Guest column

Houston entrepreneur shares communication tips for today's coronavirus environment

When faced with a crisis, it's essential to deliver clear, authentic messages to your target audiences. Getty Images

The reality for business owners is that everything you say matters; your words are reverberated and felt throughout the company and all of your stakeholders.

During times of crisis, your voice is amplified to the max, and people listen to every word you have to say, which is why — if not completely thought-through — your voice can breed misinformation, confusion and stress. As we face the increasing uncertainty in our community due to the spread of COVID-19, it's critical for business owners to say the right things, to the right people, that will inform and motivate, and use their presence and organization to be leaders within the community.

Practicing what we preach, we understand that as communication experts, it is our mission and responsibility during this time to help our local business community. We are putting our money where our mouth is and for the last week have been offering free communication and marketing consultation to any business in need.

So, what is top of mind to our team right now, as we work with these businesses? Besides following recommendations from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention to curb the virus's spread, companies should actively be communicating to all stakeholders about the impact COVID-19 is having or could have on operations. Here are a few dos and don'ts to get you started.

Offer valuable tips to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases, but we all know to wash our hands by now.

You have to make sure that you are communicating valuable information with internal and external stakeholders — but through your own authentic voice. Offer suggestions on how to "social distance" or use your service/product remotely.

Internal stakeholders need to understand what's hard facts, what's soft facts (opinions and feelings) and what's just hearsay. They need to understand clear expectations when working from home and employees need to feel safe, accommodated and heard. Externally, be sensitive to what your customers and the community at large are going through and update your business practices and communications accordingly.

Communication with customers can be in an email, but you can also connect through text, through an online chat, via infographics or memes on social media, or an "on-brand" (and possibly witty!) reminder on what social distance may mean.

Don't stay silent — even if you don't know everything.

Don't let others control your company's narrative. As humans, we naturally fill in gaps in communication to understand what's going on around us. Rather than letting people assume information about your business, get in front of the conversation and share real-time updates as you adjust business-as-usual.

Consider alternative ways to reach external audiences and vice versa.

What happens if the majority of your customer acquisition model is door-to-door and no one wants to open the door to a stranger, or you have a centralized call center to handle customer service complaints, but these employees are now all working from home? Now is the time to reconsider how you'll engage with your audiences and win customers.

We recommend a significant shift to digital acquisition as people are going to be spending more and more time online in the coming weeks from home and there is a ripe opportunity to stay top of mind through targeted display campaigns and send interested customers to your website.

Create a proactive plan for shut downs.

Coronavirus is still an emerging, rapidly evolving situation and we have no idea what could happen but create contingency plans and have a crisis comms plan ready to deploy. Think through possible scenarios (closures, supply limitations, employee diagnosis, etc.) and have social media posts, email blasts and internal messaging ready to deploy should worst case scenario occur.

What your business says is just as important as who says it.

A spokesperson is your organization's mouthpiece. Choosing the right person is just as important as saying the right thing. Without the right person to speak on behalf of your organization, your message could be lost — or worse, they choke.

Your spokesperson should be credible, empathetic and authoritative.


Bottom line: When faced with a crisis, it's essential to deliver clear, authentic messages to your target audiences, stay true to your brand voice and position yourself as a leader – both internally and externally. Your company will thank you later.

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Allie Danziger is the founder and president of Houston-based Integrate Agency, which focuses on digital marketing and public relations.

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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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