Tony Pace is a veteran marketer with experience as a client, agency executive and leader of an industry body. And he believes a marketing tie-up between Hilton and Lysol offers a valuable example for brands navigating the present crisis, Geoffrey Precourt, WARC’s US 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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“I have both the Hilton and Marriott apps on my phone,” commented Tony Pace, a frequent traveler in his roles as a longtime agency executive, former Subway CMO, former board chair of the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), and current CEO of the Marketing Accountability Standards Board (MASB).

“I use both of them when I travel. And Hilton recently announced that they're doing something with Lysol,” the cleaning and disinfectant brand owned by Reckitt Benckiser.

“Lysol, obviously, has great credibility in the cleanliness space. And that's going to be the question everybody has after this” as the world begins to re-open after the Coronavirus pandemic, Pace suggested.

From Marriott came a formal letter from senior management. And from Pace’s perspective, he told an audience on a 4A’s (American Association of Advertising Agencies) webinar, “there was something much more tangible and forward-looking – and appropriate – about the linkage between Hilton and Lysol.

Marriott, he continued, had a “general message” of reassurance. “But, at the end of the day, how many people really read that note [in comparison] with Hilton’s marketing message?”

In answer to his own rhetorical question: “I'm a fan of actually doing marketing.”

Going dark is not the answer

As companies seek out ways to bring their brands back in a recession, Pace insisted, “Going dark is not the right answer,” especially in categories, like the hotel industry, where the standard of cleanliness is going to be a differentiator.

Tony Pace, CEO, MASB

“On March 1, the biggest problem for both Hilton and Marriott probably was Airbnb,” the veteran marketer continued. And, although the digital disruptor remains a competitive beast for legacy lodgers, the entire travel-and-tourism industry needs to reinvent itself. And, thanks to a tight identity with Lysol, Hilton was making an important marketing point.

Looking ahead, Pace said, marketing messages are going to be important for every brand, but especially demanding for hoteliers. “They’re going to have a rough tow to hoe,” he observed.

An entirely appropriate notice would recognize the recent past but, as Hilton did with Lysol, look ahead to the near-term future: “It might be, ‘We’ve missed you and we want you back. But we want you back in a way that's going to be safe and healthy for you and for our staff,’” said Pace.

Just as Hilton was able to pair up with Lysol to make a comforting (and convincing) long-term argument for cleanliness and health, Pace encouraged advertisers and their agencies to stay in front of consumers.

Going dark, by contrast, “has the presumption that the only role of marketing is for today or tomorrow’s sales,” he said. “And it's the expensive view of marketing versus the investment view of marketing.

“Marketing certainly does have a short-term effect, but it also has a long-term effect. We all think there's going to be an increase in COVID-19 cases as the country starts opening up again. There's almost an inevitability to that.

“But that doesn't mean that you should still be vastly reducing, or even going dark, with your marketing activities during that time, because it's going to be so much harder to come out on the other side.

“Consumers tend to gravitate to successful brands. And if you're showing that you're still in business and still doing well – and if you have the appropriate tone and manner in terms of your communications during this time – you're probably going to be a lot better off than if you disappear completely.”

Always have a backup plan

While Pace is best known for his nine years of marketing leadership at Subway, the quick-service chain, he came to that job after 25 years in agency management, including McCann Erickson (15 years) and Young & Rubicam (ten years). And he still draws on that experience in his understanding of marketing, especially during periods of duress.

He recalled that a “Strategic Selection Outline” process at Y&R that demanded the implementation of back-up marketing programs for any active product or service.

Pace explained, “It forces you to look at alternative message strategies for a particular brand. Going through that exercise meant you always had a second, third, and fourth strategy that you had considered and put aside,” he said.

When marketplace pressure mandated an update in messaging, the “Strategic Selection Outline” was a valuable back-up tool if “the consumer mindset changed and certain dimensions of a brand became more important.” It also gave shape to real-time questions such as “How should we consider dialing those [factors] up or dialing them down?

“It wasn’t a tool just for the brand that we represented,” he continued. “It also was useful in the context of competitors. Something that may had been an asset might no longer be so.”

One of the key considerations in creating successful advertising, Pace told the 4A’s digital audience, is finding the proper balance between emotional and rational appeals. “In my mind, brands are more of an emotional thing. And the best emotional things are tied to something rational in terms of differentiation.”

As understanding of the pandemic became more pervasive, so rational messaging began to dominate. But, after two months, “now's a great time to do appropriate, emotionally-based stuff,” said Pace.

The automotive industry was on television in the early stages of the Coronavirus and, reported Pace, “GM did a really good job with the messaging. It was the third week in March and they were talking about the fact that, ‘We're on your side. We understand what's going on.’”

Those spots did close with a more rational message, but “they still seemed to capture the moment,” he continued.

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Putting those early efforts aside, Pace believes, “I don't think the messaging has evolved all that much since then,” with a constant “during-these-uncertain-times-we're-all-in-this-together” drumbeat.

“I don't think that's the sentiment you should be expressing now, as states are opening up, even with the probability that there's going to be an increase in cases. It's not an easy message to navigate. But I do think you can go overboard on the side of ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’, which I don't think is right.”

Lessons from the last downturn

The former Subway CMO recalled what, at first glance, seemed to be an unfortunate piece of timing for the sandwich chain. “We launched the $5 foot-long at Subway in March 2008. It literally launched about ten days after Bear Stearns failed.

“I’d worked a lot in the restaurant category and I have a lot of good friends in it. And when they saw we were selling something for $5 in a category that is known for $1 meals,” the reaction was the same over and over: “‘You going to get killed. It’s not going to work.’”

Pace had two counterpoints: “Number one, it was a new offering. Number two, it wasn’t just about the price, it's was about the value, because there was a heck of a lot of food in that thing.

“Partly due to design, but partly also due to good luck, that was actually the perfect time for that offering. A lot of people were recalibrating what they were thinking about in terms of restaurants and meal selections.”

Thirteen years later, Pace believes, “I think there's that kind of opportunity now,” with due concern for propriety as well as rational/emotional balancing. “Everybody's baking because it gives them comfort. There are lots of other brands that have some sort of history that probably could evoke those [types of] good memories.”

In fact, he added, “In a world where people are nervous and aren't feeling good about things, a little bit of cheerleading can probably go a long way. And there are brands that I believe can appropriately do that.

“I don't think you have to have a perfect line of sight to what's going to happen next in order to make decisions.”

Moreover, “marketers should be pretty familiar with making decisions, even in the absence of perfect information,” reported Pace.