The CMO Growth Council – a body that features some of the industry’s top talent, and is run by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and Cannes Lions (WARC’s sister company) – has the long-term mission of tackling the biggest issues in marketing. COVID-19 is a new, but pressing, addition to this list, Catharine P. Taylor, WARC’s US commissioning editor, reports.

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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In a special session on March 24th, a group of senior marketers from the CMO Growth Council held their first virtual meeting to share how the companies they serve are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This task force’s stated objective is “to be the force for action that will help chief marketers shape intelligent practices and provide functional guidance for managing through the COVID-19 crisis.”

And its overarching principle for brand custodians to follow is to look inwardly to help outwardly.

Specific strategies differ, but the assembled senior marketing executives, who dialed in from across the globe, showed their collective focus is on:

  • protecting employees;
  • assessing how their operations can help ameliorate the crisis;
  • understanding the appropriate role of advertising.

As a rule, advertising is not the front-and-center issue in the near term, as companies have to contend with business fundamentals such as safeguarding staff members and ensuring their supply chains are getting customers what they need when they need it most.

That said, recognizing the core human concerns of employees and consumers is paramount right now – and it is here that marketers can play a central role.

A case in point: some executives on the call suggested that what is currently called “social distancing” should be reframed as “physical distancing” (a repositioning now supported more broadly as the pandemic unfolds), as this definition highlights that people are still making connections with one another, even as they are physically apart.

Other suggested guidelines for managing the crisis included the following:

Communicate and care for employees first

As Bob Liodice, the ANA’s CEO, said, “A lot of what I've heard so far is: take care of the inside, take care of your companies, as well as take care of the people to the best extent possible. Keep them motivated. Keep them engaged. Obviously, keep them safe.”

He further noted that since the current crisis calls for creativity and ingenuity, it’s also crucial to take care of employees so they can tap into those personal qualities.

Some of the companies represented on the call are in industries that are deemed essential, meaning they have thousands of employees who often deal with the public face-to-face, and who now are finding themselves on the frontlines of the crisis.

For those organizations, in particular, communication with, and care for, staff is a necessity. In fact, the situation is collapsing the wall between internal and external messaging. As one attendee said, “When we communicate internally, we think of it as continuing externally. There is no communication that isn’t retweeted.”

The dynamically changing situation is causing jobs roles to evolve, too, meaning that new training programs and internal procedures may be needed. (Imagine, for instance, being the worker at a distillery who suddenly finds they are producing hand sanitizer, or the customer service rep who now must handle her role virtually.)

One retailer on the CMO Growth Council also noted that while marketing’s usual remit is to be the voice of the customer, at this time, it is also serving as a voice for employees, and feeding their concerns to the executive team as part of daily conversations. By fulfilling this role, marketing is helping to meet employee needs, such as ensuring they have the equipment needed to stay safe.

Look at what your infrastructure can do for the greater good – and unleash it

There has been plenty of news coverage about companies that are turning over their factories to manufacture necessities such as facemasks. But, additionally, many companies are conducting broader assessments of their infrastructure to help in other ways – such as seeing if unused facilities can be used for coronavirus testing or as pop-up hospitals.

One company represented at the meeting, for instance, is effectively shut down because of the crisis. But its shipping infrastructure and expertise is being employed to move medical goods from one country to another more quickly than governments can.

Invest in actions, not ads about actions

There have been many past crises (and good causes) where marketers happily publicized their contributions.

But the present moment “is not a time to score brownie points,” one attendee said. Instead, many agreed, the focus is on “story-doing” instead of storytelling, in the spirit of simply being of service.

One retail outlet, by way of illustration, is giving free sandwiches and coffee to those on the frontlines, but actions such as these are being conducted strictly under the radar.

Remember how multidimensional the human element is

The Coronavirus crisis is impacting people in ways both profound and mundane, and brands need to respond in an equally human fashion.

Of course, helping people materially by getting much-needed supplies to those in need is important, but so is entertaining people who are stuck at home for weeks at a time. As one attendee noted, there is a huge demand for new ways that people can socialize while at a physical distance, with phenomena such as e-clubbing on the rise. For some brands, filling that void may make sense.

One attendee noted there are three areas of need right now for consumers: health, home economy, and home entertainment. Even as the first two categories take necessary precedence, boredom has begun to set in among people who have been under lockdown longer. As such, the need for entertainment is being filled by things like online classes in skills such as dancing.

Don’t be afraid to decentralize, but rely on your company and its partners for ideas

One executive advised that as national and regional governments set up differing short-term regulations to deal with the crisis – from lockdowns to closing non-essential businesses – companies need to be more flexible than usual in their governance rules so that local teams can respond to the exigencies of their markets.

Conversely, enterprises also need to crowdsource ideas from throughout their networks that can help to manage the crisis.

One corporation, for instance, has established a “creativity fund” – open to in-house stakeholders and external partners, such as agencies – that can scale ideas across the company. As part of opening up to a broad group of entities, the focus of the discussion has shifted from originally being about content to focusing on brand and corporate utility that can be brought to people in need.

Filter your messaging through a different lens

Several CMO Growth Council members said they’d killed some marketing programs for being off-message. The exact reasons differed: some communications would simply sound tone-deaf, while other initiatives were slated to publicize COVID-19-focused corporate good works.

One approach has been to refocus budget to public service announcements. However, since the scope of what isn’t appropriate right now is so broad, it was advised that all communications be looked at through a different lens, with an emphasis on communicating – and perhaps overcommunicating – messaging that is truly useful.

A retailer, by way of illustration, noted how the marketing for its loyalty program, which offers extensive discounts, could be thought of as particularly useful during economic uncertainty. But it still needed to be rethought because of its emphasis on driving customers to its stores, which may not be the best approach at a time when people are meant to be staying at home whenever possible.

Prepare for when the crisis is over

Marketers are using social listening tools to monitor mood, and this approach could prove vital for understanding when the “new normal” will emerge – and what it will look like. While answers are few and examples of how exactly this plays out are effectively non-existent, attendees at the CMO Growth Council virtual session agreed that starting to plan for a post-COVID future is critical.

The group of CMOs will be meeting again next week, and Nick Primola, the ANA’s executive vice president in charge of the initiative, has suggested that interested senior leadership in the marketing and media ecosystem reach out to him if they are interested in participating.

In addition to ANA executives Primola, CEO Bob Liodice and vp Meg Wubbenhorst, the members of the ANA’s COVID-19 task force are: Zaid Al-Qassab, CMO, Channel 4; Dean Aragon, CEO, Shell Brands International and global vp, Shell; Norman de Greve, CMO, CVS Health; Mathilde Delhoume, global brand officer, LVMH; Morgan Flatley, US CMO, McDonald's; Rick Gomez, evp/CMO, Target; George Hammer, chief content officer, IBM; Jodi Harris, global vice president, marketing culture and capabilities, Anheuser-Busch InBev; Jeremy Kees, the Richard J. and Barbara Naclerio endowed chair in business, Villanova University; SY Lau, sevp/chairman of group marketing and global branding, Tencent; Alison Lewis, chief growth officer, Kimberly-Clark; Greg Lyons, CMO, PepsiCo; Marcel Marcondes, US CMO, Anheuser-Busch; Rahul Malhotra, head of brand strategy and stewardship, Shell; Fiorenza Plinio, head of creative excellence, Cannes Lions International; Meredith Verdone, CMO, Bank of America; Deborah Wahl, global CMO, General Motors; Hunter Zhang, director, corporate marketing and public relations, Tencent.