Digital, Virtual, Empathy & Value-Adds Emerge as Keys for Marketers

Double down on digital and virtual. Stop promoting and start adding value in a moment when people most need it. Look to China for early signs of what a “new normal” might look like. Kevin Rice, Chief Marketing Officer of Hathway, offers this advice (and much more) to brand marketers giving all they have at the moment to navigate the impact of Coronavirus on their companies.

Empathy must come first, Rice says. Everything about your marketing must change and nothing in your orbit should be treated as business as usual. Social distancing, engagement, ecommerce, crisis comms, internal management, processes--they’re all changing in the most dynamic way imaginable for brands and their customers.

Our full Q&A with Rice follows.

What are you hoping to impart to brand marketers right now as they grapple with a fast-changing corona-shaped landscape?

A lot of people are talking about how we are in unprecedented times. In many ways that is true. But if you take a step back, while the events are different, this is just another form of adversity that we will have to overcome. The dot-com bubble crash, 9/11 and the Great Recession forced businesses to adapt. Those who leaned in with ingenuity, speed and investments in the right areas came out stronger.

The best place to start when looking to understand the potential lasting impacts is China, where in many parts, people are emerging from their homes and returning to normal life — just a new version of normal. With respect to the retail foodservice category in China, online food delivery is expected to grow by 16.4% as a result of COVID-19. Anecdotally in the United States, we are seeing many brands where their mix of digital transactions are now surpassing 50% of their total orders. These changes in consumer behaviors might normalize a bit but will largely persist. Domestically, we need to recognize that the same trends will emerge when we return to our normal lives.

Uncertainty is obviously the order of the day but are there ways in which that can actually be a good thing, an opportunity for brands?

There will no doubt be consolidation across industries. The National Restaurant Association is predicting 30% of restaurants will go out of business. Those concepts with strong off-premise operations and digital capabilities will have the edge. Eater-tainment and full-service restaurants that haven’t invested in the right areas or lack peripheral lines of business will suffer. So yes, with consolidation comes tremendous opportunity to grab share of wallet or, as we like to say, share of stomach


Brands that create rapid response action plans across (1) store operations, (2) menu mix, (3) corp comms, (4) marketing and (5) technology enablers will be in the best position to capitalize on this opportunity. The shift to digital sales (supported by consumer desire for contactless payments) will offer brands greater ability to deliver 1:1 communications and personalized offers.


How should brands be communicating with their customers right now?

This isn’t new but it starts with empathy. This is an opportunity for brands to be useful and serve their communities. We start by asking ourselves, “Where are our customers in their emotional journey of accepting their current state?” and “How does our role in our customers’ lives change while they are stuck at home?” It’s important to remember this isn’t a re-engagement opportunity. I am disappointed daily with the promotional communications I am receiving from brands that are operating as if it’s business as usual. Any triggered communications and offers need to be immediately scrubbed and reframed to be sensitive to the current landscape. 

Tactically, there are a couple of table stakes steps that need to be taken. Communicating health and safety measures you are taking to protect staff and guests needs to be consistent across all touch points, both offline and online. If you are a retailer or restaurant, don’t assume customers know that your doors are still open or how they can purchase from your locations. Localizing communications and speaking directly to the communities you serve will further resonate with customers. Lastly, focus on value-added communications. With families dining at home, can you recommend ideas for family game night (maybe a riveting game of liar’s dice over Zoom) or activities for kids that are home from school? People in isolation need to be informed and entertained, experience human connection and have their spirits lifted. Brands have it within their means to deliver all of these things. It just takes a little bit of creativity and ingenuity.

What things shouldn’t change in this moment for marketers and where are there opportunities for them to actually double down?

The trend is clearly going virtual and/or digital. Most fitness brands have pivoted to online and are realizing how much potential this line of business has long term. Restaurants are leveraging their technology to get food in the hands of their customers in a safe and convenient way via delivery and curbside pickup. 

One brand I have had the pleasure of working with that is primed to accelerate as a result of COVID-19 is L'Oréal’s personalized hair care brand Color&Co. With consumers unable to visit salons, Color&Co offers professional grade, personalized hair coloring through live two-way video stylist consultations. L'Oréal is widely known as an innovator in the beauty category and this brand is the quintessential example. 

What data-driven insights can be gleaned from this moment and where is that side of the consumer behavior equation likely to lead in the coming weeks and months?

In our research, three out of four Americans still plan to order from restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past month, we are seeing AOV (average order value) is actually increasing, presumably as people order for their entire families while ordering frequency is down. Overall, we are expecting a significant decrease in restaurant sales (recent studies predict a 30% decline in aggregate restaurant sales), which will partially be weathered by an increase in digital sales for those brands that have already made investments in online ordering, loyalty and delivery applications.  

If you’d like to go deeper on this topic, please (virtually) join Brand Innovators on Friday, April 3 for a few hours of discussion centered on how marketers and brands in QSR, retail, CPG and beyond are navigating uncharted waters. We will be joined by a half-dozen leading brand marketing leaders.

  • Matt Repicky, SVP, Chief Marketing Officer, Jos. A. Bank Clothiers
  • Jennifer Sey, CMO, Global Brands, Levi's
  • Drew McGowan, Communications Lead - CLIF Brand, Clif Bar & Company
  • Barbara Sharnak, Senior Director, Brand and Product Marketing, Relay
  • Brigette Wolf, Head of SnackFutures Innovation, Mondelēz International
  • Shivram Vaideeswaran, Chief Marketing Officer, Jamba

To register or learn more about this event, go here.

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