This study aims to identify appropriate strategies and actions adopted by business-to-business firms to cope with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
A review of business-to-business marketing responses to the COVID-19 crisis in China was conducted.
Nine marketing responses built on core business processes were classified into three categories: (1) embedded in product development management process (stretching product lines to meet urgent needs, expanding product lines to meet urgent needs and adjusting products proactively for emerging needs), (2) built on supply chain management process (coordinating suppliers to meet surging demand, migrating to digital distribution channels and solidarity with supply chain members) and (3) related to customer relationship management process (investing in advertising and promotion, cross-selling to existing customers and supporting customers).
This study contributes to the literature of marketing responses to COVID-19 by examining the cash flows effects of various marketing responses. It also contributes to the business processes based on marketing strategy framework by extending it to the crisis management context. In addition, it provides five practical suggestions for business-to-business firms to cope with the COVID-19 crisis.
Kang, J., Diao, Z. and Zanini, M.T. (2021), "Business-to-business marketing responses to COVID-19 crisis: a business process perspective", Marketing Intelligence & Planning, Vol. 39 No. 3, pp. 454-468. https://doi.org/10.1108/MIP-05-2020-0217
Emerald Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited
The spread of health crisis caused by coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the implementation of protection measures (e.g. quarantines, regional lockdowns and social distancing) to contain this pandemic have challenged the growth of global economic and business activity. In March 2020, International Monetary Fund (IMF) declared that the global economy has entered a recession and the outcome can be worse than the effects of the 2009 global financial crisis (Georgieva, 2020). Although a recovery or sizable rebound is projected in 2021 by the IMF, this unprecedented crisis has brought impacts on many business-to-business (B2B) firms of different sizes and in various industries (Cortez and Johnston, 2020). At the same time, B2B firms' managers have begun implementing contingency plans to weather through this pandemic crisis (Ritter and Pedersen, 2020).
Generating and maintaining sufficient cash flow is the primary goal of survival plans in a crisis (Kaiser and Young, 2009). However, the cash flows of many B2B firms have confronted with great challenges since the outbreak of COVID-19. In the near term during this crisis, B2B firms may face cash flow reductions due to the cancellation of orders, decreases in customer demand, interrupted domestic or international logistics and failure to fulfill orders due to the constrained production capacity (Sharma et al., 2020a; van Hoek, 2020). For the long-term after this crisis, some B2B firms, especially those small and mid-sized firms, may be exposed to the risk of cash flow volatility or discontinuity due to the removal from incumbent supply chains, customer needs change and emergence of new competitors (Crick and Crick, 2020; Habel et al., 2020). Thus, it is critical for B2B firms to promptly develop and adopt appropriate strategies, either reactively or proactively, to generate and maintain cash flows throughout this crisis.
Some studies have begun to explore the effective strategies, with different theoretical and practical focuses, which can help B2B firms respond to this crisis. For example, Cortez and Johnston (2020) suggest B2B firms focus on the four areas of digital transformation, decision-making processes, leadership and emotion and stress. Obal and Gao (2020) developed a new relationship audit template, which helps B2B firms create reliable B2B relationships to improve efficiency and profitability during the crisis. In addition, Sheth (2020a) encourages B2B firms to nurture, rather than just invest in, all of their stakeholders (e.g. employees, customers, suppliers and community). Despite these strategies are potentially beneficial to maintaining cash flows in the crisis and afterward, the possible effects of various response strategies on cash flows have not been clearly identified. This limitation impedes the selection of appropriate response strategies with expected effects on cash flows. This is a substantial problem for B2B firms because almost all response strategies require certain resource commitment, whereas such resources (e.g. financial and human resources) are usually limited in crisis (Kim and Bettis, 2014). Thus, B2B firms have to select their response strategies effectively and efficiently according to the specific cash flow management goals (e.g. cash flow acceleration, enhancement and stabilization).
This study aims to identify various marketing response strategies adopted by B2B firms to cope with the ongoing crisis and align these strategies with different cash flow effects. Specifically, drawing on the framework of analyzing the cash flow effects of marketing (Srivastava et al., 1999) and the real marketing examples from the B2B firms in China, this study proposes nine categories of marketing strategies related to three core business processes which help B2B firms accelerate, enhance or stabilize their cash flows in crisis. The reminder of this article begins with a review of relevant marketing strategies for B2B firms to improve cash flows amid this crisis. It then illustrates the methodology and each proposed marketing strategy with B2B examples in China, which is followed by an explicit discussion and conclusions.
2. Marketing and cash flow management in crisis
2.1 Cash flows in the responses to crisis
Cash flow is the income stream resulted from a firm's business activities and a key determinant of firm value (Gruca and Rego, 2005). Firm value increases as cash flows change positively, such as the speed with which cash flows are generated is accelerated, cash flows generated through its various components (e.g. higher revenues and lower costs) are enhanced and the risks associated with future cash flows (e.g. via reduction in their volatility and vulnerability) are reduced (Srivastava et al., 1997). Firms can increase cash flows with various marketing strategies and activities (Rust et al., 2004). For example, a firm can accelerate cash flows through developing and moving products faster and enhance cash flows by increasing sales volumes and/or prices and serving different customer segments (Shah et al., 2017; Srivastava et al., 1999). In addition, a firm can reduce the risk of cash flows by promoting product innovation, launching corporate social responsibility programs and increasing customer satisfaction (Gruca and Rego, 2005; Sun and Ding, 2020).
Firms which survive a crisis and thrive afterward master the delicate balance between strategies that influence cash flows differently. Some response strategies are effective in maintaining cash flows in the near term. For example, firms can adopt retrenchment strategies or even exit strategies (e.g. reduce product lines, downsize the workforce or discontinue their business activities) to cut costs and free up cash flows in response to this COVID-19 pandemic crisis (Wenzel et al., 2020). Although these response strategies are unavoidable for some firms in the short run, they may harm the growth of these firms in the long-term. The long-term oriented response strategies are often recommended and viable. For instance, emphasizing comprehensive market development (e.g. R&D and marketing), targeting new investment (e.g. plants and machinery), persevering (e.g. sustain business activities) and innovating (e.g. renew firm's strategies) are expected to generate and maintain sufficient cash flows in the medium or long(er) run (Gulati et al., 2010; Wenzel et al., 2020).
2.2 Business process based marketing strategies
Business processes are the actions that firms engage in to accomplish some business purpose or objective (Ray et al., 2004). Srivastava et al. (1999) proposed a conceptual framework, which suggested there are three core business processes in a firm – product development management process (PDM), supply chain management process (SCM) and customer relationship management process (CRM) – and that marketing strategies related to these business processes enable the firm to accelerate and enhance cash flows, as well as reduce the volatility and vulnerability of cash flows. Ramaswami et al. (2009) empirically found that marketing capabilities and strategies embedded in these three business processes were key drivers of firms' financial performance. Moreover, marketing strategies related to these business processes play an important role in determining firm performance across the business cycle; especially the effect of CRM during downturn and recession keeps strong and positive, as well as maintains beneficial during the recovery (Frösén and Tikkanen, 2016). Table 1 summarizes some of these business processes-based marketing response strategies to the COVID-19 pandemic crisis.
2.2.1 Product development management process
PDM aims to create solutions that customers need and want. In this process, firms ascertain new customer needs and design tentative new product solutions (Srivastava et al., 1999). The development of such new solutions can be technology-driven or market-driven or both (Chandy and Tellis, 1998). Market-driven innovation develops new products can fulfill key customer needs than existing products. During the crisis, firms can launch market breakthroughs innovation to meet new customer demands (Narayandas et al., 2020). Specifically, firms can explore new product lines to produce goods particularly needed in this pandemic crisis (e.g. distillers can produce hand sanitizer and disinfectants by their existing equipment) (Obal and Gao, 2020). Moreover, firms can also redesign and develop new solution prototypes. For example, restaurants can offer a new combination of precooked dishes with sides or additions which can be cooked by customers at home (Guillén, 2020).
Technology-driven innovation indicates the technology involved in a new product is different from prior technologies (Chandy and Tellis, 1998). Firms can emphasize technological breakthroughs innovation and invest digital programs that coordinate product design activities to speed up business processes (Narayandas et al., 2020; Srivastava et al., 1999). This is because digital programs (e.g. self-solve and troubleshooting system, industrial Internet monitoring platform and cloud computing) can make firms' infrastructure, systems and production process more resilient and in turn, improve the ability to response to crisis (Rapaccini et al., 2020; Sheth, 2020b).
2.2.2 Supply chain management process
SCM involves acquisition of all physical and informational inputs, as well as the efficiency and effectiveness with which they are transformed into customer solutions (Srivastava et al., 1999). First, firms can establish multiple channels to continue selling and delivering their offering in this crisis (Wang et al., 2020). For example, they can build or shift to e-commerce platforms or digital showrooms to enable buyers and sellers to complete interaction and transaction online (Cortez and Johnston, 2020; Sharma et al., 2020c). Second, firms can optimize their outbound logistics to match demand and supply (Srivastava et al., 1999). For example, B2B food service providers (e.g. small-scale farms and meicai.com) can start B2C business through shortening their supply chains and serving homebound customers directly, while their sales to restaurants and retailers plummet due to the lockdown (Guillén, 2020).
Third, firms can design work flows in product/solution assembly to avoid the uncertainly (Srivastava et al., 1999). For example, manufacturing firms (e.g. Samsung) can leverage their vast manufacturing network to realize cross-region production and avoid the risks of single sourcing (Sharma et al., 2020c). Lastly, firms can reinforce relationship, selecting and qualifying desired suppliers to achieve mutual and individual goals successfully (Srivastava et al., 1999). For example, a firm should strengthen its collaboration with the firms which have customers or distribution resources to increase efficiency and profitability (Obal and Gao, 2020).
2.2.3 Customer relationship management process
CRM incorporates all aspects of identifying customers, creating customer knowledge, building customer relationships and shaping their perceptions of the firm and its products (Srivastava et al., 1999). Cross-selling and upselling of product service offerings is a key way to manage customer relationship for firms. This COVID-19 pandemic has brought customers many significant changes (e.g. cooking at home, shopping online and becoming interested in safety, experience and comfort) in their lives; thus, firms should launch a series of offerings to satisfy customers' new habits and concerns (Guillén, 2020; Sheth, 2020b).
Developing and executing marketing programs (e.g. advertising, promotion, service and sales programs) to meet the needs of existing and potential new customers is necessary for firms in crisis (Pantano et al., 2020; Srivastava et al., 1999). For example, a firm can take a customer referral reward program to acquire both new business and customers (Wang et al., 2020). In addition, firms can leverage information technology/system for customer contact to enhance customer trust and loyalty (Srivastava et al., 1999). For instance, social media and mobile technologies can be used for dynamic buyer-seller interactions and dissemination of general information (e.g. hygiene and safety certifications) (Cortez and Johnston, 2020).
Srivastava et al. (1999) 's framework of analyzing the cash flow effects of business processes-related marketing strategies implies diverse marketing strategies for B2B firms to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. Based on this framework, this study proposes nine categories of potential marketing response strategies (see Table 2). Given the research purpose, this study further justifies these nine strategies with an analysis of real examples of B2B marketing strategies against this crisis reported in China. This method is appropriate when some results can be summarized and verified through objective and systematic categorization of qualitative data (e.g. customer comments, news reporting and documents) (Kassarjian, 1977). The content analysis method consists of multiple steps to abstract and generate some reliable results from text data (Bason and Grix, 2018). As suggested in recent studies, this study followed their similar procedures in three steps to collect, summarize and analyze B2B marketing responses to COVID-19 (e.g. Sharma et al., 2020a; Yang et al., 2020).
First, two trained marketing researchers began with the search for marketing responses reported on the mainstream media in China (i.e. cctv.com, china.com, chinanews.com, cnr.cn, people.com.cn, sina.com, sohu.com and xinhuanet.com) between January 23 (when Wuhan initiated locked down) and April 30 of 2020. The relevant examples were selected based on two criteria: (1) illustrated responses by B2B firms and (2) related to at least one of the PDM, SCM and CRM processes. Fifty-four B2B firms from multiple industries (i.e. construction, manufacturing, transportation, software and information technology and business services) were identified in this step. A full list of B2B examples and corresponding sources is available upon request. Second, each of the two researchers independently read the collected reports and abstracted the marketing responses from each report. Third, the two researchers, separately, classified each marketing response into one of the nine proposed categories of strategies based on its dominant role in the PDM, SCM or CRM process and its primary effect on the acceleration, enhancement or stabilization of cash flows. If a B2B firm reported multiple responses, they were classified separately based on their different effects on cash flows. A name was given to each category of marketing responses at the end of this step (see Table 2).
Before the two researchers started to search, read and classify these marketing responses, they were instructed to understand the business processes and the cash flow effects of marketing defined by Srivastava et al. (1999). They also kept the printed instruction on hand, to maintain their consistent understanding throughout the whole search, classify and analysis process. To ensure the reliability of the results, any disagreement in search and classification was solved based on their mutual consent. Section 4 illustrates each of these response strategies with selected real examples in China.
4. B2B marketing strategies in COVID-2019 crisis
4.1 Stretch product lines to meet urgent needs
To satisfy some urgent needs in this health crisis (e.g. healthcare equipment and information tracking systems), firms can customize relevant new products or services quickly through stretching their existing product lines into new business applications and speeding up product development process. Speeding up product development cycle and reducing time to market help accelerate cash flows. For example, some manufacturers of buses and vans, such as King Long (king-long.com), Saic Motor (saicmaxus.com) and Yutong (yutong.com), improved and upgraded their existing product lines to accelerate the production of negative pressure ambulances, health examination vehicles and medical supplies transport vehicles, which were urgently needed during this pandemic crisis. Neusoft Medical (neusoftmedical.com), a global clinical diagnosis and treatment solution provider, successfully developed and delivered the mobile CT scanning unit “Thunder God” in seven days.
This stretch strategy is often adopted when B2B firms can leverage their technologies to meet urgent or new business needs in this crisis. To reduce physicians' and nurses' discomfort of wearing masks for a long time, Pera Global (peraglobal.com) leveraged its own technology to design and produce 3D printed mask modifiers. Some IT companies offering B2B services, such as Alibaba (alibabagroup.com) and Jwell56 (jwell56.com), also implemented this strategy and quickly developed health reporting QR codes, pandemic information collection systems and work resumption review platforms.
Some emerging high technology companies also actively followed this strategy. For example, Megvii (megvii.com) and GRGBanking (grgbanking.com), two AI solution providers, quickly developed intelligent detection systems that can accurately and immediately detect body temperature and support face recognition and identity authentication when people wear facial masks, greatly reducing the possibility of virus cross-infection. UBtech (ubtrobot.com) quickly developed three intelligent service robot solutions for health and pandemic prevention, including indoor temperature measurement patrol robot (AIMBOT), outdoor intelligent pandemic prevention robot (ATRIS) and medical consultation robot (CRUZR).
Urgent business needs also arise when reopening the economy. Given the immediate needs to find new suppliers and customers to facilitate work resumption, State Grid Electronic Commerce (sgec.sgcc.com), an online distributor of electricity and electrical equipment, expedited the introduction of raw materials, industrial products and financial services into its transaction platform, helping match the supply and demand for small and medium-sized firms. Responding to the urgent needs of moving B2B sales online, HC Group (hcgroup.com), an established B2B sales service provider, accelerated the launch of its “HC Business” service, a smart B2B sales management tool that integrates the functions of opening online stores, sales leads recommendation and inquiry, sales meeting and logistic services for small and medium-sized firms.
4.2 Expand product lines to meet urgent needs
Product line expansion to provide relevant new products or services is another approach for firms to satisfy the urgent needs in this pandemic crisis and to generate additional revenue streams. These new offerings are developed based on the exploitation of firms' internal and external resources, though they are less relevant to the firms' current product lines. The higher sales and margins generated by adding new products in urgent needs help enhance cash flows. Some B2B firms with production advantage followed this strategy. For example, Bluesail (bluesail.cn), known as the “global leader in medical gloves”, expanded its scope of industrial services to produce masks. Sinopec Group (sinopecgroup.com) and Sinomach (sinomach.com) leveraged their advantages in producing raw materials, machinery design and manufacturing and collaborated to produce tons of meltblown material, regarded as the core component of face masks. BYD (byd.com) expanded its product lines quickly into disinfectants, medical devices and labor protection products and completed the R&D of mask machines in seven days and medical alcohol hand sanitizer in six days.
This strategy is also proper for B2B firms with technological advantages. For instance, Sunward (sunward.com), a major manufacturer of construction equipment, expanded to design and manufacture disposable flat face mask machines and associated fully automatic production lines, which can produce 80 to 120 masks per minute. Huawei (huawei.com) based on its accumulation in AI diagnostic technology, developed the artificial intelligence (AI)-based coronavirus CT scan analyzer and assisted physicians to detect COVID-19 in two min.
4.3 Adjust products proactively for emerging needs
Firms developed services and systems to address some emerging needs (e.g. contactless delivery, online office and digital service) with nascent technologies. These needs were emerged and reinforced during this crisis. B2B Firms that have invested in advance in innovative pilot projects can take this window of opportunity to adjust and refine their products. This strategy leads firms to keep ahead of competition and avoid losing revenues after this crisis due to falling behind market changes, thus reducing vulnerability and volatility of cash flows. JD (jd.com), an e-commerce firm, deployed delivery robots in Wuhan to complete almost half of the deliveries from one of its service stores to the hospitals and neighborhoods nearby. This trial enabled JD to test and improve its business solution to the emerging needs of contactless delivery. G7 (g7.com), a smart Internet of things platform firm, helped logistics firms monitor their vehicle operation in a real-time manner with dynamic analysis with an Internet of things method using the big data of more than 1m freight vehicles and 490 large public logistics parks. The changing condition provided G7 an opportunity to build the digital infrastructure for commercial vehicle management and to improve its intelligent service solutions for freight management.
B2B firms adopting proactive and faster prototype strategies also extended and tested their new products in the healthcare industry. For example, iFLYTEK (iflytek.com), an intelligent voice and AI firm, promoted its intelligent medical assistant to local medical institutions over 30 provinces in China, enabling them to call or send messages to local residents about the prevention of COVID-19. China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC; spacechina.com) launched its 24-h unmanned intelligent mobile pharmacy solution which integrates AI-based diagnosis and medicine dispensation functions within 65 square feet. This test marketing enabled CASC to refine its mobile pharmacy solution based on early users' experience and enter the healthcare industry with new technology-based pharmacy concept.
4.4 Coordinate suppliers to meet surging demand
The protection measures against this pandemic crisis (e.g. regional and national lockdown) interrupted supply chains, while the demand of certain products and services surge. This gap implies that firms can accelerate cash flows by coordinating suppliers to reduce order delivery time and meet such demand effectively and promptly. For example, in order to respond to the demand to build the Huoshenshan Hospital, the major makeshift hospital in Wuhan, as quickly as requested, China State Construction (cscec3b.com) coordinated its suppliers immediately, finalized the construction drawings within 60 h and completed the delivery in 10 days.
B2B firms took their resource advantages in their upstream or downstream channels to accelerate the integration of production resources in the supply chain or shorten order delivery time. Naton (naton.cn), a medical equipment manufacturer, worked closely with the largest medical chemical raw material producer in China, Sinopec Group (sinopecgroup.com), to build new production lines for masks. Although neither of the firms produced masks before this crisis, the channel coordination strategy allowed the firms to achieve face mask production volumes of 1m per day. This strategy was also adopted by Jointown Pharmaceutical Group (jztey.com), which was able to quickly deliver medicines and healthcare materials to downstream firms based on its network advantage of established nationwide suppliers.
4.5 Migrate to digital distribution channels
Market conditions and revenue streams may be disrupted. In the current analysis, distribution channel cash flows in offline channels shrank due to lockdown and social distancing measures against this pandemic crisis. Firms began to shift or emphasize online distribution channels in order to generate additional cash flows and supplement diminishing. Zoomlion (zoomlion.com), a heavy-industrial equipment manufacturing firm, actively explored the integration of live streaming on digital channels for marketing and sales, including online training camps, technical explanations and new product release. In one online live-streaming new product release, Zoomlion attracted more than 300,000 visitors and received orders of over 2000 units of equipment in 39 min. A surprising case is China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC; casic.com) which successfully sold out its $5.7m commercial carrier rocket launch service (Kuaizhou-1A) on Taobao, China's largest e-commerce platform, through Taobao live streamer Viya. Approximately five minutes after this live streaming promotion started, over 800 people have placed down payments for orders.
Confronting the challenges to offline business contact and sales during crisis, XCMG (xcmgec.com), another major construction machinery manufacturer in China, upgraded its own e-commerce platform (i.e. machmall), facilitating online customer inquiry, contract signing and payment processes. Not surprisingly, Canton Fair (cantonfair.org.cn), the largest import and export fair in China, moved completely online. This online fair offers approximately 25,000 firms an environment for negotiation and trade similar to the physical exhibition, all through a platform providing online multi-lingual translation support, display platform, cross-border e-commerce function and live stream marketing.
4.6 Solidarity with supply chain members
Supporting current suppliers and distributors throughout this crisis enables firms to reduce the volatility of future revenues due to the risk of losing supply chain members when the economy is reopened. Frequent interactions with upstream and downstream channel members are fundamental to ensure the stability of supply chains in crisis. Zoomlion (zoomlion.com) updated the status of its suppliers every day during this crisis and helped some suppliers improve their prevention measures to pandemics, thus promptly solving the raw material supply and logistics issues. YTO Group (yituo.com), a machinery manufacturing firm, assisted 168 suppliers with logistics arrangement and work resumption. Meantime, YTO adjusted distribution management to provide financial and policy support for their distributors.
Some firms decided to subsidize or incentive their channel members to weather through this crisis. SGMW (sgmw.com), a joint venture automobile firm, committed close to $2.1bn to pay its suppliers one month earlier than the contractual due date. In addition, SGMW quickly produced and sent 10m masks to its suppliers and dealers, supporting their resumption of work. Automobile manufacturers, such as China FAW Group (faw-benteng.com) and Dongfeng Passenger Vehicle (dfpv.com), supported their dealers by removing monthly sales targets/quotas, providing special funding and directly subsidizing dealers' employees. Unlike these subsidy policies, a performance based incentive mechanism was adopted by Foton Motor Group (foton.com), a commercial vehicle manufacturer, to ensure the development of its suppliers. It rewarded those suppliers who contributed to order fulfillment, while penalizing those suppliers who impeded order delivery.
4.7 Invest in advertising and promotion
Accelerating cash flows requires optimization of existing customer management processes by additional advertising and promotion to attract and motivate customer purchases. For example, YTO Group (yituo.com) promptly organized both local promotional events and online training programs (e.g. products and services introduction, maintenance tips and Q&A) for customers through live streaming on new media platforms and quickly satisfying the demand for tractors for spring plowing. Taking the opportunity of responding to pupils' negative comments and low ratings, DingTalk (dingtalk.com), an intelligent mobile office platform adopted by many schools for online teaching during this crisis, released a creative video “Beg for Your Mercy” which went viral online, thus further increasing the awareness and adoption of this application by thousands of firms.
Cause-related marketing was followed by some firms to increase public awareness of new products or services. For example, during the construction of Wuhan Leishenshan Hospital, China Mobile (10086.cn) launched its 5G-enabled live streaming, 24 h 7 days and attracted more than 100 million citizens to “supervise” the progress of this project on their mobile phones. Another case is ZTE (zte.com), a major telecommunication equipment manufacturer, assisted to live streams the Cherry Blossom Festival in Wuhan, epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, bringing viewers an immersive experience based on 5G and virtual reality technologies.
Some firms implemented price promotions to accelerate customer purchases. For example, EVOC Intelligent Technology (evoc.cn), a high-tech intelligent manufacturing firm, decided to rent, instead of sell, its equipment to some firms having financial issues with a monthly rent at only 2% of the selling price. China State Railway (china-railway.com) decided to lower the freight miscellaneous fee from March to June of 2020, which will save its customers about $54m.
Reduced or eliminated entrance fees, sometimes called Freemium, was also adopted by some firms to spur adoption and sales. WeLink (huaweicloud.com), a newly launched intelligent online office platform by Huawei, provided 1,000 free accounts for each firm user to support their video meetings during this crisis. This action resulted in an average daily growth rate of new firm users by 50% in early February. Weimob (weimob.com), a smart business and marketing service provider, followed this freemium strategy as well. It offered the “take-out” function module free to restaurants, enabling them to develop and use their own mini-apps for take-out service.
4.8 Cross-sell to existing customers
Cross-selling is an ideal strategy to augment cash flows for the firms which are able to detect customer new needs in this crisis and offer multiple products and services. It has been adopted by many B2B service firms during this crisis, such as Wechat Mini Programs (mp.weixin.qq.com) and Youzan (chinayouzan.com). These two SaaS providers added live streaming or transaction functions for merchants, thus enabling them to interact with customers from awareness to deal closing on current platforms. Toocle (toocle.com), a B2B social e-commerce platform, provided online social marketing solutions to more than 1m small and medium-size firms during this crisis. These solutions enabled firms to contact customers or suppliers, create digital business cards and make exhibitions online. Beisen (beisen.com), a human capital management platform based on cloud computing, launched contactless online recruitment solution, “No Face to Face”, helping its customers quickly adapt to online recruitment and reduce relevant costs.
Government procurement was a major source of revenue in some products and services categories, as municipalities attempted to contain COVID-19 and maintain public services. The increased government demands provided cross-selling opportunities for those firms with experience in government market. For example, responding to the decision by local government of Wuhan to build Huoshenshan and Leishenshan hospitals, two makeshift hospitals for COVID-19 treatment, Sany (sanygroup.com), XCMG (xcmg.com) and Zoomlion (zoomlion.com), three heavy machinery and equipment manufacturers, quickly arranged hundreds of construction equipment into this project. Insigma (insigmagroup.com), an integrated service provider for smart green cities with intelligent technologies, launched a series of services for local governments, such as a big data-based pandemic prevention, which enable the human resources and social security departments in Zhejiang to control the development of differential prevention measures dynamically.
4.9 Support customers
CRM strategies require finer segmentation and value proposition development for key and strategic customers. Full support to customers, such as using customer retention and loyalty programs, delivering excellent intangibles and services and making long-term price concessions, enables firms to reduce the volatility of future cash flows. B2B firms adjusted their production capacity and made every effort, though difficult, to fulfill customers' orders on time. Wuhan Iron and Steel Group (wuganggroup.cn), the largest local medical oxygen producer in Wuhan, adjusted the process parameters and kept working all day, increasing the daily supply of liquid medical oxygen to four times the original capacity. Yuchai Group (yuchai.com), the largest internal combustion engine manufacturer in China, mobilized all production lines to fulfill the increasing orders of high-performance engines during the crisis.
Various supporting policies and programs to merchants were adopted by some e-commerce platforms. For example, Ctrip (ctrip.com), an online travel agency, initiated an around $142m worth of partnership support program for the merchants who sell air tickets, hotels and tourism services on its platform, through reducing the commission and refunding fees. In order to relieve the financial stress on small and medium-sized merchants, Alibaba (alibabagroup.com) extended its free “zero-account period” services (i.e. merchants can receive payment before consumers confirm the delivery) to the end of June in 2020 and helped them improve their digital infrastructure.
5. Implications for B2B managers
5.1 Avoid myopia of marketing and cash flows in a crisis
Although marketing strategy and activities are vital to improve cash flows in a crisis, ironically, cutting marketing budgets is the primary measure taken by some firms confronting short-term cash flow issues. Instead of this myopic view of marketing and cash flows, a proactive and ambitious firm tends to unleash the power of marketing in accelerating, augmenting and stabilizing cash flows during a crisis through impelling marketing department to work much closer with other departments, in order to gain competitive advantage afterward. It is advised that B2B firms promptly incorporate market insights into their product development, procurement, sales and customer services responses to this pandemic crisis. For example, adding new product line highly demanded (Marketing Strategy 4.2) or switching to digital distribution channels (Marketing Strategy 4.5), if resources allow, can mitigate the plunge of cash flows. In addition, if the offerings of a B2B firm are in demand, adverting and promotion to attract new customers (Marketing Strategy 4.7) helps accelerating cash flows.
5.2 Rapid response to new customer needs through innovation and new offerings
Demand uncertainty is the primary challenge to B2B firms in this pandemic crisis. B2B customers may have some new needs, such as protection equipment in factories and offices, online office, video conference, digital infrastructure, distant collaboration and online transaction system, though they may delay or cancel current orders. Given the surge of demand of these products and services, B2B marketers should predict and respond quickly through cross-selling activities (Marketing Strategy 4.8), thus generating new revenue streams for firms. If these products and services are not in the existed offering portfolio, B2B marketers should, if possible, collaborate with product development department to divert their current technologies and products into the emerging business applications (Marketing Strategy 4.1) or work closely with procurement department to organize the supply of those offerings (Marketing Strategy 4.4). These two strategies enable B2B firms to accelerate cash flows based on their current business models.
5.3 Don't assume that interfirm relationships will remain stable
A B2B firm should recognize the symbioses with its outside stakeholders in a crisis. This pandemic crisis might have disturbed the interfirm relationships of some B2B firms with their suppliers, distributors and customers. These relationship equities may disappear after this crisis if B2B marketers fail to maintain those relationships appropriately, though they are the market-based assets of the firms and accumulated by long-term marketing efforts. Some of the suppliers and distributors of a B2B firm may fail or exit due to drained cash flows, while some quality customers may be taken over by other competitors if this firm fails to deliver offerings on time. Thus, besides keeping closer contact with interfirm network members during this crisis, B2B firms should stand together with them to weather through this crisis, either by providing financial support (Marketing Strategy 4.6) or by fulfilling orders on time (Marketing Strategy 4.9), albeit at even higher cost.
5.4 Anticipate a changing world with better offerings
A lesson from this pandemic crisis to B2B firms is to be prepared for a changing world with uncertainties. The business application of emerging information and communication technologies (e.g. AI, big data and 5G) has been accelerated during this crisis. Both B2B firms and customers also have started to recognize the needs of digital transformation. Thus, B2B marketers should be proactive to test and adjust new business technologies and models (Marketing Strategy 4.3), promote the application of new technologies in business (Marketing Strategy 4.7) and engage in digital transformation in business communication, transaction, delivery and service (Marketing Strategy 4.5).
5.5 Build on firm's strengths for marketing strategy formulation
When formulating marketing strategies in this crisis, B2B firms should examine their strengths in PDM, SCM or CRM and identify one or several potential ways of accelerating, enhancing or stabilizing cash flows with new market insights. For example, stretching product lines to meet urgent needs (Marketing Strategy 4.1) requires a firm's quick adaption of its technologies in PDM, while migration to online channels (Marketing Strategy 4.5) entails a firm's digital infrastructure in SCM. Highly engaged customers in SCM are necessary for cross-selling to customers (Marketing Strategy 4.8). In addition, the strategies to support supply chain members (Marketing Strategy 4.6) and customers (Marketing Strategy 4.9) are contingent on the availability of financial resources in the firm.
6. Conclusion and discussion
The outbreak and rapid spread of COVID-19 have caused great challenges to B2B firms. This study identifies nine B2B marketing strategies against this pandemic crisis in China. Based on these identified strategies, this study proposes five suggestions for B2B marketers in this crisis.
6.1 Theoretical contributions
First, this study contributes to the literature of marketing responses to COVID-19 by aligning marketing strategies with their expected effects on cash flows. The nine B2B marketing strategies proposed in this study addresses the differential effects of marketing responses from three core business processes (i.e. PDM, SCM and CRM) on accelerating, enhancing and stabilizing cash flows.
Second, this study enriches the literature stream of marketing strategies to cope with this pandemic crisis from business process perspective. Recent studies have suggested various response strategies in marketing innovation (e.g. Wang et al., 2020), B2B relationship management (e.g. Obal and Gao, 2020) and sales force management (e.g. Sharma et al., 2020b). This study extends the business processes based on marketing strategy framework to the crisis management context and suggests that this framework is valid for B2B firms to formulate marketing strategies in crisis.
6.2 Implications for future research
First, future research should explore the impact of new types of collaborations emerged in this crisis. Some B2B firms started temporary collaborations, such as expanding product lines through partners' production resource (Marketing Strategy 4.2), cooperation with suppliers to meet surging demands (Marketing Strategy 4.4) and launching advertising and promotion programs with the support of other firms (Marketing Strategy 4.7), to cope with COVID-19 crisis. However, it is unclear how these temporary collaborations will affect B2B firms in long-term. Therefore, future research should explore whether the competitive advantages (e.g. intellectual property and relationship network) of a B2B firm will be diluted or strengthened through temporary collaborations.
Second, future research should explore the overall impacts of new digital technologies on B2B firms. The COVID-19 crisis encouraged B2B firms to launch pandemic prevention and control systems based on digital technologies (Marketing Strategy 4.1 and 4.2) and adjust big data-based products to meet emerging needs (Marketing Strategy 4.3 and 4.8). Despite these new technologies can improve firms' operational efficiency and quality, they may also generate some social concerns (e.g. data privacy). Therefore, it is an important topic for future research to study how firms make use of new digital technologies appropriately.
Third, future research should rethink the roles of a B2B firm in its community. To cope with COVID-19 crisis, some B2B firms nurtured their stakeholders instead of only seeking for economic interests. For example, some B2B firms initiated some programs to control the pandemic (Marketing Strategy 4.1, 4.1, 4.3 and 4.4) and support their stakeholders (e.g. competitors, suppliers and customers) (Marketing Strategy 4.6 and 4.9). B2B firms have played multiple roles in crisis. Hence, future research can explore how B2B firms recognize their new roles in the community after the crisis.
This study has several limitations. First, this study only focused on the positive effects of B2B marketing strategies on cash flows from the business process perspective, though B2B firms can also leverage or integrate financing strategies, human resource management strategies, operation management strategies and corporate social responsibility actions to survive in this crisis. Second, this study only investigated the B2B marketing strategies reported in China, though China was first hit by outbreak of COVID-19 and China's economy is rebounding, which offered a proper research context. Third, this study did not collect empirical data and use quantitative indictors (e.g. sales, profitability and market share) to measure the real impact of these marketing strategies. Finally, this study did not compare marketing strategies across industries though both B2B manufacturing and B2B services firms were included. Thus, B2B marketers should be cautious of the applicability of these proposed strategies.
Selected researches on the marketing responses to COVID-19 crisis
|Study||Context||Marketing responses in PDM process||Marketing responses in SCM process||Marketing responses in CRM process|
|Cortez and Johnston (2020)||B2B firms||–|
|Guillén (2020)||–||(1)Changing product combination||(1)Reposition the brand|
|Narayandas et al. (2020)||Chinese firms||(1)Find new ways to collaborate||(1)Stitch together solutions to address emerging and previously unrecognized customer needs|
|Obal and Gao (2020)||B2B firms||(1)Explore possibilities of producing new product lines||–|
|Pantano et al. (2020)||Retailers||–||(1)Rethinking agile retailing|
|Rapaccini et al. (2020)||Italian Manufacturing firms||(1)Accelerate digital programs|
Develop novel offerings
|(1)Empower the skills of service agencies and subsidiaries|
|Sharma et al. (2020c)||–||–||(1)Launching additional services to maintain customer relationships|
|Sheth (2020a)||B2B firms||–||(1)Become a better customer in supply chains|
(1)Modernize IT technology
|(1)Account managers become trusted advisors|
|Sheth (2020b)||–||(1)Be more resilient||(1)Supporting customers' new habits|
|Sigala (2020)||Tourism firms||(1)Redesigning experiences||–||(1)Promoting their hygiene certifications|
|Wang et al. (2020)||–||(1)Revitalizing existing business through new business||(1)Use user base to develop new business|
|This study||Chinese B2B firms|
Marketing strategies built on core business processes for B2B firms in crisis
|Effects on cash flows||Core business process|
|Product development management process||Supply chain management process||Customer relationship management process|
|Accelerating cash flows||1. Stretch product lines to meet urgent needs|
Examples: King Long; Saic Motor; Yutong; Neusoft Medical; Pera Global; Alibaba; Jwell56; Megvii; GRGBanking; Ubtech; State Grid Electronic Commerce; HC Group
|4. Coordinate suppliers to meet surging demand|
Examples: China State Construction; Naton; Sinopec Group; Jointown Pharmaceutical Group
|7. Invest in advertising and promotion|
Examples: YTO Group; DingTalk; China Mobile; ZTE; EVOC Intelligent Technology; China State Railway; Huawei; Weimob
|Enhancing Cash Flows||2. Expand product lines to meet urgent needs|
Examples: Bluesail; Sinopec Group; Sinomach; BYD; Sunward; Huawei
|5. Migrate to digital distribution channels|
Examples: Zoomlion; CASIC; XCMG; Canton Fair
|8. Cross-sell to existing customers|
Examples: Wechat; Youzan; Toocle; Beisen; Sany; XCMG; Zoomlion; Insigma
|Reduce risk (Volatility and vulnerability of cash flows)||3. Adjust products proactively for emerging needs|
Examples: JD; G7; iFLYTEK; Optic-Electric; CASC
|6. Solidarity with supply chain members|
Examples: Zoomlion; YTO Group; SGMW; China FAW Group; Dongfeng Passenger Vehicle; VOLVO; Foton Motor Group
|9. Support customers|
Examples: Wuhan Iron and Steel Group; Yuchai Group; Ctrip; Alibaba
Note(s): This table was adapted from Srivastava et al. (1999)
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The authors acknowledge the financial supports from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 71772059).