CMO of the Week: Square's Lauren Weinberg

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In March 2020, Lauren Weinberg was getting ready to launch the first-ever global brand campaign in the 12-year history of Square, the digital payments company co-founded by Jack Dorsey and Jim McKelvey in 2009. But as she quickly realized, the COVID-19 pandemic had other plans for the campaign she had planned in celebration of small businesses.

In March 2020, Lauren Weinberg was getting ready to launch the first-ever global brand campaign in the 12-year history of Square, the digital payments company co-founded by Jack Dorsey and Jim McKelvey in 2009. But as she quickly realized, the COVID-19 pandemic had other plans for the campaign she had planned in celebration of small businesses.

“We were about two weeks out from launching and we had to completely scrap all our assets,” says Weinberg, Square’s Global Head of Marketing and Communications since 2018. “We had out-of-home executions that we had to pull down because we didn’t know what car or foot traffic was going to look like. We went around the country and filmed all of these businesses that were real Square merchants, but none of the footage could be used because nobody was wearing masks — especially with restaurants and service industries. That message would have fallen incredibly short had we run with it.” 

Instead, Weinberg and her team reinvested the budget they had earmarked for the campaign and reinvested it in education and relief efforts for small businesses, including refunds to Square customers for recurring software fees.

“The beginning stages of COVID were about what we could do to help our sellers and our customers get ready for what was going to come,” Weinberg says. “California and Washington, for example, were two of the first states to put shelter-in-place measures in place, so we had some webinars with restaurant owners from those states where business owners could join and talk about the ways they were pivoting and adapting their businesses.” 

In the 15 months since the initial wave of lockdown, Weinberg has focused her efforts on raising awareness around the full spectrum of products under the Square umbrella, from its signature mobile card reader to payroll and cash flow management offerings to sister companies like Cash App and, as of this spring, Jay Z’s Tidal music streaming service. Square’s early 2021 campaigns recently helped the company achieve its strongest first-quarter earnings in Weinberg’s four years with the company, with plans for more synergies with its sibling business units in the works to build on that growth.

“We probably re-planned more times last year than ever in my entire career,” Weinberg says as she reflects on the many pivots of 2020. “We had to move super fast, and just be ready to respond to the way the world was changing, which was happening at a rapid pace. Now it’s about, ‘How do we move at the speed of culture without burdening our teams?’”

Brand Innovators caught up with Weinberg from her home office in the San Francisco Bay Area to learn more about the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on digital payments, the role of physical credit card products in Square’s portfolio and the potential for NFTs and cryptocurrency for its business. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Brand Innovators: Now that we're starting to re-enter in-person experiences in the U.S., what emerging consumer trends or behaviors are here to stay with regard to your business? Do you think COVID accelerated the use of cashless, touchless payments?

Lauren Weinberg: I think a lot of the things our small business owners adapted to during this time are things that are here to stay, because they make business more convenient for their consumers. If they weren’t selling online before, they are now and that’s here to stay. Giving people the options to make purchases from wherever they are is something that’s here to stay. Curbside pickup, delivery, self-serve order, QR codes — all these things are here to stay, it just makes things more convenient for customers.

There’s a lot of businesses that were thinking about these things before COVID, but they were just scared to make that leap. It's basically a one-way door, once you go into that you're not coming back out. Things that make payments more convenient for customers, I anticipate a lot of those things are really here to stay — including things like cashless. Our share of cashless business has more than doubled in the U.S. from Feb 2020 to 2021, and 74% of our merchants in the U.S. are accepting contactless payments. Those things are all there to stay.

You had to scrap a global brand campaign for Square right before its launch due to the pandemic. What was the original tone you intended for that, and how haswas the tone of your messaging evolved since then?

The initial campaign was really around showing all the spaces where Square shows up for business. When I got to Square four years ago, we were primarily known for the little white reader. But we have everything from payroll to capital loans, invoice management, team management — you name it, we basically have it. We wanted to show all the places that Square is and all the unexpected business scenarios where we can help. The preconceived notion is Square is only for really small businesses, but it was showing all the places and ways that Square shows up with real Square customers.  

We always try to have our ear on the ground of how customers are free feeling and try to be really respectful of that. Last year, our tone initially was really informative, giving people the information they needed to help them get these tools they would need to adapt. Then we moved into a more emotional territory over the summer where we were hearing amazing stories from our customers about their resilience, how they were getting through this time. We had a 1-800 number on our social channels where customers called in and shared their stories with us, and we decided to turn that into a campaign last summer sharing our customers’ stories. It was a respectful, not somber, way to celebrate the resilience of those customers. 

As we moved into this year, we shifted our tone to be a little more optimistic. We had a campaign early in the year encouraging business owners to take that first step. Last year was a record number of new business registrations – 4 million in the U.S. – the highest rate of new business we’ve seen in almost a decade. We always wanted to really encourage people who were unemployed to take this opportunity to really fulfill their passions. There were a lot of people who told us [in 2020], “I want to make these changes to my business, I want to modernize my operation but I’m waiting until the new year.” So the campaign was more upbeat, encouraging people to take that step. I would say we’re still in that territory of providing the info and tools that people need in a slightly more optimistic way than we were last year. We want our tone to be very real, very human in our messaging.

What role do physical credit cards play in your product offering, and any traction you've seen with those in the past year?

Square Card is a business debit card, this is something that gives our customers instant access to their money. It really helps them keep their cash flow moving in their businesses. We’ve seen increased adoptions since we launched that card – every quarter we see more and more adoption. We saw that more than half of our merchants that were using the card actually ordered it within their first month of onboarding onto Square, and more than $250 million has been spent by our customers with the card. It’s becoming a much more meaningful part of our suite of tools and ecosystem. 

How have you adjusted your media mix this past year to meet changing consumption habits - what platforms or media types are you investing more in now than you were a year ago?

I think we’re back to a more normal channel mix, but Square has always had a lot of digital channels. Last year as we saw more digital consumption, we started to plan into more digital video and streaming video. We leaned into it more as a performance channel. We’re now on TikTok and experimenting with a couple different kinds of executions there, including our organic presence and celebration in support of the businesses there. Last year we also launched our first podcast ever, Talking Squarely. We heard from a lot of our customers, and they just wanted to hear how people are getting by, what they were doing to survive. We thought it would be a good idea to launch a podcast featuring four different customers and a panel with different themes, talking about how they were getting by.  

Out-of-home is another channel we’ve finally been able to revisit after pulling all our executions for our planned global campaign last year. We actually have some interesting executions up in Atlanta and Chicago right now to support the Black business community and encourage people in those communities to shop with Black business owners and celebrate Black businesses in those cities. Direct mail is another channel we’ve been able to revisit recently. Obviously that has really long lead times, and given the need to move at the speed of culture, the lead time was too long to be responsive enough [last year]. We eventually found a new vendor to trim costs and tested new messaging to start running it again. It was actually a great time for us, now that it’s back up and running we’re seeing a huge uplift.

What trends are you seeing in crypto as it relates to Square's transactions?

It doesn't impact our business so much yet. I think there's a ton of work that Cash App does encouraging people to run their business in Cash App, but it’s less of a thing for us at the moment. For us we’re thinking of some interesting things we can do with NFTs, and I think there will be interesting ways to converge our business with Square, Cash App and Tidal, which is now part of our portfolio as well, so there will be more interesting synergies there soon.

You mentioned four4 million new businesses signed up with the Square platform this past year. Any other success metrics you’ve seen from your pandemic pivots thus far? 

A big part of our overall strategy is increasing awareness of all the ways Square can help your business. Four years ago, our marketing strategy was very heavily oriented towards performance marketing. The thing that's been interesting as we run more awareness campaigns is we do see a ton of additional demand in terms of driving top of funnel activity. We’ve also seen big increases in traffic to our website, signups increasing significantly year over year, and the revenue potential for the customers that sign up is increasing significantly. 

Q1 this year was the first year where we had a lot of new campaigns launch in January. For a lot of marketers, based on the timing for a lot of planning cycles, that doesn't give you a lot of time to get new campaigns in market, so we changed our process. This was probably, in my four years with Square, the best Q1 we’ve had, so having that brand campaign and product awareness set us off on a really high note.

What do you have coming up for the back half of 2021 that you’re excited to see come to fruition?  

We just a couple weeks ago launched a new version of our ecosystem message, and I’m very excited to see how that campaign performs. We had a pretty interesting shift in our strategy for this year, so while our goal is always to increase awareness and drive more human connection with our customers, we had been talking about our suite of solutions and decided to shift our messaging and do a campaign that says we are a company that has all these tools in one place. It saves you time and money and makes everything easy for you. It features probably some of my favorite assets I’ve seen produced so far. We launched in the U.S. a couple weeks ago, launched in Australia this [past] week, so I’m excited to see how that shift in messaging performs for us this year. 

We’re also launching in new markets, we just launched in Ireland a couple weeks ago, and we have plans for other European markets. It’s been really fun and exciting to see us enter new markets and adapt our approach to the dynamic and cultural nuances in each of those markets. 

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

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