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The COVID-19 Era Calls for a New Approach to Business Development

As middle-market dealmaking has slowed drastically, private equity and investment banking firms are in need of evolved approaches to business development, marketing and communications.

Joanne Verkuilen
The COVID-19 Era Calls for a New Approach to Business Development

Being located in the Pacific Northwest—the initial epicenter of the U.S. COVID-19 outbreak—the team at Seattle-based investment bank Cascadia Capital acted quickly to provide value by sharing their real-time perspectives on the pandemic’s impact to businesses, M&A and capital markets through thought leadership communication.

“As uncertainty related to COVID-19 accelerated, we thought it would be useful for us to communicate what we were seeing, feeling and experiencing,” says Cascadia Capital CEO Michael Butler. “Our desire was to give a view from the ‘front lines.’ We believe knowledge is power, and decisions are best made using the most complete information available. Our goal is to help our clients think about how to manage their businesses against this backdrop of uncertainty.”

Their communication was timely, decisive, thoughtful and informative, and the ongoing response is immense. Business leaders are hungry for this kind of information from trusted experts, and Cascadia is delivering.

Since their initial communication, the firm has shared additional COVID-related articles focused on specific subsectors, including perspectives from their Food, Beverage & Agribusiness and Business Services teams. Cascadia has presented their views on M&A as a key participant on a webinar for PE professionals and spoken to media outlets about what they are seeing in the market.

This pandemic has brought the true nature of their profession to the forefront—part consultant, part therapist, part financial expert. The best investment bankers are, simply put, trusted advisers for business leaders.

Smart Ideas for an Evolving M&A Landscape

As middle-market dealmaking has slowed drastically, or in many cases, halted, private equity and investment banking firms are in need of evolved approaches to business development, marketing and communications to all stakeholders.

Middle Market Growth Editor-in-Chief Kathryn Mulligan summarizes MiddleM’s 6 business development tactics.

Alongside Cascadia Capital, other MiddleM Creative clients are leaning into the middle-market slowdown and investing in enhanced content generation activities, launching brand-building initiatives and making the nuanced business development strategy adjustments required in this time of sensitivity and extreme social distancing.

Following are six BD tactics we recommend and are working on with our clients as they pivot their strategies to address the new realities of M&A.

The Real Risk is Staying Silent: Firms deeply understand the concept of risk and reward when it comes to investments, but this concept is often lost when thinking about marketing approaches. Some perceive sharing perspectives during a crisis as a risk and opt to “play it safe.” Our clients are seeing that sharing thought leadership reaps rewards—the real risk is staying silent and being overlooked in favor of firms that are willing to speak up.

When done well, thought leadership content builds trust and inspires action. Nuanced clarification of broader M&A market trends, and especially sector-specific COVID-19 commentary, are generating meaningful dialogue for our clients. This is also a great time to collaborate or co-author with intermediaries or channel partners, broadening the expertise shared and the distribution audience. Middle-market compliance professionals are also generally more amenable to this approach than one might think.

Media Outlets Want Your Perspective: Real-time, sector-specific and M&A-related coverage associated with COVID-19 is a deep well of opportunity for firms during this time. Participating in media opportunities during times of crisis not only helps position firms as a source for informed content, but can also further establish them as true, trusted advisers.

Flying under the radar is ill-advised, especially when reporters are in need of experts to comment on current events. MiddleM Creative clients like Enhanced Healthcare Partners and Kian Capital are seeing placements in top-tier publications because they are willing to share honest perspectives on the current environment. Leaders who provide meaningful information during a crisis will be trusted on the other side.

Don’t Social Distance from Social Media: While we aren’t running into networking contacts at coffee shops or setting up in-person meetings with prospects, connecting on social media is more important than ever. If firms are not currently leveraging the engagement opportunities on LinkedIn, they need to establish their presence quickly.

All firms should pause any automated and/or overtly sales-oriented posts and focus explicitly on adding value for their audience. Now is the time for M&A professionals to seize the opportunity to share their insights and sector expertise. Posting relevant content with eye-catching graphic elements will spark engagement and increase company page followers, leaving a lasting positive impact on marketing efforts in the future as well.

Organize Your Digital Contact Universe: When it is time to resume a more direct approach to business development outreach, firms with clean and actionable customer relationship management systems will hit the ground running faster than their peers. This is an excellent time to clean up your database and complete data enrichment, architecture adjustments, reporting setup and list gathering.

Tighten Brand Messaging and Design: The post-COVID-19 era will be an even more digital world, and investment in digital marketing, graphic design and branded content will offer firms an advantage in standing out among a crowded field of competitors looking for deal flow. As the market stabilizes, firms with refreshed messaging, materials and updated websites will be ready to tackle business development opportunities.

New Environments Call for New Approaches: Taking into consideration our new environment’s potentially lasting impacts on M&A, we are working with clients to communicate the new strategies they have developed as a result. We are currently working with one of our private equity clients to brand and market a new offering aimed at long-term, flexible investments to aid companies in this uncertain environment. Other clients are setting up virtual conferences and online sector-specific small group networking sessions.

Firms should consider how they need to shift their strategies to better meet client and company needs. Those who think creatively will end up ahead.

Prioritize and Take Action

The key to successfully adapting business development and marketing strategies during this time is to lean into opportunities, be as flexible as possible and communicate quickly and often. Prospects will appreciate the expertise firms offer and remember their willingness to take on a leadership role during this time of crisis.

Once the initial triage period is complete and companies shift their focus toward the future, M&A opportunities will reappear, albeit in somewhat altered forms compared with the deal environment we were in just months ago. Firms who use this time to share insights, strengthen their brands and organize their systems and teams for forthcoming opportunities will come out ahead.


Joanne Verkuilen is the founder and managing partner of MiddleM Creative, which offers a full suite of marketing, business development and public relations support for middle-market investment banks and private equity firms, as well as PE portfolio companies.