Moral Obligation, Strong Leadership Key as Brands Navigate Crisis

How can leaders be most effective in times of crisis? How can they manage teams that are dispersed and in quarantine? It isn’t easy but it can be done, according to Chad Mitchell, Vice President-Head of Content and Digital Platforms for TD Bank.

Mitchell framed up the questions to ask in a recent Brand Innovators Livecast Summit. “How do I get alignment?” he said. “How do I energize my team? How do I keep morale up? How can I proactively use this as an opportunity to educate our employees, our customers and others who are stakeholders in the bank? How quickly can we go on offense, meaning getting out in front of what customers are going to be asking us for?”


Mitchell said it all starts with strong leadership, noting that managers must lead with compassion and mentor with care right now. “There are five components for how leaders must respond during a crisis: stay calm, compartmentalize, communicate, be compassionate and have confidence.” 

He urged people to leverage things like video happy hours to check in with team members and ensure everyone is staying connected. “It’s really easy to have days where you get down, where you get exposed to too much news. You’ve got to stay confident. Your team will take cues from you.”

Mitchell, who spent years doing crisis communications for Walmart, also offered this lesson. “You’re in this together. You develop instant chemistry when you’re in a foxhole. As a leader, don’t cancel your 1:1s and check-ins. You need to over-communicate and be sure everyone is doing OK.” Mitchell noted that his company had just announced that there would be no job losses at TD Bank due to Coronavirus. “The relief is noticeable within the organization,” he said.

“A Higher Level of Moral Obligation”

Paul Polman, Co-Founder of IMAGINE and former CEO of Unilever, praised brands and industries that have stepped up to meet critical needs in this most critical of moments. “The hotel industry is coming together,” Polman said. “Fashion companies are making masks. New types of partnerships are forming. Companies are taking care of people whether it’s their employees or other people in their chain. Google is making data available, Bayer and Unilever are providing pharmaceuticals. We are blessed with many good companies and, as these companies take these stands, they will see their value increase.” 

But Polman launched a broadside against fake news purveyors and science deniers. “Facts are changed every minute,” he railed. “Science is not respected.” He urged brands to continue adhering to high labor standards and chastised the small segment of brands he said are “doing more damage than good. Brands must deepen trust right now. We need to take this moment to learn valuable lessons. If we don't drive ourselves to a higher level of moral obligation, it would be an enormous missed opportunity.”

In terms of brand comms, Polman urged companies not to shrink from the moment and to be aggressive in respectfully articulating to their customers what they are doing. “This is a moment to be out there providing confidence. Brands need to communicate emotion, compassion and facts right now.”


Paul Polman, Co-Founder of IMAGINE and former CEO of Unilever


He added one key clarification. “Focus on your consumers, not on selling your product. Try to understand what their problems are and be part of solving them. Making brands human again is the most important thing to do right now.”

Polman noted that we are experiencing an enormous change in the way we live and work, the kind of change that is likely to reshape consumer spending and needs. (He even invoked a Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability but comes through continuous struggle.”) “Brands that actively participate,” he said, “will be rewarded.”

“What Do Customers Need From Me?”

Matt Repicky, SVP & Chief Marketing Officer at Jos. A. Bank Clothiers and a voracious reader, said he’s been trying to absorb as much as possible (via whitepapers and consumer studies) so he can pass along clear action items to his team.

Repicky is leveraging data, analytics and social listening while staying close to customer service teams who input feedback and concerns that are full of insight. “We are staying as close to the customer as possible right now. Of course, everyone around you is a consumer so they all have a perspective. I’ve taken feedback from everyone in my circle seriously.”


Matt Repicky, SVP & Chief Marketing Officer, Jos. A. Bank


All promotional activity and messaging needs to be reviewed right now, Repicky says, and brands need to consider what is essential and what is not. “Sometimes marketers think they always need to have something to say. Right now, we need to take a step back and ask ourselves a challenging question: do customers need to hear from us as a brand right now? If so, how and why?”

The time will come to resume regular marketing, Repicky says. But how will he know when the moment is right? “We are tracking general consumer behavior, tracking different indicators for when consumers will be ready to engage with us again. We will take that in steps and phases.”

"Online Presence Key for Restaurants"

Fortunes in the restaurant industry have been wildly divergent since the quarantine took effect. The impact in China, where normal life is starting to resume, may offer signs of what’s to come in the US, said Shyam Rao, Co-Founder & Chief Executive Officer of Punchh. “The online food delivery market is expected to grow by 16.4% in China in 2020. This will result in a lasting shift in restaurants’ mix of online ordering vs. in-store transactions.”

Rao said 8% of respondents in a recent survey had ordered at least 4 times from a restaurant during the Coronavirus outbreak and 28% of respondents had ordered at least 2-3 times. “Roughly 3 in 4 Americans still plan to order food from restaurants. That is promising.”

“Off-premise dining is surging even more than it already was prior to the outbreak,” Rao said. “The National Restaurant Association predicted off-premise dining to reach 80% of all restaurant transactions.”

In the new landscape, Rao said, trust will be paramount and customer reviews will be crucial. “Segmentation for restaurant marketing will be more important than ever. You can communicate in a more contextual, tasteful way that is not tone deaf. Communications and marketing is paramount. Flexibility is really important. There is a massive opportunity.” Rao urged marketers to leverage technology enablers to improve the digital experience and facilitate contactless fulfillment.

"Being Ready for Change"

Shivram Vaideeswaran, Chief Marketing Officer of Jamba, laid out what his company has been doing behind the scenes for its customers and employees. This included ensuring the safety of team members, franchisees, and customers; letting customers know that Jamba is still open and launching a curbside pickup system; ensuring community members are being supported, emotionally and otherwise. “It’s been amazing to see franchisees delivering smoothies to healthcare workers, retirement homes and hospitals,” he said.



Vaideeswaran suggested that marketers be ready for anything as it all moves forward. “We’re seeing a change in business on an everyday basis, which is something that we’ve never seen before. It’s more critical than ever for marketers to be nimble and adaptable.”

"Levi’s Keeping it Real"

Jennifer Sey, CMO-Global Brands at Levi's, told the Livecast audience that her job right now is “to look at what the brand means beyond what we make. Who we are more than what we make. How do we tap into the love and emotion and continue to surprise and delight with the messages we deliver.”

Sey, a 20-year veteran of the Levi’s brand, urged marketers to “talk like a real person: don't oversell, don't overpost, don't over-email. Your mission is not to sell right now; your mission is to be a human.”

Sey noted that Levi’s is a truly global brand so different countries are in varying stages of shutdown. “We’re in 120 countries. Our China market opened its stores a couple days ago while other markets like India are just shutting down. We are trying to figure out how to message and manage amidst the switch.”



Sey touted Levi’s proactivity in closing its US stores before any states were on lockdown, a nod to keeping its employees safe. And she proudly noted the brand has given $3 million to assist its employees and the communities in which it operates.

Levi’s launched a live Instagram concert series (“501 Live”) two weeks ago that will funnel money into hard-hit creative communities while also tying back to the brand’s tenacious dedication toward authentic self-expression. More broadly, Sey said, Levi’s is hoping to communicate its good works without overdoing it.

“We are using both our corporate and brand social handles. We’re trying to adopt a very personal, human approach including two blog posts I wrote myself for levis.com. We’re not doing PR outreach but we are taking in-bound calls. We have a robust community in social, so we are trying to keep that messaging aligned. We’re just trying to use good common sense, trying to keep it real.”

"Changing Consumer Behaviors"

The Livecast Summit ended with a fascinating panel discussion around consumer behaviors that are obviously changing at a breakneck pace. A few memorable quotes...


Brigette Wolf, Head of SnackFutures Innovation, Mondelēz International

With staples and packaged foods, our products are also where you get families together. Our messaging needs to be mindful of what’s going on, for example, checking in on parents and people who are single. Just like you check in on family or neighbors, consumers want to hear from us and know that we’re there. It’s just about what we tell them when we call.”

Drew McGowan, Communications Lead - CLIF Brand, Clif Bar & Company

“The first thing we did was to take care of the people actually making our food in bakeries. Keeping them safe is our first priority. And we donated 3 million CLIF bars to healthcare workers to make sure they have fuel to get them through their days.”

David Bornoff, Sr. Director, Head of Consumer Marketing, DoorDash

“Part of our job is reminding people that restaurants are still open. We created a PSA that reminds people their action has material impact. We don’t care who you’re ordering from as long as you're ordering.”

Barbara Sharnak, Senior Director, Brand and Product Marketing, Relay

“So many brands came out and talked about their responses. I saw a lot of memes about ‘banner blindness.’ The instinct was for brands to talk about themselves. Let’s speak instead about what our product can do for you.”

To learn more about upcoming Brand Innovators Livecasts, go here.


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