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By Matthew Schwartz

The coronavirus pandemic continues to have a dramatic impact on the marketing landscape. CMOs face myriad challenges, from shrinking budgets to moving to a digital-first marketing strategy to creating more virtual programming. But amid the turmoil, CMOs should be encouraged by how consumers view their brands in the wake of the crisis, which will be a key determinant for how companies move forward.

According to a recent survey by the ANA’s Global CMO Leadership Coalition, nearly 76 percent of CMOs said that consumer sentiment toward their brand is more favorable than it was pre-COVID-19, while 21 percent said it stayed the same.

Brands mentioned most frequently in a favorable vein shared a few characteristics, including providing help during the crisis, showing empathy, and fulfilling customer needs. Said one CMO, “Brands which are treating their employees well and doing their part for communities are winning in this environment.”

The survey is based on the responses from 100 CMOs. It was designed to see how chief marketers throughout the world are dealing with the pandemic and uncover the marketing insights they’ve gained in the past several months to help them shape the future and position their companies for growth.

Innovation and Agility

The marketing function may be undergoing fundamental change as a result of the pandemic. “I’ve observed a significant transition in the progressive expansion of the CMO role, as brands think more ‘consumer in’ rather than ‘brand out,’” said one CMO. “The marketing lead is not only responsible for the consumer experience of the brand, but increasingly the business performance, including stake in operational initiatives, supply chain implications, HR efforts, and other areas. Executive leadership teams can navigate the new world together for what’s best for their consumers.”

The pandemic may also be jarring companies into breaking down their business silos, which has been a Sisyphean battle for years. One CMO said the crisis is spurring a much sharper focus on coordinating brand messaging across multiple lines of business. “We created a centralized response team, and aligned and integrated closely with corporate communications for awareness of and collaboration on messaging.”

Another CMO expects “more ruthless prioritization” resulting from the crisis. “We’ve had to innovate faster, pivot away from physical events, unlock new channels, put together new packages, revise messaging, and look at every campaign through the lens of how it’s relevant for here and now.”

Asked how much of their marketing plans have departed from prior 2020 plans, more than a third of the respondents (36 percent) said they invested in technology, and 28 percent of the respondents said they accelerated timelines for product launches. Nearly half of the respondents (46 percent) said they were still scenario-planning, and changes in the overall marketing mix are still to be determined.

Most CMOs have also recalibrated their marketing communications amid the pandemic. Ninety-four percent of brands used new creative assets across some of or all channels while 72 percent increased communications to customers and consumers on owned channels, the survey said. Just 2 percent haven’t changed their communications efforts.

Brands and organizations that are humanizing the situation — and moving away from “selling” products and services per se — are resonating with most consumers, according to survey respondents. Brands that “did good” during the crisis and acted in a humanitarian way have garnered dividends, with 50 percent of respondents pointing to their efforts being recognized via earned media impressions.

Different Marketing Metrics

The survey also found that CMOs are paying closer attention to different performance metrics compared to pre-pandemic. Brands are paying more attention to employee sentiment (66 percent), followed by customer/consumer sentiment on social media (58 percent), sales (53 percent), consumer sentiments via research reports (52 percent), and engagement on social channels (49 percent).

Virtual event attendance and engagement, client retention, and demand forecasting were also part of the new measurement mix.

On the sales front, CMOs certainly have their work cut out for them, with nearly half of the respondents seeing a decrease in sales because of the virus and the economic fallout.

Declining sales are a function of the particular industry, and how hard it has been hit by the pandemic. For CMOs working in the retail sector, for example, most if not all of their stores remain closed, and revenue continues to fall.

It’s a similar situation for CMOs in the events business, which came to an abrupt halt in March when the outbreak started to spread across the United States. Although the live events business plummeted in the wake of the outbreak, brands and organizations have quickly regrouped and started to successfully transition large-scale events to virtual programming.

The pandemic has also led to major changes in media spending strategy, according to the survey. Half of the respondents cut their media budgets, and 47 percent of CMOs surveyed increased spending on digital.

“Seismic Shift” to Digital Platforms

Some consumer attitudes and behaviors that have started to change because of the pandemic are likely to be permanent, such as more at-home entertainment, less travel, and more attention paid to health and hygiene, according to the survey.

“Fear and social distancing will persist beyond the quarantine for public venues, so convenience

and low-touch will be key,” said one CMO. “Consumers will be highly selective about where they spend their money, and value will be even more important.”

To be sure, the digital lurch was in full swing pre-pandemic. But the crisis puts online platforms at the center of strategic marketing, what one CMO calls a “seismic shift” to digital channels.

Online shopping, remote work, virtual learning — they’re all likely to become de rigueur.

“The crisis has accelerated trends that were already apparent,” said one CMO. “The move to digital commerce in many categories is now undeniable. Consumers will also realize they can get a lot done without having to physically be in a location (travel, office, meeting friends, or watching a concert).”

Brand purpose — and what that actually means, in concrete terms, to the public at large — is sure to command more time and budget in a post-pandemic world as well. “The new normal will be an acceleration of the pre-existing process, whereby trusted brands will be those that can authentically claim to be socially and environmentally aware, responsible, and responsive.”

In a comment that probably echoes what many CMOs are grappling with as they prepare to steer the ship ahead, one CMO said, “We’ve spent a lot of effort in mapping out what we believe are some of the new norms and developing content, solutions, and product to service those needs.”

The impact of a global pandemic and recession, combined with racial injustice around the world, underscores the need for chief marketers to work together in the face of transformative change on a global scale. That’s why the ANA, in partnership with Cannes Lions and WARC, established the Global CMO Leadership Coalition.

To participate in the Coalition, please contact Nick Primola, EVP, Head of Industry Leadership and CMO Practice, ANA, at nprimola@ana.net.

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