I was happy to be involved in Strategic Marketing USA, a Reuters Event that drew a virtual crowd of or 5,000 to hear insights from some of our leading CMOs. As President and Chief Marketing Officer of IT World Canada, I believe that brands have a profound impact on society and an important role to play in helping their consumers and customers navigate this global pandemic. Sharing strategies is good for everyone.

During the morning of Day 2 of the event, I had the privilege of moderating a panel discussion on the impact of the global health crisis on consumer behaviour. What better way to take the guesswork from marketing approaches than by getting the straight goods from five corporate brand leaders?

COVID-19 changes everything

Cathy Taylor, US Commissioning Editor, WARC, shared examples of the profound acceleration in e-commerce and impressive increase in buy-on-line-pick-up-in-store, a delivery option with the unfortunate acronym BOPIS. She also spoke enthusiastically about the potential for shoppable media. “There’s no going back,” she said. “Even when the mall opens again as a safe place to be, there’s really nobody who thinks things will go back to the way they were.”

Tim Rickards, Marketing Director, Acquisition & Engagement, for Charles Schwab, was quick to offer an incredibly quotable perspective on consumer sentiment amid COVID-19. “This pandemic is a starkly individual thing,” he said, “and it’s affected by a multitude of factors. Just take the family unit for example: there’s economic strategy, geography, political orientation…race, gender, and education level. All of those variables come together to create customer sentiment.”

For Jason Teichman, Chief Operating Officer, WP Engine, the standout impact of COVID-19 is the way it has forced SMBs to pivot to simple technology solutions. “They don’t have the time or knowledge or resources to adapt, so they are looking for help,” he said.

Carol Tran, Former Head of Growth, Dolby Laboratories, echoed a point made by Rickards about the importance of empathy during the pandemic, saying large enterprises should be doing something to make the world a better place. According to Tran, this is not only good, but it’s also good for business. “Consumers see compassion and they want to support that,” she said. “They prefer to buy from people than from giant companies.”

Safe content

As President of Sales and Distribution for Vevo, the world’s largest all-premium music video provider, Kevin McGurn has tracked a global increase in demand for his products. “It really has been a pendulum shift in the way networks and studios and distributors have driven their entertainment forward to the consumer,” he said. “If you had content that was being delivered on a daily basis, and safe content that was able to be produced inside these various restrictions, then you were at an advantage.”

Measure…measure…measure

I was pleased to moderate a live Q&A that included three of the event’s key speakers: Martha Boudreau, Chief Communications and Marketing Officer for AARP; Doug Jensen, SVP, CRM, Corporate Marketing Analytics and Innovation Insights for Estée Lauder Companies; and Brad Hiranga, Chief Brand Officer for General Mills. I had heard each of their sessions and was eager to ask for their take on must-have metrics.

Doug Jensen spoke to the evolution of Estée Lauder’s marketing mix modeling to incorporate a multi-stage approach in which they measure the marketing impacts on the consumer funnel and tie the results together. Their focus, he said, is on market share. Martha Boudreau, on the other hand, said AARP is primarily concerned with engagement metrics, which include the number of memberships and renewals, while Brad Hiranga spoke about metrics related to social accountability, or what he describes as the ‘Force for Good’ ambition built into some General Mills brands.

Brand talk

In addition to my duties as moderator, I also had time to ‘attend’ four talks. Refreshing an Iconic American Brand was dedicated to bringing a legacy brand into the digital age. Faced with a wide range of stations creating local affinity at the expense of national recognition, speakers Ira Rubenstein, Chief Digital and Marketing Officer for PBS and Connie Birdsall, Senior Partner and Global Creative Director for Lippincott joined forces to prevent PBS from having a flip phone brand in an iPhone world. The key, they agreed, was evolving to succeed in a new and different landscape while maintaining the brand’s core values.

Changing Perspective: Move to Human-Centric Branded Experiences featured Jasmine Kim, a Former Chief Marketing Officer for Sutter Health, who maintains that it has never been more important to make customers feel at ease. In tracking the major shifts in healthcare, she discussed consumer expectations, the impact of digital, and the Amazonian Effect – the way Amazon has set the bar for what is considered acceptable, reliable and affordable in the minds of consumers.

(Marketing) music to my ears

Tim Rickards, Director of Marketing for Charles Schwab, made a second appearance in a session of his own, commenting on how we can track, adapt and thrive in an era of digital transformation. Preferring to avoid the abyss of terms like “getting agile”, Rickards narrowed his focus to the impact of COVID-19 and some of the ways we can stay sane during a global pandemic.

The last session I attended was a special treat – not only because Fender guitars are such a cool and storied brand, or because the company’s Chief Marketing Officer, Evan Jones, opened the session with a hilarious video parody of the rules for becoming a successful guitarist, but also because the morning ended with a feel-good marketing story in which Fender offered 1,000,000 free, three-month subscriptions to Fender Play, a complete online learning app for guitar, bass and ukulele. Although there was no brand strategy other than to show goodwill during the early months of the pandemic, the campaign resulted in a 150 per cent increase in paid subscriptions and a 232 per cent increase in YOY e-commerce.

Fender exemplifies what so many of the morning’s presenters articulated as some of the takeaways from marketing during COVID-19: empathy is critical, people will commit to brands that support causes they care about, and listening to customers is more important than ever before. If you don’t hear what they want, someone else will.

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