Lowe's new CMO on pandemic marketing in the age of social distancing
When Marisa Thalberg joined Lowe’s as executive VP and chief brand and marketing officer in February, she was expecting to be busy: Spring is typically a big season for home improvement retailers. But she wasn’t expecting to be marketing the chain—which as an essential business has remained open—through a global pandemic. And she certainly wasn’t expecting to be doing so remotely from California, where Thalberg had been living in her prior post as global chief brand officer of Taco Bell, while the rest of her team is across the country at Lowe’s Moorseville, N.C., headquarters. Below, Thalberg tells Ad Age how Lowe’s and its 2,200-store fleet have been handling COVID-19, along with what lies ahead. Her responses have been lightly edited and condensed.
You joined Lowe’s just before the coronavirus-related lockdowns across the country. How much of an adjustment has it been for you based on what you had planned?
I would definitely say this is not the immersion and onboarding experience I had anticipated. Case in point, I was supposed to be commuting until the end of the school year and have a corporate apartment in Charlotte, and I’ve been here in California almost the entire time. Certainly all of us are feeling like this is a test of our agility as leaders. I’m trying to roll with it that way. I’m very appreciative of the technology that’s enabled me to continue to learn and onboard and get to know people within my team and outside of my team. Also this necessitated a complete transformation of our communication strategy to be responsive to the times in which we’re living. That was not the plan to move this quickly and this radically.
Spring is one Lowe’s busiest seasons. Have you had to adjust your messaging at all to account for the current situation?
It’s been a real gift to have such strong relationships and connections within the CMO community. I take heart in the fact that the instincts that I brought to how to approach this wound up being pretty consistent with how others thought about their own businesses. There’s that first initial phase of assessing and then triaging your existing work. Spring is an incredibly important time for us as a retailer, but then you have to go back through all the work that was done prior to this and look at it through a completely new lens of appropriateness, relevancy and how do you tailor the message. And these phases are short—we’re talking days, not weeks.
Then it’s how to bring in the new ways of communicating that feel authentic but right for this drastically altered world. It’s profound—I was attracted to come work for this leading home improvement retailer and here I am getting to know and getting to steward this brand at a time when literally home has never been more deeply important to us than it is today.
Lowe’s has already created some new messaging—one effort around building thank-you signs for health care workers, and more recently, a home-centric campaign in support of the virtual NFL draft. How do these initiatives fit with Lowe’s as a brand?
This is a time where we as marketers need to be agile and adaptive and not necessarily think that we’re planting flags, but how to be in the now. How do you show a sense of being able to be really connected to how people are thinking, feeling and what they genuinely need and where your brand most authentically and realistically lines up to that? In our case, being a retailer that is essential because we support people in their homes is an unbelievable realization and responsibility. It became much less about being very commercial and promotional in our messaging and a lot more about how do we really express the heart of this brand and do it in a way that is also humble, participatory and true to who we are.
The ‘Build Thanks’ campaign was starting to see this emergence of people wanting to share their gratitude and also connect to the outside world. It was a DIY project, and we’re all about DIY and we thought we could help perpetuate that and ourselves with #BuildThanks. We were really specific, we were not asking them to buy anything, but to use what you already have at home. This company is values-driven and has this greater heart, but this story hasn’t been well told, and it became a moment of opportunity. The way we’re showing up now for people is not COVID-based—this is not COVID advertising, this is advertising about who Lowe’s is as a brand. This is what we’ve always done, like with Hurricane Sandy. It’s a really nice moment to share that story and reflect on it.
On the operations front, Lowe’s has made some changes to its stores to account for social distancing. Tell me about some of those and how consumers are reacting.
Marvin Ellison, our CEO, has made multiple announcements on that, from deciding to close our stores on Easter Sunday and give all our associates a paid day off, to increasing their wages for the month of April. In stores, there’s all sorts of social distancing signage, plexiglass dividers for those working the registers, and we have social distancing ambassadors who man our garden centers. It’s a tricky time in general. Being open is a gift in terms of being able to be there, to address the many needs consumers have to run their homes safely and give them projects to do that occupy them, but being open is not without its challenges.
Let’s talk about how the pandemic may affect your plans for the rest of the year, specifically your TV budget. How far ahead can you plan?
If there’s one thing we’ve all learned from this experience, it’s really tested our ability to live in the absence of having plans that are as concrete as we might like them to be. There are so many things that are unknown right now, so you plan and then create contingencies and alternatives. You try to be really adaptive. If we all just reflect on how much things have changed in the past month, it’s shattering. Our intention will be to continue to invest and to create a relationship with consumers and let them know that we have the things they need.
Are you shifting channels at all by laying more into any one medium than another?
It’s still early enough in my tenure that it’s a lot about optimizing in the channels that we play versus making gigantic shifts. I believe we are a mass brand that deserves a place to tell stories in broadcast media. This has been a good time for that as viewership has been quite high, relative to previous months and years, because people are at home. You go from that to how we invest in paid search and everything in between. We think audio is also an important medium. And our social channels— we have a lot of opportunity to do more with them— we’re starting to see how we parse the storytelling differently. One of the things I enjoy about being a large brand is it gives you a sandbox of different channels and different ways of figuring out how to connect and communicate and right now there’s no pulling back on any of that.
Have product trends changed in any way—for example, what would shoppers normally be buying at Lowe’s this time of year, and what are they buying now?
We’ve seen people really dive into the small home improvement projects that maybe they’d put off because they have the time at home now. There’s something wonderfully constructive about putting your energies into them. We’ve seen [buying of] products that speak to those types of projects and activities that are in demand and then of course all of the essentials that are core to what we do as a home improvement retailer that enable people to fix things that are broken, keep their homes running smoothly and replace an appliance that is on the fritz. It’s a combination of that.