How 7 Top Brand Leaders Are Dealing With the Covid-19 Crisis

A look at their short- and long-term strategies

Since the Covid-19 outbreak, there have been plenty of great pieces on how creatives and agencies are planning, pivoting, cutting and innovating to survive These Uncertain Unprecedented Challenging Troubling Difficult Tough Times™.

But what about the clients?

To get a sense of how CMOs and other brand leaders are approaching the crisis, I reached out to seven of them—a nice mix of tenure, company size and categories/industries—and asked a range of questions about their tactics and plans.

The group includes large brands in high-profile categories (big auto, big running shoe, big home security) as well as smaller/challenger brands in categories that may be less sexy (nonprofit, local credit unions, better-for-you snacks, healthcare and wellness financing) but are no less important to our marketing and advertising landscape and the recovery of our decimated industry/economy.

Here are the seven brand leaders, and below that, our conversation.

• Allyson Witherspoon, VP of marketing communications and media, Nissan Motor Corporation
• Don Lane, CMO, Saucony
• Wade Devers, executive creative director, SimpliSafe 
• Wade Paschall, CMO, Westerra Credit Union (Colorado)
• Barb Reilly, CMO, BFY Brands (makers of PopCorners healthy snacks)
• Tim Donovan, SVP, CMO, CareCredit, Synchrony (top health and wellness payment platform)
• Ivan Cropper, VP of Marketing, Goodwill of Central and Southerm Indiana

Mark St. Amant: How has the crisis changed your marketing plans for the year, short term or long term?

Allyson Witherspoon, Nissan: At Nissan, we were at the beginning of launching the all-new Sentra sedan and had the NCAA Final Four as one of our tentpole marketing activities for this launch. We essentially changed all of our plans in a matter of hours and shifted from launch mode to crisis mode. We adjusted our media, developed and swapped out all of our creative with relevant messaging on how Nissan is here and supporting consumers through service and payment options. We will keep building on this messaging in the short term. In the longer term, we are looking at how we transition to "back on the road" messaging, understanding that consumer sentiment and priorities will be very different on the other side of this. How we do this and where will be very important, given not every state or county is in the same position.

Don Lane, Saucony: Stay-home social distancing guidelines have had the biggest impact on our 2020 plans. Our primary sales channel traditionally has been run specialty stores, which are closed for the foreseeable future. So we have redirected our focus to more of a direct-to-consumer approach, driving traffic to Saucony.com and our retail partners' own e-commerce businesses. The good news is, running is a sport that can be experienced while practicing social distancing, so we're finding new ways to get consumers what they want as easily as possible.

Wade Devers, SimpliSafe: Not quite sure about the rest of the year. Too early to tell. But in the short term, we can take a look at our messaging strategy and double down on things we offer that make us unique in a world where staying home is now a big deal. SimpliSafe disrupted a category with self-installed, professional-grade home security. You can order the products from the safety of your home and it gets delivered to your doorstep. No one has to come to your house to install a thing. Those simple benefits are now on the top of the list of many people's reasons to buy. The more traditional alarm companies with teams of installers and traveling salespeople have to navigate around that one.

Wade Paschall, Westerra Credit Union: I think brands are going to be remembered for what they do right now, good or bad. So if the pandemic hasn't changed your marketing plans, it certainly should. For Westerra, we are trying to pivot as quickly as possible to providing additional support to our members, and the local, independent small businesses in our communities who are the lifeblood of our economy. One of the first things we did was repurpose our marketing dollars to help them. We started buying packs of 25 to 50 $10 gift cards from essential retail businesses near our branches. We give the cards out to members at our drive-ups as a thank you for dealing with our having to close our branch lobbies, and encourage our members to use the gift cards to support these and other small businesses in their communities. We've also just launched a campaign called "Yes Denver, We're Open," using our Facebook presence and member base to promote local small businesses. Local businesses can go to DenverIsOpen.com and fill out a short questionnaire, and we'll create a promoted post about their business to our Facebook followers, and our 125,000 members, using our marketing dollars.

Barb Reilly, BFY Brands: All of our consumer marketing, in-store demos and events were paused. One of our biggest brand partnerships with JetBlue is a fraction of what it was due to reduced travel. Instead we repurposed all the product we had budgeted for giveaways, consumer sampling, demos and partnerships and we sent large shipments of snacks to frontline medical and emergency personnel, food banks and those in need. We are paused on spending because we can't keep up with demand due to the stockpiling syndrome. Not sure when we will return to spending, likely this summer, but I imagine when we do it will be with a different tone.

Tim Donovan, Credit Care/Synchrony: As a brand and product that provides financing for out-of-pocket healthcare expenses, we're always focused on helping providers give their patients a way to pay for the care they want or need and for the patients to move forward with payments that fit their budget. Like many businesses and consumers today, our clients and customers are managing through a time of enormous uncertainty. They need solutions they can use now and they'll need them even more when it's time for practices to provide care that may have been delayed due to concerns about the virus. 

Ivan Cropper, Goodwill: Our 2020 marketing plans have changed drastically. Our 70+ retail stores have closed to shoppers. This has all but eliminated 60-70 percent of our operating income. In response, we have suspended our retail advertising efforts (broadcast, radio, and digital). Depending on how long we remain closed the negative financial impact grows, which leaves ramifications we have yet to quantify.

What else is your brand doing to address the crisis?

Allyson Witherspoon, Nissan: Our first priority has been keeping employees safe and healthy. We have also made donations to relief efforts and leveraged our 3-D printing capability from manufacturing to print face shields for local community healthcare workers.

Don Lane, Saucony: Our brand platform is "Run for Good," and this drives all our decisions. Our messaging in owned and paid channels is less promotional than before, which allows us to prioritize emphasizing the goodness that comes from running (physical and mental health). But we believe what we do is more important that what we say, so we've launched programs that allow healthcare workers to get Saucony products at steep discounts, even giving some away. And for consumers who want to still support shopping locally, our site directs those people to our retail partners who are offering curbside pickup. Our brand is all about doing the right thing for the greater good, so that's how we're behaving.

Wade Devers, SimpliSafe: Most of what we are doing is concentrating on the safety of our employees. Lots of things have been put in place so we can do our part to help mitigate the spread of the virus. 

Wade Paschall, Westerra Credit Union: It's in the credit union DNA to put your members first, and it was imperative for us to find ways to do that immediately in the face of this crisis. I am very proud of how our various stakeholders came together to create a Member Relief Program in the space of a week. Mortgage, Consumer Lending, Retail, IT, Contact Center, Finance, Marketing, everyone got together, hammered out a plan, and trained our staff on the specifics, to help ease the burden on our members. A lot of us are new to the company, and I'm even new to the industry, but everyone understood that helping people was the primary goal. We waived fees, allowed skipped payments, delayed mortgage payments, created a 0% relief loan, and a number of other offerings to help every individual and business member we can.

Barb Reilly, BFY Brands: As a food manufacturer, we are trying to keep up with demand, all the while balancing the safety and security of our plant personnel. We have ramped up safety protocols. We are hiring part-time and full-time personnel. And our parent company, PepsiCo, is donating millions to the cause.

Tim Donovan, Credit Care/Synchrony: Our first priority was the safety and security of our employees, ensuring they stay well and are able to support the needs of our clients and customers. We've also helped our cardholders who may be experiencing financial hardship, offering to waive fees and other charges, as well as evaluating credit limits to help with additional, necessary purchases. We've also tried to make it easier for people to manage their business with us by using digital tools that enable them to pay bills from the safety and convenience of their home. We've made donations to support hunger relief efforts and engaged our employees and partners to buy or make supplies to donate to local healthcare workers. We've also kept the conversation going—with ongoing communications from our CEO, social media posts offering reassurance and helpful tips on sheltering in place, information for our small business clients about all the government stimulus programs, and offers to consumers for discounts on services that make staying at home a little easier. We're trying to help people navigate through the anxiety and uncertainty by giving them something tangible and valuable.

Ivan Cropper, Goodwill: As a local nonprofit, we have a defined mission to assist those who are most vulnerable in our community. With the loss of revenue from the closure of our retail stores, we needed a way to generate funds to continue to support our mission work. We developed the Covid-19 Emergency Fund. The Goodwill of Central & Southern Indiana Foundation is providing a 2-to-1 match for every dollar donated on the first $250,000. The proceeds allow us to continue to provide critical services for those in need.

Should brands keep spending to stay top of mind at the moment?

Allyson Witherspoon, Nissan: This depends on the industry and isn't always the black-and-white answer we want and need it to be as marketers. In my view, spending makes the most sense around goods that people need now and where there is demand. Trying to generate or create demand in a time like this is difficult to do, especially for products that aren't essential. Given much of the population is advised to stay home, consumer spending is naturally going to change, and as brands we have to understand what's needed and put investment behind that or pause investment to be used when demand starts to return.

Don Lane, Saucony: Yes, if brands have something meaningful to offer, and can do so in a way that is pitch perfect—not tone-deaf—then they should keep spending. Most of our budget is currently allocated to DTC [direct to consumer] initiatives. But we will supplement this with surgical brand campaigns that sell our most innovative products to people who want to keep running through this crisis.

Wade Devers, SimpliSafe: If a company has the money, then I would say spend it but only if you have something important to say. If you are going to spend that money making a montage-style commercial that uses Zoom/FaceTime video cut together with stock and user-generated images of people having a mix of a good cry and a great time, all cut to a VO that begins with, "In these times ..." and then ends with "... farther apart but more together," then I would say DON'T spend the money. Or make something truly great with the limitations. Create something that makes me feel, or want to take action or surprises me in some way. At the end of all of this, no one is going to remember who made that commercial I just described, because everyone is making that commercial. Maybe what you should be doing is using that money to DO something.

Wade Paschall, Westerra Credit Union: I think it depends on how you're spending your marketing budget. Our mutual friend, Jeff Graham, sent me a piece written by [former CSO of Butler Shine] Ed Cotton that said, "Every brand is in the public service business now." And I think that pretty much nails it. If your brand is using its marketing budget in service of educating people on the importance of social distancing, or how to cope with shelter-in-place orders, or supporting people affected by the economic fallout of the virus, you should absolutely keep spending. If you're wanting to advertise business as usual, I'd recommend you save your money. I can't tell you how many sales emails I get every day asking me, "Does Friday at 11 a.m. work for a call?" And it makes me want to gouge my eyes out. I just want to ring them up and scream into the phone, "Have you turned on the news? Do you see what's going on in the world?" Now is not the time to be tone-deaf.

Barb Reilly, BFY Brands: I think they should be acting, not spending. Acting by protecting jobs, acting by supporting communities, acting by taking care of those who are taking care of us. We will spend on marketing again when all those have been done, and I believe that will be soon.

Tim Donovan, Credit Care/Synchrony: I think it depends on your brand and category. Home entertainment and home fitness brands might think this as a great time to invest, as people are spending the majority of their days at home. Conversely, promoting outdoor group activities or major events might be out of place. Strange as it was, I thought Uber's TV spot telling people to stay home and thanks for not riding with them was highly memorable and relevant. It made odd but perfect sense at a time like this.

Ivan Cropper, Goodwill: If a brand can spend at this time, they should. The key is delivering a message that is relevant in an uncertain time. 

Do brands have a role in making people feel safe and secure in times like these?

Allyson Witherspoon, Nissan: Absolutely. Everyone is being impacted by this crisis, and the brands that recover faster are going to be the ones that help reassure and communicate with consumers to help them feel safe and secure in a meaningful way.

Don Lane, Saucony: More than ever, consumers are looking for products and experiences that make them feel good. They are being more discerning with their money, and are gravitating to things that make them feel better. In our case, they see running as a way of staying physically fit and mentally healthy during an inherently sedentary and anxiety-inducing crisis. We're using social media to show our employees and athletes running solo—not in groups—to lead by example and show that exercising can be safe and secure, even during these crazy times. 

Wade Devers, SimpliSafe: I think brands have a responsibility to do what they can to make sure their employees and customers are not at risk. And again, it goes back to what brands should DO, not say. I don't want to hear a brand attempting to make me feel safe and secure unless they are taking steps to make that true.

Wade Paschall, Westerra Credit Union: Brands absolutely have a role, especially in light of the absence of national leadership we're experiencing. If you remember, it was brands and institutions, along with state and local governments, who took the initial major steps, that made people realize this was serious. The NBA suspending its season, the NCAA canceling the basketball tournament, and companies implementing work-from-home plans. People are looking for comfort anywhere they can find it. And the brands people know and trust can definitely be that source of comfort, if they show up in a way that is authentic.

Barb Reilly, BFY Brands: I think some brands do, but only if it is authentic. We are a food brand. We have to be safe at all times, even more so now. I do think CEOs and leadership need to do more of that. But a brand can only do it if they have a real role.

Tim Donovan, Credit Care/Synchrony: Some brands have a bigger job doing that now than they ever did before. Think of all the places that people go or shop for necessities. They've had to make so many changes in their business practices—store logistics, deliveries and pick-ups, cleanliness, etc.—and then reassure customers with lots of communications that they'll be safe while they're shopping and that they'll continue to get (mostly) what they want. I don't think any of this was on their radar until a few weeks ago. People just assumed these places met general health and safety standards and carried what they needed. Now, they have to reassure people of these things. In a financial services business like ours, we don't have the physical safety issue, but we do offer peace of mind. For our cardholders, we try to help them feel secure by knowing they can use their card to get what they need for themselves or their pets. For our business partners, it's important they understand that as a partner, our business is secure and stable—we will be here to support them and their customers through this pandemic and beyond.

Ivan Cropper, Goodwill: Brands have a role in letting their customers know that their product or the development of their product is made in a safe/responsible way. I expect there is a desire to return to "normal," but it will take a bit of time for consumer confidence to return to pre-pandemic levels. Anything a brand can do to grow consumer confidence is a good thing. We are currently working on changing our retail experience to ensure the safety of our customers and workforce.

How do you see this crisis changing business in future, when things get back to "normal"?

Allyson Witherspoon, Nissan: Yes, I think demand has declined in many industries as people try to cope with being frontline workers or with social distancing and quarantine regulations. In the U.S., we've been in this state of uncertainty and fear for almost two months, and the impact of this will be profound in the recovery phase. I don't believe there will be a light-switch moment and all of a sudden consumers will emerge from their homes and start buying everything, attending massive sporting events, concerts, etc. There will be a desire for normalcy, but I believe there will also be hesitation and time needed for the economy to recover.

Don Lane, Saucony: It's too obvious to say that we've learned how to collaborate remotely. What stands out most to me is that people are inherently good, and that times like this truly bring out the best in us. I've noticed more empathy, less territorialism and better understanding within our company, and also with external partners like agencies and media partners. I am hopeful that this lasts for good. One thing that won't change is that my Zoom virtual backgrounds will continue to be the best.

Wade Devers, SimpliSafe: So many companies will need to truly harness the power of creativity to plan a way forward and apply creative thinking to the questions, "How are we going to survive in the short term?" and "What will make our business more successful and perhaps more bulletproof in the future?" This is where businesses can tap into the wellspring of freelance creatives and creative agencies all over the country. Instead of asking your ad agency to make a commercial that is "contextually relevant" and remind people that, "We are all in this together," ask them instead for help with your business. Ask them to workshop ways with you to reimagine your business. Ask them to use the power of their left brains to rethink the future with you and imagine ways that your business may need to change. Ask them to do what they do so incredibly well: to tap into their vast reservoir of knowledge of what other brands are doing around the world to manage this crisis and plan. Ask them to help you communicate with your audience to reveal new ways for your business to go to market. Now is NOT time to stop taking risks. Now is NOT the time to shut creativity in the tool box. It may be the only thing that works. 

Barb Reilly, BFY Brands: On the positive side, the amazing thing about this crisis is it's pushed innovation and new ways of working, celebrating family time, living, staying fit, etc. My hope is we remember that and celebrate it. On the realistic side, this will not be the last pandemic and I believe we will be learning from this one and making sure we are all better prepared. From a marketing perspective, it's made me incredibly grateful we were able to have our ecomm scale up fast. So if brands haven't invested properly in that yet, they better do it for the next one.

Tim Donovan, Credit Care/Synchrony: It will come down to how long this lasts, what the "new rules" for businesses will be, and how everyone will have to adjust. For some things, it may be more about changing to scheduled visits only vs. walk-ins when you want a haircut or dinner, dropping off your dog curbside at the vet vs. sitting in the waiting area. There's a lot of interest in telemedicine and telehealth these days, so that may have a longer impact on the delivery of healthcare. There may also be more demand for contactless commerce for situations where people can order online and either have things shipped home, do drive-thru and curbside pickup or just a tap of your mobile device. 
 
Ivan Cropper, Goodwill: This virus has changed the world ... and therefore has changed business. The importance of frontline healthcare workers has elevated them in public opinion, placing them alongside first responders and the military. Businesses are changing or will change the way they interact with customers. The food industry is taking the lead on developing the "new normal." How sports and entertainment venues adjust to this new reality will be interesting to see. Even if/when a vaccine is developed, how do you safely manage large groups of people congregating?

Is there a brand (besides your own) you admire/are jealous of/inspired by in terms of messaging/actions/approach right now?

Allyson Witherspoon, Nissan: I'm inspired by the Cuomo family if they're a brand! Overall, I think we're all trying to figure this situation out and navigating difficult dynamics. As an industry, I do think automotive has come to the table trying to help where we can, whether it's creating masks with 3-D printing, ventilators, etc.

Don Lane, Saucony: No one brand in particular, but I'm most impressed by the many brands whose leadership put their own employees first, taking care of them before addressing anything else. The brands that endure are those that are built from the inside out. Leaders who stood by their employees during this crisis will see a tremendous return on their investment in their people, who will never forget it.

Wade Devers, SimpliSafe: Shake Shack. They did what Ruth's Chris and the rest did not: the right thing. They gave the money back. And what the fuck kind of a stupid name is Ruth's Chris, anyway??

Wade Paschall, Westerra Credit Union: I think Ford Motor Company repurposing their production lines to make ventilators is fantastic. They're doing something vs. talking about it. From an advertising standpoint, I really love the #WithMe campaign from YouTube. They struck the right tone of letting you know how they can help make shelter-in-place not only bearable but fun and productive, without coming off like they were exploiting it.

Barb Reilly, BFY Brands: I may be jaded, but I haven't loved any of the ads about the pandemic. They feel cheesy and ill-timed. Taking advantage of a situation. On the flip side, those brands/companies who have taken their plants and turned them into mask, ventilator or hand sanitizing producers are the ones we should celebrate. Nike, New Balance, Ford, LVMH—completely stepping out of their own businesses to step up production on much-needed supplies to battle this war. Those are the brands I most admire.

Ivan Cropper, Goodwill: I like the way many in the food-service category have adjusted their messaging. They have quickly let people know that they are protecting their customers and workforce while providing quality food and employment opportunities (when many people are out of work). I also like the Walmart creative that focuses on their workforce ... as people who enjoy their jobs and are doing all they can to make sure customers' needs are met.

***

Thank you to these fine pros for taking the time to answer, especially as their client-side worlds, like ours, are changing by the second. Comments, questions, complaints, offering lucrative freelance jobs? Hit me up at mark@markstamant.com.

Mark St. Amant
Mark St. Amant is a freelance executive creative director/creative director/copywriter and author based in Boulder, Colo. All his work and info is conveniently housed at markstamant.com.

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