CMO Smart: The New Commitment to Digital Spend

The past twenty months have challenged us in ways that we didn’t even know were possible, personally and professionally. As the pandemic fundamentally changed the way we live and work, many businesses were forced to do complete digital transformations almost overnight to meet the demands of their customers, and it was often marketing departments leading the way with these changes.

Top CMOs – Kim Feil, Aspire Healthy Drinks; Suresh Balasubramanian, Qualys; Angie Madigan, Mars; Ben’s Original; Sheraun Britton-Parris, Vision Labs; and Sheila Cawley, MSI Chicago discussed the challenges and opportunities that the pandemic presented at this year’s AMA Chicago CMO Smart.

In this recap, we cover the top three takeaways from this year’s event.

Your Team: The nimbler the better

The global pandemic meant that businesses had to shift their overall strategies almost overnight, and customers were forced to adopt digital practices more quickly than expected. As a result, every CMO said that their marketing strategy had to be adapted, and this was the case across all sectors.

“The Pandemic moved the grocery consumer online buying ahead by about five years,” stated Angie Madigan, meaning that her team had to find more strategic ways to reach their customers through digital platforms. Kim Feil also suggested a similar story with Aspire Healthy Drinks: “Aspire was mainly doing in-store tastings as our marketing before the pandemic, so the pandemic forced us to become better digital marketers.”

Pivoting quickly to digital marketing strategies meant that their products and businesses could survive the pandemic. Once the decision to adapt was made, it was important for brands to understand what their customers needed during the pandemic. “We thought we were nimble, but we were not. The pandemic allowed us to pull together and innovate, and now we know we can change on a dime,” said Sheila Cawley, MSI Chicago.

Your Customers: It’s a two-way conversation

The CMOs on the panel highlighted the importance of staying in touch with their clients throughout the pandemic to get a better sense of what exactly they needed and wanted. “We went to our customers and had long, hard conversations with them about what they were thinking and feeling rather than saying: here’s our product, buy it,” said Sheraun Britton-Parris of Vision Labs.

That two-way conversation resulted in a complete re-brand for Ben’s Originals. After hearing the customer loud and clear during the civil rights protests of June 2020, Angie Madigan’s team was responsible for modernizing the brand and getting more transparent on their brand purpose. To do this, they brought in an agency that specialized in diversity and inclusion, focusing on actions, not ads.

Marketing during the pandemic also shifted to provide educational resources that could help clients because the last thing they wanted to be at that moment was overwhelmed. Suresh Balasubramanian, Qualys, found that it was a time to “take a hard look at things you are putting out there and be a little more altruistic in the type of marketing you produce.” This type of marketing focuses more on building relationships; the ROI here is that clients will come back to you because they have learned to trust you during some of their more difficult times.

Your Strategy: Innovation is key

Innovation is always important in marketing, but the stakes were even higher during the pandemic because there wasn’t an alternative. So marketing teams had to get comfortable taking risks. Sheila Cawley’s team at MSI Chicago did just that when they committed to taking their coveted museum members’ night online. They found ways to create exceptional experiences online for their museum members and visitors, “through creativity and innovation, we figured out how to bring those experiences virtually.”

The CMOs agreed that when faced with something as generation-defining as a global pandemic, it’s important to experiment to see what works.

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