When it comes to business and consumer needs, the pandemic has changed things, in some way or another—whether minimally or significantly—for every brand out there.
In 2020, we compiled a mixed bag of research of how marketing leaders anticipated navigating the uncertain future, back when nobody was able to truly know the secret recipe for success. (Seriously—we had never, ever experienced a crisis like this in the age of digital marketing.)
During a panel discussion hosted by Reuters Events (Strategic Marketing 2021), Uptempo’s Hive9 got the chance to talk with several marketing leaders to see what specific strategies actually worked for them and their big brands when marketing conditions and expectations were sent into an upheaval. They not only were tasked with figuring things out while being sensitive to customers’ needs, but they also needed to move swiftly while doing so.
The Hive9-led panel, “A Shared Experience: How the Pandemic Changed Planning, Creation and Dissemination,” uncovered a few key marketing strategies—authenticity, listening, creativity and preparedness—that proved successful when marketing success sometimes looked grim.
Staying authentic to your audience
When calling, texting and other electronic methods of communication rose exorbitantly as in-person contact fell, Verizon focused on ensuring trust in its network, explained Andrew McKechnie, the company’s chief creative officer.
“Our initial marketing response was to ensure that we were continuing to build trust in the brand,” he said.
“We doubled down on our marketing efforts to let customers, employees and partners know that we weren’t going anywhere,” he added.
Accordingly, as many brands shifted their “look and feel” during this time, McKechnie said, Verizon’s marketing team opted to stay the same, maintaining the existing campaign structure they had in place and being “very purposeful” not to “shift the way the brand was showing up.”
“There was just a lot of uncertainty at that time,” he explained. In turn, keeping their brand message crystal clear—“we’re here for you, and we’re here to stay”—was a top priority.
Likewise, for Fender, even though they had been in the midst of a major product launch when the pandemic first hit, brand authenticity was still at the forefront of their marketing efforts, according to CMO Evan Jones.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “we still have a giant and loyal audience to respond to.”
In order to respond to their respective audiences appropriately during the uncertain times, these marketing leaders had to first retool their listening.
Indeed, for Nadja Bellan-White, CMO at VICE Media, the pandemic necessitated “doubling down on listening,” she said. After all, the digital media company typically creates a whopping 2,400 pieces of content per week in 25 countries around the world; with that much content, you really need to know what your audience is looking to consume—or you’re just wasting time and resources.
“We have always had to have a keen ear to actively listen to what’s needed [from our audience],” she explained. “During the pandemic, we had to lean into this even more.”
Indeed, with “tokenism and cynicism at an all-time high,” she pointed out, the company wanted to be realistic by telling stories that were “the truth of [their] audience.”
“When you’re able to have that kind of raw conversation with a target audience … you can’t put a price tag on that level of truth,” Bellan-White said.
Also heavily leaning into new audience interests was online dating company OkCupid, which actually saw engagement soar as people looked for creative ways to forge human connections, albeit virtually.
According to Melissa Hobley, OkCupid’s global CMO, the company had never before been faced with this quandary: When people can’t go on dates in person, what can you do?
For OkCupid, it meant enabling users to match with each other based on the latest hot-button topics, she said, and focusing their marketing on these types of questions: “What is driving your business? And what is driving the behavior of the people you’re trying to bring in? And how do you make that a part of the product and the creative?”
See how Uptempo’s advanced revenue modeling, ROI analysis and attribution capabilities help CMOs see the bigger picture and prove results.
After they listened to the shifting needs of their audience, these marketing leaders then put their new tactics to the test. For a few of them, it often meant making lemonade out of lemons.
For instance, Bellan-White was able to use the changing market dynamics to tap into new verticals.
“The interesting thing about listening—at a time when people really needed us to listen to them and lean in—was it allowed us to probably welcome an even greater number of audiences into the VICE [Media] world,” she said.
“For us, while others may say it was a setback,” she explained, “it allowed us to connect with a whole new audience and really explore new formats.”
Likewise, for Fender, part of reaching its new audience of novice guitar players meant launching on previously unfamiliar platforms: e.g., the company’s first branded TikTok channel, which brought “new people into the market” and broadened their funnel.
“We wanted to keep expanding the market while things were happening,” Jones said.
However, your strategies won’t work every single time, noted Hobley. Instead, expect a bit of trial and error.
“It’s about testing and trying,” Hobley said. “And Covid upended some things.”
Referencing an old line, “Half of my dollars are spent on the wrong thing—I wish somebody would tell me which half,” she pointed out that her marketing team is always testing different tactics and figuring out “where to meet people,” whether that’s on podcasts, TikTok or other mediums increasing in popularity as the world continues to shift.
“I’ve never been in a marketing position where you know exactly where to spend your dollars,” she added.
Another key part of these brands’ successful shifts was their preparedness for the unexpected.
“The culture that we created pre-pandemic was critical to our success,” noted Verizon’s McKechnie.
This included, he explained, diligent communication and transparency among company leaders and industry partners, including through daily cabinet sessions with a “war room mentality.”
“We were reacting to a lot of information, but there were systems we had in place that allowed us to be nimble and adjust and react quickly,” he said.
So that’s where pivoting—the unofficial top marketing buzzword of 2020—comes in.
As Bellan-White put it, marketing leaders had to pivot—and pivot quickly—whether they wanted to or not.
“What are you going to do? Everyone pivoted on a dime,” she said. Referencing the massive quantity of content being produced by the company, she added that there was simply “no choice but to pivot.”
What’s behind all of this
Authenticity, listening, creativity and preparedness were key factors in the swift and successful pivoting of these brands, but behind all of these capabilities is another crucial competence: flexibility.
“You’ve got to be very flexible, and you have to be very aware of the different inputs that are happening within your industry and outside your industry,” McKechnie said.
Effective pivoting works when you enable flexibility through responsive marketing planning: i.e., planning with clear visibility into what’s working and what’s not.
After all, as Forrester said in 2020, resilience, especially when the unexpected happens, is key: “The ability to manage unplanned events and calibrate and adjust sales and marketing plans quickly is no longer a nice-to-have but a critical muscle B2B sales and marketing leaders must develop.”
As you listen to the continuously shifting dynamics of your audience, make sure your marketing teams are equipped to easily make changes, communicate those changes, track the results and continue to pivot as necessary.
“We’re all leaving a little bit up to the audiences themselves,” noted Bellan-White. “Let’s not be too prescriptive with how we communicate with them, but let’s let them lead how they want to be communicated to.”
With that in mind, “pivoting” is a buzzword that will inevitably continue into 2022; however, when equipped with the right strategies, resources and resilience, marketing leaders can start to see the term in a new light.