Brands Across America Pt. 2: Insights & Actions From Marketing Thought Leaders’ Response To The Covid-19 Crisis And The Racial Justice Movement

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With the coronavirus crisis showing no end in sight after upending the world in March, marketers have spent the past month putting in additional work to address their response and actions to solving the nation’s latest crisis of racial injustice. 

With the coronavirus crisis showing no end in sight after upending the world in March, marketers have spent the past month putting in additional work to address their response and actions to solving the nation’s latest crisis of racial injustice. 

These simultaneous issues were the top two topics at Brand Innovators’ second Brands Across America virtual summit on June 26, where CMOs and senior marketers from BET, Johnson & Johnson, American Express, McDonald’s, Twitter, Intercontinental Hotels Group, Nestlé USA, MassMutual, General Mills and PayPal spoke at length on their relief efforts and ongoing diversity initiatives. Check out a full archive of the Livecast HERE (pw: biLivecast0626).

Several marketers from the Black community also shared their personal stories on navigating their identity in the workplace and the renewed optimism the events of the past four weeks have brought.

“There’s two movements happening. There’s one in the streets and there’s the one in the corporate boardrooms,” said Jeanine D. Liburd, Chief Social Impact and Communications Officer at BET Networks/ViacomCBS, in a conversation with WPP’s Adrianne Smith, Global Director of Inclusion and Diversity. “I think when you see [at a protest] ‘Black Lives Matter, end white silence,’ that ‘end white silence’ piece is new. I was looking at something that Representative Elijah Cummings said before he passed: ‘Movements change when white people take ownership of the past.’ That piece is going to be a part of what is going to propel and sustain. I think it's also created a space for African-American executives to be much more vocal about the issues that they’ve had in the corporate space and it’s created this callout, ‘I want to see the picture [of your company’s leadership],’ and then encouraging your friends to go to your company and see the same thing. You would never have done that before.” 

Elizabeth Campbell, Senior Director of Marketing, Cultural Engagement (Social Media, Partnerships and Multicultural) at McDonald's, noted that the amplification of McDonald’s ongoing partnerships with the NAACP and HBCUs as well the refresh of its own Black and Positively Golden platform was a way for the company to show and not just tell its support of the black community. “We are looking at how we are addressing diversity and inclusion globally, and we’re doing it on an ongoing basis and not just doing it once and then stopping,” she said. 

After the murder of George Floyd, McDaondl’s made a statement on its channels called “One of Us” where the brand listed the names of Black people killed in recent years by police. “We represented names who had been killed or murdered and we got the permission to use each of those names,” Campbell said. “Then globally, we had our local markets ask if they could change the names to use local people killed to honor them as well, and that’s what made me realize this is a global issue.” 

She also noted that it’s on marketers to help shed light to corporate higher ups how important it is to take a stand. “Our job is to make sure we’re reflecting the truth in the consumers we see and show those higher up. The protest will happen in the boardroom because you will start to see a shift in who gets into the boardroom.”

Errol Williams, Vice President of Holiday Inn at Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG), confided that the past month has been “pretty emotional” from a personal perspective as both a Black man and father of four children, in a candid chat with Sanjay Sarathy, VP of Marketing at Cloudinary. “It’s like you are being told ‘Yeah, you’ve been complaining about the boogeyman under the bed, no one believed you. And we decided to check and lo and behold there's actually a boogeyman under the bed. Systemic racism is real.’ So it’s been a moving month for me.”

Mike Summers, Head of Diversity Marketing Team, & Global Head of Startup Accelerators for Digital Capabilities at Johnson & Johnson, suggested that marketers adopt more rigorous recruitment practices and intentional onboarding to show their genuine care for diversity. “We wonder why we can’t find more black talent, but we’re not looking in the right places,” Summers said in a roundtable discussion moderated by Brand Innovators Labs’ Ritesh Shah. “We’re looking at the school our CEO went to and finding someone just like them. We get that first talent and we spend so much time worrying about how they are supposed to walk and talk like everyone else. We’re not actually listening to them. If you spend more time listening to people instead of training them on how to act then we’re missing out on what they can actually bring to the table.” 

Kimberly Evans Paige, EVP, Chief Marketing Officer, BET Networks, ViacomCBS, noted that that newfound accountability for diverse representation will take many forms going forward. “What we’re seeing now is other networks generating black content or content geared towards African Americans, but they can’t do just that. They too have to show up differently. We like to say ‘You can’t have our rhythm without our blues.’ When things happen, we know we have to stand up. We often feel like if BET doesn’t stand up, who will? Even when the pandemic first broke out, none of it was a surprise to us. Literally in a weekend, we knew the severity and impact it was gonna have on our community. It wasn’t like ‘Let’s go report on it.’ It was, ‘Let’s go do something’. And that is BET - it has such an understanding and connection to the community. It never pauses to stand back. It says, ‘We’ve now gotta be at the frontline and help change outcomes.’”

Part of advancing social change within the ad industry at large is phasing out some of the problematic language that agencies and tech teams alike have adopted for decades without stopping to question its harmful context. “On the engineering side, some of the terms we use are master/slave,” said Stewart Cornelius, Manager, Partnership Solutions at Twitter. “We also have ad agencies who use terms all the time like whitelist and blacklist. So now is the time where I have to say, ‘I don’t know if you know this but that’s not gonna work for me.’ And that’s something that we never even thought about. Ad agencies send blacklists all the time without ever even thinking about what that means.”  

In addition to ongoing efforts to improve racial equality, marketers spoke at length about the extended pivots to digital and virtual events brought on by the global pandemic.  Elizabeth Rutledge, Chief Marketing Officer at American Express, which was one of the most active sponsors of live sports and music pre-Covid. “This crisis certainly has reminded me how important shared experiences are, and I truly believe they’re going to come back,” Rutledge told Crystal Eastman, VP of Global Marketing at The Trade Desk. “Right now we have to reimagine them. We have to figure out where our customers are and what their needs are, whether it’s thinking about virtual conferences or live experiences that follow social distancing principles. We’re actually executing and testing on those ideas as we speak. Whether it's live streaming theater productions, holding virtual office hours or events for our business customers who need so much help, we've had to think differently. I think you'll see some of these shifts continuing even as the shelter in place restrictions are being lifted across the globe. You have to adapt, and that's what we're doing.” 

IHG’s Williams also noted that although Covid-19 has dealt a huge blow to the hotel business, he was optimistic about the changes the pandemic will introduce to the industry. “I think that Covid is an accelerator. There were things that the industry was talking about prior to all this – whether it’s the use of technology in hospitality services, or how you communicate with hotel teams to the role of cleanliness. And what’s happened now is it’s all amped up. People will embrace the use of technology in the way you order your food, how you call for help, or call for guest room assistance. The whole experience will really change. [Hospitality is] a hard industry to innovate – it has not been an industry that’s innovating as fast as others, so this is a chance for us all to move faster.” 

Steve Kennedy, Vice President Marketing - Head of Digital & Media at Nestlé USA, has relied heavily on social listening to help his brands adapt in real-time to consumer needs. “We had to maintain a level of good context and feel, but frankly making sure we didn't look like we were taking advantage of the situation because we could easily look like we were doing so,” he said in a chat with Alia Lamborghini, VP Client Sales & Strategy at Verizon Media. “You need to stay plugged into what’s happening. We saw more engagement in some areas than before, like with baking goods, so it was also about how do we help people with recipes and help people with what they're baking.” 

General Mills, similarly, also leaned into helping people cook at home. Betty Crocker, for example, has been helping people learn to bake through various content channels. “We’ve been on a journey of purpose for a decade,” Brad Hiranaga, Chief Brand Officer at General Mills told Alex Belaidi, Director of West Sales at Samba TV. He noted that historically, brand purpose always comes in spurts, but often feels like it’s cause marketing or part of a campaign versus being a part of a company’s DNA. “Purpose and business are merging. Businesses are realizing it’s up to them to step up, and within those businesses marketing is leading the way. We’re culturally the soul keepers of these companies so it’s up to us to help drive the future of these companies and to help future generations.” 

“It’s been a challenge to think about ‘how do we make sure it’s ingrained in the brand?’ We are trying to show up all the time with the thinking ‘doing good is good for business,’” he said. “I’ve never been more proud of the marketing we’ve done than I have over the last bit of time. We are ensuring our food is accessible and affordable and quality and safe - not in an opportunistic way but in a helpful way.”  

During times of crisis, like COVID-19 or the protest for racial justice, brands should be aware and understand that it is critical to lead with purpose. “We should be marketing in-moment, and sometimes the purpose aspect is going to be more important than marketing messages. We’ve been seeing that with COVID,” Jennifer Halloran, Head of Marketing, Brand & Corporate Responsibility at MassMutual, told Paula Allegretti, SVP, CNN Network Partnerships & Sales Strategy at CNN. “You have to be responsive and follow what’s happening. When you shift into purpose messaging, you have to be clear with your company so they are prepared. Because when you switch to purpose messaging, it will affect the DTC channels and ROI. Don’t let brand metrics be more important than brand purpose.”  

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