6 things keeping CMOs up at night
When assessing her biggest challenges as a marketer, Ally Financial’s Andrea Brimmer offers a food analogy. “Your plans are about as firm as Jell-O right now,” she says.
Sticking with that comparison, it’s safe to say that marketers like Brimmer must break out of the mold as they deal with unprecedented uncertainty that has made their jobs more stressful than ever. The pandemic has upended marketing calendars, thrown media plans into disarray and forced CMOs to manage teams from afar—all while crafting messages that resonate and break through without turning off politically divided consumers.
Ad Age recently caught up with marketing executives leading brands in a range of industries—from automotive to financial services to liquor—to learn more about what is inducing their insomnia.
Planning by the minute—not the month or year
At Honda, marketing around new vehicle launches used to be meticulously scripted, months in advance. “It used to be really easy—I could show you a big flowchart,” says Ed Beadle, Honda’s assistant VP for integrated marketing. “You have a big Super Bowl spot, huge spend, and then abandon,” he says, describing the old method. But “that is not contemporary marketing. You can still do that, but you are wasting your money.”
Beadle bemoans the “the decay of common metaphor”—those big eyeball-drawing TV events—including the fall TV schedule. But with ratings on the decline, marketers must deploy always-on, highly targeted marketing, tweaking it at every turn. These factors have been at play for a while, of course, but the coronavirus has forced marketers to work with both speed and agility. Even once-reliable programming around college and pro football is in flux.
ETrade plans its TV shoots further in advance, to account for the uncertainties of social distanced productions, but it keeps a quicker timetable for digital so that it can respond to news events. “The new thing is contingency planning,” says ETrade Chief Marketing Officer Andrea Zaretsky. “What if COVID prevents the shoot? What about this media buy? What will happen with live sports? … We’re tracking it closely and looking at alternatives.”
Cara Sabin started as CEO of Unilever’s Sundial Brands unit in December and quickly discovered that planning isn’t what it used to be. “Anything you’re developing a strategic plan [for] is just predicting the future,” she says. “When you’re trying to do that in the context of an unprecedented 100-year event, it makes it even more challenging.”
Scenario planning is complicated by a growing number of factors. “There are so many unknowns in terms of the political climate, how that’s going to impact consumer behavior,” Sabin says. “Being agile is something we’re really focused on.”
Event marketing was a big part of the mix for brands including SheaMoisture, and obviously that’s had to change, Sabin says. One question is how much that shift to virtual events will continue post-pandemic. “Whenever we return to normal, whatever normal is, I do think there are elements of operating in the virtual world we’ll keep,” she adds.
Deciphering confusing consumer signals
Reading consumers has never been harder, especially for brands operating in multiple countries in different stages of the pandemic. “It’s not a consistent signal from any market. It wobbles and flurries and swirls as the pandemic ebbs and flows,” says John Burke, global chief marketing officer at Bacardi Limited, whose brands include Grey Goose and Patrón. (Burke oversees the Bacardi brand as well as Bombay Sapphire, Dewars and Martini.) To gauge when and where to run campaigns, the marketer uses a tool from media agency OMD called “Fast Start” that includes a smorgasbord of data delivered in dashboard form categorized by market. It includes everything from economic indicators—theater closures, shopping behavior and mobility patterns—to health data including COVID caseloads.
Once-reliable data is hard to read. For instance, automakers have long used search data to determine if someone is ready to pull the trigger on a car purchase in the coming days. But changing habits—such as more people working from home—have dramatically altered media consumption trends, throwing brands for a loop. In the early months of the pandemic, Mitsubishi detected spikes in the consumption of its marketing on multiple channels, including TV and digital. “In the past that would mean they were really, really interested, they were very much in-market,” says Kimberley Gardiner, CMO at Mitsubishi Motors North America. But it turns out, it sometimes just means homebound people have more time on their hands. “And that is still the case. With so many people working at home, their media consumption is going to be really, really different,” she says.
Shifting to e-commerce
Marketers in all kinds of businesses have seen the e-commerce share of their business rise dramatically. Many executives expect that share shift to be permanent, which can mean big changes in media plans or how they plan shopper and retail events.
“The question is, how do we help our customers and partners up their game on shopping,” says Claudine Patel, RB (Reckitt Benckiser) general manager of marketing and CMO of North America Consumer Health. RB also is changing its marketing mix to more digital to reflect that. “We still need TV for the reach, but we are definitely seeing a channel-mix shift,” Patel says. “We’re focusing more on our e-commerce business. We want to make sure we capture consumers as they shift to the online world. And then we’re working with our partners on new campaigns for the next year that bring digital experiences to life.”
It’s not just a matter of doing more digital advertising, but also doing it differently. Jovan Martin, head of U.S. beauty and personal care media for Unilever, already was leading an effort to make all of the marketer’s digital media as “shoppable” as possible, using such partners as MikMak with overlays that let people click on ads to put items in online shopping carts instantly with one of several choices of retailers. The pandemic-fueled rise in e-commerce has only made that effort more important.
“I think the consumer expectation now is that they want to be able to get whatever they want when they want it,” Martin says. “So, everything now has become shoppable.”
And yet, planning in-store events has become something like the opposite of instant gratification. The idea of using ads and price promotions to drive a lot of people into physical stores at the same time has become ethically questionable amid the pandemic. And research shows people really don’t want that, either. They want to spread out the holiday season, at least this year, says Sam’s Club Chief Member Officer Tony Rogers. So the retailer had what last year would have been its first November holiday event in early October. It has also altered normally line-inducing Black Friday events to spread them over nine days.
Ad shoots in flux
Commercial shoots remain disrupted because of social distancing rules, forcing CMOs to adapt on the fly. Full-scale productions are still not possible in large swaths of the Western Hemisphere, including the U.S., according to Genero. The firm, which runs a creative production platform, has been tracking global ad shoots since the early days of the pandemic.
“There are a lot of risks to manage, particularly if you are doing a location shoot that involves people,” Burke says. “There is the safety of participants and of our team, there is the lead time from message to media where the context could change—so what you go in to shoot may not be relevant, so you’ve got to be super careful about that.”
Brands are sending far fewer people to shoots than in normal times. ETrade livestreams production activity to employees stuck at home. The upside is that it keeps costs down. “That’s a practice we will take into the future,” Zaretsky says. “Everyone could provide feedback and more people could be part of the shoot than traditionally.”
Striking the right tone
CMOs must also read the mood of the country, which is “red hot,” says Brimmer, Ally Financial’s chief marketing and public relations officer—especially as the election approaches. “How do you ensure that you are honoring the differences of people’s points of view and not really drawing a line in the sand one way or another? We have to respect the fact that people are going to do what they want to do with their viewpoints. You have to figure out a way to navigate that, and it’s hard as a marketer.”
Ally has implemented a new process to keep on top of the news cycle and cultural conversations. Called ‘Heads Up,’ it empowers everyone on various internal teams to alert other employees to news they might have missed that could have an impact on Ally’s marketing.
“We put this in place to say, ‘Let’s watch each other’s backs and make sure we don’t inadvertently step in anything,’” says Brimmer.
Staying connected while working remotely
As they navigate unprecedented branding challenges, CMOs must also lend emotional support to employees trying to manage work while tending to family needs including home-schooling their kids. “It’s hard to continue to be focused and creative and curious and all the things that make people sharp and excellent at the craft of marketing,” says Brimmer. “You’re trying as a leader to navigate between what people are dealing with as human beings and what’s necessary in order to advance and push the brand forward.”
“It’s hard to stay positive,” Gardiner says. “Marketing needs to have that torch of optimism, and I think it’s just hard ... because it’s only going to get more complex as we get more pressure to deliver more, do things differently, be more customer-
centric.” She encourages her marketing team members to take time each day to “just reset, reflect a little bit [and] shut things down.”
Boston Beer Co. CMO Lesya Lysyj says “It gets more and more difficult over time to nurture a creative environment in the marketing team when we are remote. Boston Beer is a pretty high-energy and fast-moving place. The interaction, banter, brainstorming and idea generation happened in the past much more easily organically ... we are going to have to work harder and harder to keep the culture alive until we can be face-to-face again on a regular basis.”
“It’s been hard on our teammates within and beyond the marketing organization,” says Clorox
Co. CMO Stacey Grier. “We’ve pivoted in how we work as a team, and what we thought would be short-term solves are going to be our way of working for a longer time than anyone anticipated. It’s always on my mind. We are providing more flexibility, more support and just making time to listen, but it’s challenging.”
“One of the most important things is how do I keep the spirit of creative collaboration alive,” says RB’s Patel. “When we were in the office, people would huddle together a lot. Instead of working in silos, we were able to make each other better.” Microsoft Teams helps RB accomplish some of that during remote work with no set end in sight, but it’s not enough, Patel says. “But it’s also created a culture where you work all the time, so you have to make sure you have the motivation and engagement so you don’t burn out. I’m constantly thinking of that.”
Part of RB’s solution is to incorporate some fun into the mix, including a planned virtual Halloween celebration with virtual pumpkin carving and magic shows people can bring their families to. “If we’re
going to be working in the cloud,” Patel says, “we need to figure out a way to work hard and play hard.”
On the positive side, remote work has its element of intimacy that didn’t always exist before, Patel says. “You get to see people’s kids now [via Teams meetings] who you didn’t necessarily see before.”