How 7 brand leaders are responding to the pandemic
To say that the marketing world has been turned on its head is an understatement. The growing coronavirus pandemic has forced brands to scrap campaigns, alter media buys, boost philanthropy and craft new ads with insane turnaround times of a week or less. And marketing execs must oversee all this while working from home, many of them working part-time as a teacher to suddenly home-schooled kids.
Ad Age reached out to seven executives for a behind-the-scenes look on how they are managing it all.
Andrea Brimmer, chief marketing and PR officer, Ally Financial
It’s all about over-communication at Ally Financial now, says Brimmer, who oversees the Detroit-based bank’s marketing and PR, noting the need for hyper-alignment justifies the plethora of Zoom meetings, texts, emails and calls. In early March, Brimmer and her team conducted a full audit of all of Ally’s marketing. They went through the entire marketing calendar and pulled anything that appeared tone-deaf and insensitive to the coronavirus pandemic, and also stopped cross-selling products to customers during this time of economic uncertainty.
“We were going through and changing all of our TV spots, anything that might appear the least bit insensitive right now,” says Brimmer. At that time, Ally made decisions around canceling, postponing or altering its marketing, much of which was around sporting events like NASCAR and basketball. New proactive marketing includes communicating to customers around Ally’s new relief package, which it rolled out last month. The package offers deferrals on auto and mortgage payments for customers.
Ally is also rearranging its budget into the type of media that people are currently consuming, including broadcast, gaming, social and digital. Brimmer says she is also preparing for when the crisis is over by shifting some media into the mid-third quarter and fourth quarter of the year.
Brimmer, who is building a new house, works from the kitchen area of a temporary home and has several virtual meetings a week. She meets with Ally’s leadership team every afternoon to make sure everyone is on the same page. Three times a week, she checks in with Ally’s agencies, Anomaly, Mediacom and R/GA, to check on alignment. Those meetings can last anywhere from 30 minutes to 2.5 hours.
“It’s by phone or sometimes we do a Zoom, depending on if anybody’s washed their hair,” Brimmer says.
David Zucker, chief marketing officer and senior VP of e-commerce, Perdue Chicken
Perdue Chicken decided to hit pause on the March 30 launch of a product-focused campaign “given what our employees were going through and people in the general food supply were going through,” says Zucker. But it had already secured the media. Perdue told its creative agency, the VIA Agency, it wanted to do something more emotional—and quickly. “We called them on a Monday afternoon and they had five concepts to us by the next morning,” says Zucker. That Wednesday, Chairman Jim Perdue recorded two selfie-style videos thanking workers in the food industry, with help from an app Zucker downloaded to act as a teleprompter while recording. The brand and agency communicated during the shoot on a Zoom call on Zucker’s laptop. Via did editing on Thursday and the spots were ready to go on Friday. Perdue is trying to lower its media levels, primarily because its products are already currently in such high demand, says Zucker.
Being part of an organization that’s considered critical infrastructure, Zucker says, “it’s just nonstop—nothing seems able to let up.” He says he is probably working 70 or 80 hours a week now, including weekends, up from 50 to 60 hours before the pandemic. Each day begins with a 30-minute call with his direct staff at 8 a.m., followed by an 8:30 senior leadership meeting with the company’s president, and other meetings peppered throughout the day. He tries to get up and go for walks, taking calls outside if he can. He’s working out of a spare bedroom in the house he shares with his wife, which is more crowded now that their daughter and her boyfriend, and son and his girlfriend, have come to stay. “Everyone’s kind of in a corner somewhere,” he says.
Cynthia Chen, president of consumer health, wellness and relief, RB (Reckitt Benckiser)
Chen sees five stages of a pandemic—denial, panic, peak, resignation and recovery. “Right now, my personal assessment is that we’re in stage No. 2, panic mode,” Chen says. That guides what she does as a marketer of such brands as Mucinex and Delsym, which have been boosted by panic buying in recent weeks. But she says “utility and empathy” are what marketers should be offering now, steering clear of any hint of opportunism.
“What we need to do at this time, what the industry needs to do, is be a helper rather than self-serving,” says Chen. “We’re trying to spread facts, not fear.” That included launching a site aimed at conveying facts and dispelling myths about COVID-19.
RB is still working through how to navigate the five stages, Chen says. “My personal view is that people will come back to the real basics,” including safety, family, health and hygiene, which play into what her company and brands do.
Chen came to RB in August after serving as CEO-China for General Mills. Based on the much larger role digital media and e-commerce play there, she intended to move her business here in a similar direction. RB’s Dettol getting 9 billion TikTok views in only four days with its #HandWashChallenge in India has only reinforced that commitment.
Chen is working from her home in New Jersey on a table in her bedroom, juggling work with home-schooling her son. Her team connects through regular video meetings. “Physical distancing is actually bringing us closer,” Chen says. “I was saying that at our leadership meeting yesterday. I’m actually closer to my team and to my family than before. The question is, how do you use technology to solve that?” One solution has been sharing “digital martinis” with her team, she says. “Prior to this pandemic, I don’t think that would have been possible.”
Andrea Collins, VP of marketing, Hippo
One of the first things Andrea Collins did when facing the pandemic was to recalibrate her business goals. Knowing her budget was basically halved for the quarter, the VP of marketing at Hippo, a five-year-old home insurance seller, adjusted her agency relationships and media accordingly.
Hippo is ramping up its community-driven advertisers, like Next Door—a social networking service for neighbors—and search engine marketing. Owned and earned channels are very strong right now, Collins says, noting that direct-mail and TV aren’t flexible enough channels for any of her dollars during a constantly changing news cycle.
“I can’t write creative for a mailer and know that it’s not going to sound tone-deaf when it lands in someone’s mailbox,” she says. As a result of the switch, Hippo has put its direct-mail and TV agencies on hold. It is asking its remaining agencies, which handle PR, SEO and content, to think more creatively. “For our brand, that’s pretty easy—we are focused on providing homeowners with tips and advice and holistic home wellness, versus just a home insurance product, so that gives us a lot of room within our brand space,” says Collins. “The onus is on the agencies now to help me more with creative thinking and strategy versus me coming in and saying, ‘I’ve got less, here’s what you need to do.'”
Collins is also thinking creatively with how she manages her work day in a household that includes her husband, who is also working from home, and young son. She schedules time with her son on her professional calendar so co-workers can see that time is blocked off. “Everybody’s working on different schedules, and everyone has their own situation, but I put it in my calendar,” she says.
Lesya Lysyj, chief marketing officer, Boston Beer Co.
As of early March, Boston Beer Co. was planning to launch new campaigns for Sam Adams, Truly hard seltzer and Twisted Tea in rapid succession. But the ads were put on hold as the gravity of the pandemic became clear. “All our stuff is fun, high-energy, lighthearted,” Lysyj says. “We just did not feel it was the right moment to be launching those kinds of campaigns.”
So the brewer shifted gears, and created the Restaurant Strong Fund, which in partnership with Boston area-based Greg Hill Foundation, raises money for restaurant workers sidelined by the pandemic. It’s plugged with an ad from Swift River Productions that was made in six days. “We had a bunch of that media [buys] we were committed to starting now. We are putting it all behind this campaign,” she says.
Lysyj is steering the marketing department from her home in Concord, Massachusetts, where she converted an art room into a makeshift office. “I have two teenaged kids so I need to get away from them and they need to get away from me,” she jokes. She spends almost her entire workday doing video meetings via Microsoft Teams. “Boston Beer is a very fast-moving, in-the-hallway-decision culture, and now we can’t do that, so everything has to be a meeting.” She said the company quickly learned that long video meetings can be exhausting, so they made an effort to shorten them—and also add some fun, like holding meetings where everyone wears a crazy hat, or holding a group Peloton ride over video. “There is a lot of creativity that is happening, But it’s only week three so we’ll see what this feels like weeks from now,” she says.
Lysyj has empathy for the parents of young children who must home-school their kids. “They are the teacher as well as the mom or the dad and the full-time worker,” she says. “It’s impossible. We are trying to allow them to block time.”
The silver lining for Boston Beer—and all beer marketers—is that people are stocking up on suds, leading to astronomical sales growth at grocery stores. Boston Beer’s beer sales jumped 37 percent in the week ending March 21, according to Nielsen data cited by Credit Suisse. Established brands like Sam Adams are doing exceptionally well. “What people want is the familiar,” Lysyj says. “Nobody wants to try three craft beers you’ve never tried before right now.”
Melanie Huet, exec VP-chief marketing officer, Serta Simmons Bedding
Job One in crisis planning for Huet was helping develop a “Pivot for Covid Plan” in mid-March. That included a two-week pause on advertising, “just to let things calm down” she says, but also a donation of 10,000 mattresses to New York hospitals via Relief Bed International, and calling on competitors to follow suit (Leesa previously announced a 1,000-bed donation, with more in the works).
Serta hasn’t scrapped plans to market recent rollouts, including a Harmony product made with 50 bottles worth of recycled beach plastic. That aims in part to improve Serta’s standing with millennials and Gen Z, who Huet believes still care about sustainability despite the crisis.
Serta is also sticking with plans to launch a bed-in-a-box at Sam’s Club in May that takes half the shelf space of prior versions. Huet thinks that recent double-digit increases in foot traffic at big box stores, driven by consumers stocking up, can boost awareness that mattresses are available there.
Preparing for economic hardship to come, Serta plans “meaningful discounts” and extended payment plans with retailers. On future messaging, Huet says, “Mattresses can harbor a lot of bacteria and viruses. While we won’t go out with a really hard-hitting message, you’ll see some softer messaging around how a replacement could be a good idea.”
Huet has kept her team together via WebEx, Zoom and Slack, and younger members launched virtual happy hours. “So there’s this whole group of people having drinks together and little children zipping by,” she says. “Of course, one of the big topics now is the coronavirus look. Everyone looks terrible, and I can assure you that P&G is not selling any razors right now.”
Huet’s Atlanta home has become a sort of a makeshift WeWork space. She works on a bar in the kitchen, her husband in the dining room and her two children from desks in their bedrooms.
Catherine Davis, chief marketing and communications officer, Feeding America
As some brands reduce ad spending, Feeding America—a nonprofit that works with food banks—aims to increase awareness around hunger in America. There’s a need to feed people, including children whose schools are closed, adults who have been laid off, and seniors who need to shelter in place, beyond the 37 million people who relied on food banks before the crisis. Demand at food banks is up by 40 percent, on average, and in some areas, it’s up 50 percent, says Davis.
Food marketers and retailers, publishers, media companies, celebrities and others are reaching out to the hunger organization. Fox identified Feeding America and the First Responders Children’s Foundation as organizations to support with the televised March 29 iHeart “Living Room Concert for America,” which generated millions of dollars in donations for both organizations. “Everything is coming together incredibly fast,” says Davis. “I think when Americans see a need, they rush to fill it.”
Feeding America is securing more public service air time as some advertisers pull back on spending and some brands donate their purchased media space for its message, says Davis. Feeding America has revised some existing communications and released some new work at the end of March. “We’re trying to be as creative as we can because we can’t really do shoots,” she says.
Davis, who hasn’t been in the office since March 13, says she misses her colleagues and enjoyed seeing people show off their pets on a recent video chat. She often works 12 hours or more per day, and tries to start each morning with a walk before an 8 a.m. call about COVID-19. When she goes to Plum Market for groceries, she’s given a pair of hospital gloves and a disinfected cart. The bagger and cashier change their gloves between each shopper. Davis uses Apple Pay. “I’ve developed a no-touch grocery system,” she says.