Brands Across America: Insights And Actions From Marketing Leaders To Help The Country Heal From COVID-19

The past three months have changed every aspect of the marketing pipeline, from the nationwide shutdowns caused by the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March to the protests for racial justice in recent weeks. Virtually overnight, brands everywhere were forced to pivot their workforce remotely and pilot new ways to reach their consumer with the right message and the right tone in real-time. 

Twelve marketing leaders who drove many of these changes shared their insights from actions taken to give back at Brands Across America, a virtual summit co-hosted by Brand Innovators and The New York Post on June 5. The full-day event included talks from senior marketers and execs from Unilever, Burger King, Adobe, Walgreens, Panera Bread, Equinox, Carhartt, John Hancock, Odeko, Bird & Branch, Birch Coffee and Bean & Bean Coffee. Check out the archived stream for the entire event HERE.

The dual crises of COVID-19 and black equality were top of mind throughout all the sessions, as marketers shared stories from relief efforts for the former and openly grappled with their efforts to do more to address the latter. “I was talking to someone this morning and they asked me if I had a brief for COVID and if I had a brief for the situation we’re facing right now,” said Fernando Machado, Global Chief Marketing Officer at Burger King. “And my answer to that was, we did have a brief for COVID — in short we had to reassure people we were a safe option for people to come to as a restaurant. With the case we are facing today...I don’t think we need to create a campaign around that, the issue should be on us 24 hours a day for that topic. I think it’s a time for action rather than for a communication strategy.”  

Esi Eggleston Bracey, Exec VP & COO of North American Beauty and Personal Care at Unilever, shared personal stories of how her ability to be her whole self as a young, black female executive early on in her career ultimately led to the executive leadership path she’s found herself on today, and hopes other companies can empower their employees and consumers to achieve the same success. “Under Paul Coleman’s leadership and now Alan Jope’s leadership, we believe in sustainable beauty with impact at Unilever. There was a new Edelman Trust study that shows that 81% of people want to trust the brands to do what’s right, so it’s important for us to use our scale for good to reach consumers who want to support brands that make a difference. I don’t do this because it’s good for business, I do this because it’s good for the world. And I’m thrilled that people are calling for more. When businesses profit, communities profit.”  

Seth Solomons, CMO at fitness-club Equinox, was also among the marketers who acknowledged their company’s need to further improve its diversity efforts. “We will do everything we can to use it as a lever to create some new commitments to hold ourselves accountable to contributing in a very different way,” he said. “One of the things you notice right away is the diversity of perspective and our employee base. But it’s not enough. There’s more we can do if we listen harder and if we make some concrete commitments and use this as something we move forward with in a very serious way. We’re trying to be as thoughtful as possible.”

Just as companies spent the first weeks of COVID-19 paying attention to their consumers’ most immediate needs, Tony Ambroza, Chief Brand Officer at Carhartt spoke about the role that brands can play in the current environment to advance change. “It feels like a time to listen more than to talk. But we know as a brand we need to be able to speak as well. We’re working hard to keep listening because we know there are ways we can play a part to build a better world that allows folks to pursue their passion in their trade, and support the hard work that people do to keep America running.”

That approach led Carhartt to become one of the first apparel brands to use their production facilities to help fill the PPE gap for frontline health workers, a continuation of the company’s 130-year history for pivoting its manufacturing during key events like World War I and World War II. “Filling the PPE gap led to a heck of a lot of people interested in Carhartt, probably a lot of people who hadn’t heard about us before. We saw it on all the search platforms, saw spikes in interest and people actively clicking to visit our website to learn more. We’re definitely connecting those dots all the way through and will continue to focus on doing that,” he said.

Kate Ardini, VP - Head of Brand at Boston-based insurance company John Hancock, echoed the need for flexibility as a key learning from the current health crisis that she plans to apply for future campaigns. “We thought we knew exactly what consumers were thinking, but we had to quickly go back and change our strategy a little bit to reflect that new mindset,” she said. “We’ve really been forced to be much more agile, not working on these six-month long campaigns that take forever. We have to be in the moment, understand what consumers are thinking and work quicker, faster and stronger to add value to people’s lives.”

Patrick McLean, SVP and CMO at Walgreens, recently tested his company’s speed-to-market when it brought a national campaign to honor high school and college graduates to air in just 8 business days from concept to execution. The ad campaign features pop singer Bebe Rexha performing her modern take on the graduation march “Pomp And Circumstance,” and required quick decision-making to resonate in time for virtual ceremonies nationwide. Aside from the opportunity to celebrate graduation as a cultural moment, Walgreens had a business reason to create a campaign around graduation: cards, streamers, gift bags and other celebratory accoutrements had been a struggling category since the beginning of COVID lockdown, and the campaign, he said, helped that category rebound.

As for how companies should prepare their marketing for the future, McLean said: “Setting strategy for three to five years probably won't work...The ability to adapt and pivot and respond quickly is key. We’re entering this period of where responsive brands will win. To be in touch with your customers will be the [best] strategy moving forward.”

The need to pivot quickly during lockdown  -- not just marketing, but company operations as well -- was mentioned multiple times over the course of the day, with executives noting that if there’s one thing that brands have learned throughout COVID-19, it’s that they must be highly adaptable to succeed in the future. 

Equinox’s Solomons said his company accelerated its processes to get new messaging out quickly, but more importantly, to find new ways to keep their members engaged through services like virtual coaching and pilates classes. What may have previously taken months or even years to roll out took only weeks. “This is a time you can think through transformation or reinvention,” he said. “The emergency of COVID transcended the leadership and the entire company. Every idea we came up with, we were able to prioritize and bring to market quickly, whereas normally we’d take more time and go through more standard approvals. It was a big accelerator for change.”

Brands who accelerated their digital transformation during lockdown -- whether that’s making a more seamless ecommerce experience or creating new ways for customers to physically shop with curb-side pickup -- better set themselves up to be ready for what consumers expect out of brands in the future, even when cities fully reopen. With some locales beginning to open back up, brands  will be wise to retain some of the digital and retail experiences they’ve developed during lockdown.

“The omnichannel nature of how people interact with brands is here to stay,” said McLean of Walgreens. “It was already happening, but the expectation that ‘I can do business with your brand on my terms’ -- whether that be drive-thru or curbside pickup --  is here and these shifts will complement the future of retail experiences. The role that brands like ours will play in the future is creating a multi-touch option to be able to access our products and services.”

Brands, agencies, and other players in the marketing ecosystem will also need to put significant resources behind ensuring they are recruiting and retaining diverse talent. Machado from Burger King said that while the company has made significant progress in hiring and retaining LGBTQ and Hispanic employees, “we are still behind when it comes to African-Americans. I think we’re more focused on improving that than advertising...Agencies and clients should first focus on that more than advertising.”

Unilever’s Eggleston Bracey was optimistic that systemic change will be the end result from many marketers. “With what’s happening now, our brands are taking a stand that it’s not OK. We’re using our voice to say so, and using our capacity to invest in organizations and programs that can do good. We’re also looking at ourselves to make sure that we’re contributing to the equity that we're standing for.

“It's going to be very difficult for us to go back to our silos,” she continued. “It's not a national agenda or a local agenda. It’s the agenda for connectivity and working together against a common issue.”

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