CMO of the Week: 3M's Remi Kent

CMO of the Week: 3M’s Remi Kent

A year ago at this time, Remi Kent was just taking the reins of her new global post as Chief Marketing Officer at 3M, a role she was promoted to after more than six years overseeing global brand and strategy for the company’s consumer brands, as well as the business of key products like Post-Its and Scotch Brand.  

So like most of us in early 2020, Kent went into the new year with plans to travel — to Greater China, Asia, Latin America, Europe and other key territories where her marketing teams were based. But once the COVID-19 pandemic made such travel a virtual impossibility in mid-March, Kent held those meetings virtually while many of 3M’s products – chiefly its N95 masks and respirators — became some of the most important tools in keeping global citizens and front-line workers safe from the virus’ spread.

To be honest, marketing was not a priority. It was all about supply, and being able to provide that was paramount,” Kent says when reflecting upon her marketing strategy during the pandemic’s first weeks. “We put all of our focus and creativity in terms of maximizing supply and made the early decision to prioritize essential workers, and we doubled our capacity twice to deliver 2 billion respirators last year. While we know we weren’t able to deliver all of the demand, what we were able to accomplish and supply was pretty spectacular.”

Unprecedented demand for those products helped 3M’s healthcare unit post a 25.5% increase in sales during its third-quarter 2020 earnings report, representing more than one-fourth of the company’s total business during the period. 

Many of 3M’s other products took on increasingly important and even unintended roles in life during lockdown, as consumers suddenly had much more time to spend with their families and on DIY projects like home improvement. Scotch Blue tape, for example, became popular among families for driveway games of hopscotch. This led to user-generated content that Kent and her teams could then activate around for their brands’ channels on social media. “We really wanted to show that creativity of how you might use our products in a nontraditional way, but in a way that could provide your family with an outlet for fun,” she says. 

Chief among Kent’s priorities for 2021 is doing her part to ensure there’s continued progress for improving racial justice and equality in the wake of last year’s reignited Black Lives Matter movement, which she saw unfold a few miles away from 3M’s Minnesota headquarters with the protests following George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. “For a long time, these conversations were relegated to February and Black Heritage Month. It was a nice celebratory time but no real action,” Kent says. “It’s nice to see the commitments that have been made, but it’s going to be important for all of us to hold everyone accountable to those commitments.” 

From a marketing perspective, Kent and her agency Venables Bell and Partners (VBP) have already undergone an intensive process to ensure that more opportunities are given to BIPOC behind and in front of the camera. “Hopefully, you will see in our future creative that it looks more like the world that we exist in versus just showing white America,” she says. On the corporate front, 3M announced a pledge to invest $50 million over the next five years to address racial opportunity gaps, including $5 million in scholarships and support programs for students in its hometown community of St. Paul. 

Brand Innovators caught up with Kent to learn more about the dual roles that service and storytelling played with its products during the events of 2020, the ongoing impact of the Black Lives Matter movement and the many consumer trends she sees ramping up in 2021. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Brand Innovators: What were some of your first action items in your newly elevated role of CMO, which you assumed just before the COVID-19 pandemic struck the world? 

Remi Kent: We had to really reimagine our messaging to ensure it struck the right tone and it was not insensitive at this critical time. And like many brands, we shifted our assets from traditional to digital, and really doubled down on our ecommerce programs. We quickly had to produce more content, and the way in which we shot content was scrappy vs. the luxury of [filming in] a certain location. We produced more content, and with our brand experiences we wanted to strengthen those because you couldn’t be physically in the store. So we looked at how we could provide information in a provocative or interesting way. 

What are some pillars for 3M’s brands that you leaned on to create a filter or guiding principle in your decision-making process this past year? 

At 3M, we have great brands that already have meaningful benefits to consumers, so we leaned a lot on our current equity. For instance, Filtrete is the leading brand for HVAC filters and it provides consumers with cleaner, fresher, indoor air. So the brand’s authentic mission to do that was extremely valuable during this crisis. Consumers were caring more and more about the quality of their air, and our ability to capture up to 93% of airborne virus and bacteria passing through the filters was something where we could just amplify that message. It wasn’t something necessarily newly created, but we concentrated on how to get that message out through amplifications, so we worked harder on product demonstration. 

So to me, when I think about pillars we used for decision making, it was about going through our brands and understanding what value they added to consumers’ lives, and was it relevant at this time or not. And luckily, many of our brands had quite a lot of relevance.

The Black Lives Matter movement reignited just outside your backyard in Minneapolis last summer. How did the protests impact you on a human level?  

This is a really hard question to answer, because for a lot of people they ask that question as if it was an event in the past. The negative emotional impact it had and will continue to have on me and everyone that looks like me will exist until we eradicate racism in this country. It was an awakening for the world, but as a Black woman it was a reminder of things that I already knew to be true. And to put it short, it’s devastating, and it continues to be devastating. What happened in the summer shone a bright light on the racism that’s embedded as normal practice in institutions like law enforcement, but also education and employment. This dismantling of something that’s so pervasive is so overwhelming for us all. But it has to be done and we can’t stop until it is.  

So on a human level, I ask everyone I know to [acknowledge] that the awakening that has happened is true, and we all know that we can do better, and we need to do better with our families with our vote and with our spheres of influence. That has been me as a human.

As a marketer, what I did was I said, “What can I do with the things I’m responsible for? Is my creative reflective of the consumers I want to touch? Are my creative agency and the teams working on my business able to bring the appropriate insights so that the people I’m targeting see themselves in the work? Am I hiring producers and directors that are people of color that can bring diversity into the work that we’re doing?” So I asked myself what I could do as a marketer with the things I have control over, and put triggers in place to have the right conversations so we could start to elevate in this space.

What consumer trends have you seen accelerate this past year, and how do you see this expanding as we head into 2021?

The list is pretty long. Consumers will continue to rely on known brands even more, because they want brands that are proven to deliver. Ecommerce is accelerating faster than ever, and I think there is a special place to watch social ecommerce. Retailers are responding to the demands of their customers by not only providing great in-store experiences but also really fantastic online ordering, home delivery and store pickup options. They’re just gotten more and more seamless. 

Brands are getting smarter, they’re able to predict what consumers want. Now with my experiences on Instagram or Facebook, it’s uncanny how insights are being mined to predict what I may want based on my current behaviors. There are a lot of new interests and opportunities for innovation, and consumers are demanding more sustainable choices. The products need to be good in performance, but they also need to be good for us at the same time. I think all of these things will continue.

Where are you with planning cycles for 2021 – are you able to market more flexibly now than you might have been a year ago?

What we have tried to do is drive some flexibility by shifting more into digital so we can react and respond more quickly. We’re also investing in areas where we really need to expand, like AI and data for personalization, connections to smart devices. This is so we’re prepared to really effectively compete and continue to be a player. 

I really feel like the marketing planning of the past, where you’re planning a year in advance, is just over. You can have a framework for who you want to target, and how you might reach them, but it’s so important that we build flexibility into our plans. We’re looking at ways to do that everyday.

Andrew Hampp is an entertainment marketing consultant for Brand Innovators and the founder of consultancy 1803 LLC, based in Berkeley, California.