So, in the meantime here are:

5 tips to help you sell during COVID madness

1. Be positive and part of the recovery:

People want to start feeling better and more positive. They don’t want to keep hearing all your personal and business problems. I think we all feel quite low at the moment - it's been a turbulent time.

But making an effort to be part of the feel-good factor, will go a long way - and in turn create more conversations and sales, than if you are constantly moaning about how bad things are. Negativity is not going to help a business grow.

2. Develop products that fit well with your existing values: Spend time thinking about the product you are putting together and communicate this with your potential customers. Talk about the planning and the process of what has gone into this new service or product. Get them involved with what’s on offer, so they will be interested to find out more.

You would have done this before lockdown – so don’t change that habit now, it’s more important than ever!

3. Package and photograph your products with care: In the main, we are selling treats… indulgences – something to make people feel happier! It’s a great time to be selling something like this because, after any form of hardship, a lot of us feel we deserve a treat of some kind (and we do). It's not something we need, it's something we want.

If you are trying to get this kind of emotional response from someone, a beautifully packed item, photographed well and looking delicious, is naturally going to be essential to kick-starting this sort of reaction… so take the time to get it right!

4. Don’t be tempted to sell cheap:

Whilst I understand the logic of keeping the pennies rolling in, as cake makers, getting non-cakies to understand the cost of what we do is hard enough. There are always knock-on effects to selling cheap; one of the most problematic being that some customers may feel short-changed (or worse, ripped off), when things settle down and you start charging your normal rates. Again, this can fuel negative comment on review or social media sites, and then you have a whole new headache to contend with.

So think in the longer-term when it comes to pricing your products. For example:

- Add value, rather than drop prices.

- Reward customer loyalty, rather than offering discounts wholesale. - Create special offers for multiple purchases.

Remember, your skills have not decreased because of a virus – therefore, why should your prices drop? If you are turning out great products that you have spent time, money and care creating and perfecting (see points 2&3) – the sort of customers you want and want to keep, will appreciate this.

5. Keep talking:

I haven’t seen any of my students since March – but I’ve spoken to more of them during lockdown than I ever have before. This is mainly because, although I have still been busy, I have had greater control over how to apportion sections of my time. And it has been time well spent - just catching up with them and talking about what we are going to do when the restrictions are lifted.

Of course, we all have a moan – it’s therapeutic, but mostly we laugh and keep each other cheerful. From my perspective, my students invest their time and money with me – and just because times are hard, I’m not just going to hunker down and ignore them until I am ready to start selling to them again.

So keep the communication channels open and be positive. :)


As one of my lovely cake friends posted the other day:

Tough Times Don't Last But Tough People Do

Keep well and keep sane. This won't go on forever.

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