Google’s VP for Global Ads Marketing, Marie Gulin-Merle, speaks to Anna Hamill, Senior Editor – Brands at WARC, about adapting products based on insights, hyper empathy for consumers, and reinventing the role of CMO during COVID-19.

Marketing in the COVID-19 crisis

This article is part of a special WARC Snapshot focused on enabling brand marketers to re-strategise amid the unprecedented disruption caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak.

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WARC: It's been a crazy few months. What does your ‘new normal’ look like when it comes to marketing at Google? And has marketing's role changed within your organisation during this time?

Marie Gulin-Merle: Any marketer would say the same thing probably – it’s the speed of change. That is what was really the most striking, and it still is. After a few months with my team, we keep saying ‘it's 10 years of change in five months’. How does the organisation get ready for this ongoing change, for what's happening now and what's next? It's many questions: which products do I need to focus on? Which channels do I need to use? Which messaging? It's the whole holistic view of marketing, a constant helicopter view. You learn and constantly adjust, and around you the world is changing quite fast.

I would say it's a ‘super accelerant’ of the things we've been seeing for a long time. The consumer journey has become more complex and I think it's true more than ever... It’s an absolutely fantastic opportunity for us to continue to put data at the centre and (have it) be the centre of truth. The role of the CMO is really to be this centre of truth, seeing what's happening with the consumer and constantly adapting. It has a next-level meaning during COVID.

Is there anything that you've learned about marketing leadership, or that you've taken away from this experience, that you think will define your future role as a marketer or the role of marketing at Google?

I would say it's real-time marketing, partly due to the acceleration I was talking about. Ten years ago,  it sounded very far out. Now it's the reality of what we do. We do things that could have taken weeks or months in days, and sometimes we make decisions within hours. This is probably the change in leadership: you need to capture the essence of what's happening in real-time and frame principles while knowing that the environment can change very fast.

For instance, in terms of the principles we have been using on my team, there is this idea of ‘micro-realities’: the fact that COVID-19 is global and there is a universal situation, but the regional and local piece is paramount to understanding the consumer reality and how we can help consumers. (There’s also) this idea of constantly tuning messaging to make sure it's relevant and that you're not tone deaf.

Another principle I use is dexterity: you can pause, you can change, or resume. Sometimes it’s a product or a launch. (COVID-19) is another dimension of marketing dexterity. And obviously being always grounded in insights, which is the core of the marketing work. If you think about it, we're getting back to what marketing is about: understanding what the consumer wants, what the sentiment is, and delivering what's best. There is this idea of going back to the roots of marketing at the speed of light and with everything that can happen with technology, which is a good way to look at a situation that at the core is a crisis.

In terms of your marketing processes, what has the biggest change been in the last few months? Is there anything that you will take from there and implement after the immediate crisis is over?

This fluidity in the processes is here to stay. That's what I firmly believe. It's going to accentuate and accelerate some of the ways we were doing things in a deeper way.

The first thing I would say in terms of processes is getting comfortable with the idea that things are so fluid and dynamic. You have to constantly check data. You can't rely on how you were doing things. You can't rely on patterns. But I think (data) helps ground things in consumer truth.

The second is hyper-empathy for what consumers are going through. You have groups that are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, you have differences between countries and regions. I'm constantly spending time with (teams in) different countries to hear about their realities. The news is 100% COVID-19 most of the time, but it doesn't mean that the reality is the same... I say I'm doing a world tour every week, although I can't travel. But it's the idea of hyper empathy as we're all deeply plugged into the COVID-19 reality and crisis.

Because it’s a health crisis and also an economic crisis, being able to master the direct response channels has been paramount. The ability to track and measure ROI needs to be fluid as well.

We talk to different brands who are now turning around a television commercial, for example, within a few days. (Some are) worried about the realities of burnout on the team. How are you navigating these challenges in terms of managing a marketing team, while also wanting to be on the front foot all the time?

The concept that we've been using is ‘sustained readiness’. It cannot be constant crisis management, to your point about the wellbeing of the teams. It has to be about a new state of doing marketing, instead of running from one crisis to the other.

I also think that there is a reinvention of the role of CMO. Leadership skills are in hyper-vigilance and hyper-empathy. When I was talking about hyper-empathy with consumers, it's absolutely true of the (marketing) teams. It's really about what the leaders can do to help consumers and to help the teams. A lot is on our ability to re-invent, transform, and sustain. ‘Sustain’ is the key word for me, as we don't know how long this situation is going to last.

Something that stood out from Alphabet’s Q2 earnings report was that usage of all Google properties and YouTube has gone up quite a lot during the last few months. What other types of changes to user behaviour are you seeing that are perhaps opportunities moving forward?

Most consumer behaviours have changed. It's related to work, leisure, the products we buy, how we spend our time, how we consume media… it's everything. What we're seeing in the data is that consumers are pushing us for innovation. For instance, they're going to ask for things like opening hours, curb-side pickup, and things like that.

The other thing we're seeing is that consumers are evolving. As the situation evolves in the re-opening states, consumer demand and consumer signals are very different, for example ‘are gyms open?’ We can also see the cultural and societal changes – ‘black-owned businesses’, for instance, is a query that spiked over the past few months.

It's about looking at the signals and trying to decode what consumers want now and in the next phase. The key word that I keep using is ‘readiness’. Readiness of consumers, readiness of organisations, and readiness of leaders.

How are you acting on some of these signals? What are some of the key lessons that you're taking out, or interesting trends that you think will continue once this is all over?

It's not just the nature of the signals or insights, it's also the type of insight. What's the magnitude? Is it something that isn’t going to last, or is it something that is more of a shock to the system?

We’re seeing three buckets: (firstly,) the shocks to the system. For instance, the panic buying. When home-schooling started, we saw surges in demand for some of our hardware devices or Wi-Fi hubs. The second one is a ‘step-change’, so it's a way of doing things that has accelerated. For instance, telehealth, or e-commerce behaviours that were (already) existing and are now being accelerated through COVID. Then, thirdly, sometimes it's just a speed-up. For instance, the speed of change in omnichannel behaviour. I never think it's a lack of data, I always think it is the way marketers can decode and make sense of things.

As you look forward to the rest of 2020 and into the first half of next year, what do you think is going to be the single biggest challenge and the single biggest opportunity that faces Google?

Continuing to be helpful to people and businesses – it’s both a challenge and an opportunity. When you are a leader, you need to continue to lead by example… Being there for them in this moment is what's most important for us. I read stories of businesses who turn to us every day to adapt their business to new consumer shifts, demands, regulations, or restrictions. Being at the level of expectation on helpfulness is going to be our guiding principle.

A number of big tech brands are investing a huge amount more into brand building, for example, television advertising etc. Have you changed your approach to marketing the Google brand during this time, or is it a time to hold steady?

Especially since the beginning of the crisis, what we are seeing is that it's really not about what (Google) wants to do, it’s about the consumers. They're interested in what we can do to help with the COVID situation. They want to know. It's loud and clear – they don’t just want to hear from public officials, they want to hear from brands.

The second thing is that they don't want to see the same type of PSA-like advertising all the time. There is a dilution of messages if all the COVID-19 ads are the same, so there is  a distinctiveness on how you can help with your brand and what you do as a brand. We're a technology partner, so we help people find information. During this time, it's even more important. You have to explain what you can do with your brand and products for consumers, which in a way is the essence of marketing. I think it's an extremely good marketing lesson to all of us.

The diversity conversation is something that's been really top of mind in recent weeks. How Google is handling this conversation - both in terms of what you think Google's role is in this and any changes within your business to respond to it?

There have been recent events which led to a societal awakening... it's a commitment to building, enabling, developing and increasing both inclusive teams and work. We had started to do it many years ago. I think the recent crisis is guiding us to be even more accountable, and to bring more measurement to the table. This is a conversation we had at the CMO Growth Council.

One (priority) is the marketing work. We've been using both machine learning and human evaluation to look at all our creative content – anything we produce from videos, to banner ads, or display – so we can understand inclusivity in our work at scale. It includes presence too: (who is) in the foreground, or the supporting character, or what's the speaking time, or do we have stereotypes. We need to open-source how we do things and how we measure things with the industry. We’ve started with the Geena Davis Institute, a few months ago we analysed 2.7 million ads on YouTube, based on gender.

With the recent crisis, this work cannot stop with just marketing campaigns. It also has to impact products and how teams work on products. Queries such as ‘black-owned businesses’, ‘black-owned coffee shop near me’, etc. spiked at a very rapid paces. When we saw these searches, we decided to enable Google Maps and Google Search for businesses to be found with the ‘black-owned’ attribute. So again, it's the immediate action on something we see, on a sense of urgency that our users are communicating to us in terms of what we do with products.

For marketers, it's how we develop messaging and the responsibility that we have, then the impact on products and our teams. I keep saying to my team, “it's not a passion project”… It’s a part of accountability of leadership, but it's everyone's responsibility to fight racism, and to fight injustice. It's in every meeting, every email, every body of work, every piece of messaging, everything we do, and every decision we make.