Rethinking marketing and brands and the role of the CMO in the post pandemic future

The years 2020 and 2021 have been a significant learning experience for all functions of businesses. But some of the most challenging and lasting lessons have been learnt by marketing teams and their leaders, they need time for rethinking marketing and brands. In the post-pandemic enterprise, the CMO’s role has evolved in more than a few ways. Many established approaches to marketing – simple, yet effective ones have come undone in the post-pandemic business environment. How customers reach businesses  is further complicated by the fact that more and more young people are entering the markets with yet greater purchasing power – in addition, technological change is ushering a consolidation of channel behaviours and preferences, and it is not just how businesses reach customers that needs to change in order to absorb these shocks without impacting the bottom line. What they say, how they say it, and what they stand for – must change too.

It is time for businesses to revisit some of the other crises that they can take notes from. For instance, go back to the 2008 financial crisis, and revisit how Dominos and Nike revisited the very first principles of brand marketing to emerge as leaders after the crisis. CMOs must similarly rethink their post-COVID marketing strategies in fundamental ways now – because the marketing function will emerge as a strategic piece of the puzzle in the recipe for business success post COVID-19.

“A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.” – Seth Godin


What sells post COVID-19

Before rethinking marketing and brands post COVID-19, most enterprises will need to revisit what sells in today’s world. While those in strongly affected industries like travel, tourism, aerospace, and hospitality might need to take a look at their strategic priorities, others must first consolidate their product and service lines to align their portfolio with what sells – otherwise, marketers are likely to find themselves engaged in an upward battle against the trends of their times.
In this process, the CMOs must strategize with their boards to conceive holistic products and services that lend themselves well to today’s digital world. No function can work in isolation – which means that the marketing teams must also collaborate with other functions like sales, design, and service, to reinvent and realign their products with signals from the larger market forces.


An evolving marketing function

As the digital enterprise becomes the center of action post COVID-19, marketing directives, processes and financials must be reimagined too. CMOs must keep in mind that the pandemic is not the only factor driving changes in buying preferences and choice of go-to brands. There is a concurrent consolidation of demographics that is driving how the markets shape up during and after the pandemic.

For instance, the Gen Z and millennials are outnumbering the baby boomers and preceding generations both in terms of market size and purchasing power. And digital is not the only piece of the puzzle here. Sustainability, health, safety, and workplace values are influencing buying decisions too. While marketing during COVID largely meant overcoming the challenges of technologically challenged telemarketers and in-store tactics, the post-COVID marketing strategy must account for other factors too.

Marketing in crisis times

One of the most important effects of the pandemic was it’s cohesion factor – that is, how marketers were no longer just interested in selling the product with cold calls, but instead, taking an empathetic approach to conversations with customers. There is a larger lesson to be learned here – while the marketing teams of tomorrow will no longer take up cold-calling and approaching a customer outside a shop, or perhaps through in-person demonstrations, digital marketing must take an empathetic approach to be effective.

Abstracted to the scale of an entire brand, enterprises must stand as transparent and fair, and proactive champions of the customer’s voice. In other words, the single most important lesson for brand marketing post COVID-19 is: know thy customer.

The strategic role of marketing post COVID-19

With the exception of largely inelastic markets, brands and marketing exist for a purpose. For instance, the rebranding of Apple Computers to Apple Inc – enabled its shift to a consumer electronics company rather than a computer manufacturing company. Similarly, Nike+ was not just a digital marketing tactic, but an experience designed to fit the millennial customer’s worldview – which reiterated then futuristic principles like digital-savviness, sustainable manufacturing, lean, and zero-waste.

Marketing must play a similar role in the post-COVID marketing strategy. Marketing must fulfil a strategic function of realigning the product to fit the post-COVID worldview of customers who are turning into digital navigators, and more importantly, a demographic of young buyers. Rethinking marketing and brands thus will become essential.

“A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person. You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well.” – Jeff Bezos


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Impressions and influences

In order to market to the post-COVID customer effectively, marketers also need to understand which trends are here to stay. For instance, while the shift of retail to digital channels is forced by pandemic restrictions, thought leaders indicate that a significant bulk of volumes are likely to remain digital even after the pandemic fades away.

Moreover, the spotlight on life at home is likely to bring a newfound focus on household items and home-oriented products. Similarly, entertainment and gaming services are growing at unprecedented rates too – many of these shifts are here to stay, marketers can abstract signals like channels to focus on, and how to curate experiences that fit into the customers’ lives at their homes. For instance, would it make more sense to market using home assistant voice channels, or visual channels at retail stores? Or perhaps through an online ad?

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Adapting marketing to the new worldview

The future of marketing is, no doubt, digital. But this isn’t a point of conclusion, but rather a question – if marketers need to go digital, then where exactly do they need to be? The cost of throwing in another channel into the mix can significantly drain the costs, and doing omnichannel effectively takes the right balance of content, data, marketing spend alignment with results, and an unbreakable messaging in place. Here are three steps to getting there.

Realigning messaging with your core brand values

Before reaching out to the customers, marketing teams must ensure that their messaging is perfectly in line with their core brand values. Some enterprises take this principle so seriously, that they go great lengths to uphold their brand’s promise to the customer. A financial services player proactively informs the customer of the cheapest way to transfer funds along a pathway – even if it is a competing service that facilitates that movement of money.

When rethinking marketing and brands, its values must be in line with what is communicated to the customer whether at the top of the funnel or bottom. This requires a thorough auditing mechanism in place if digital marketing agencies are involved, or a solid osmosis of thought leadership to ground-zero.

Refine your channel mix with changing digital behaviours

The amount of time a customer spends on various apps, services, and channels has rapidly changed during the pandemic. While most customers are spending more time digitally, some channels have exploded – and virtually doubled in their subscriber count. OTT services have seen 40% greater engagement, and voice assistants are gaining traction across all spheres of life.

The marketing function must pinpoint where their customers are, and rationalize their channel mix in line with the findings. Once the right channels have been identified, the customer must be led along a progressive journey – moreover, when they switch channels, their behaviours and interactions must carry forward too. For example, has a customer already given their phone number to you on a social media platform? Don’t ask for their phone again when they approach you via your website.

Invest in an integrated digital marketing and sales toolset

To craft seamless journeys and take digital marketing to the next level, marketers need to invest in toolsets that not only unify the sales and marketing functions along efficient pathways, but also allow them to leverage advanced technologies like AI, ML and automation. Such solutions usually run on a centralized customer data platform that also powers a singular view of the customer and their preferences to marketers and sales teams – resulting in multiplier gains across more than one silo.

Lastly, the post-COVID marketing strategy must recognize the customer as a customer rather than a set of boxes that represent a few features. Following are perhaps the most important part of the post-COVID digital marketing strategy that will set businesses on the path to growth.

“Brand is just a perception, and perception will match reality over time.” – Elon Musk

Two critical pillars of a post-COVID marketing strategy

While the post-pandemic customer will surely meet the enterprise online, they also expect their favourite brands to know them well – almost as well as Netflix knows us, or Amazon knows what we want next. In other words, to nudge the customer in the right direction, marketers need to know precisely who they are, a key part of rethinking marketing and brands.

The imperative for personalization

Personalization can not only power top-line growth, but also improve the NPS scores and lead to a ripple effect as more customers adopt a product or a service. From the outside, it just works. To deliver such services and products to customers, the marketing function must evolve and catch up to speed with hyper-personalized messaging and pre-sales nudges to the customers.

Personalized marketing is not an easy job, however – marketers must learn to efficiently ramp up content production and reusability of assets across platforms and channels – needless to say, an enterprise-wide cloud adoption will be the starting point for such a marketing department. Moreover, personalization at the product level needs to be supported by hyper-targeted marketing right from the awareness stage, up until the purchase has been completed, and beyond. As a result, cost-effective personalized marketing must also be powered by a cross-functional team.

Personalized experiences delight customers, and can drive tremendous growth in a strained economic landscape. But how is personalization done at the ground level, and how can enterprises get to know their customers so well, without even a handshake?

Hyper-segmentation: the key to precise and effective personalization

To know the customers well, enterprises need to first know who their customers are – therefore, personalization begins with a centralized dataset of customers that is thoroughly integrated with the enterprise IT and other technologies as well. While the marketing function was content with segmentation and approximate targeting, the post-COVID marketing strategy needs to hyper-segment the customers, know precisely what their customers prefer, how frequently they want (or don’t want) contact, how they like to be communicated to, and precisely what they want to buy.

Getting the customer to consent to their data usage for personalized experiences will be critical to comply with evolving privacy regulations like the GDPR and the CCPA – however, today’s customers are willing to trade their data in return for experiences that delight. Hyper-targeted messaging will be the key to unlock growth in such an environment – and AI and ML technologies must be leveraged on well-tagged data to ensure that selling opportunities are missed. This is one of the fundamental ways in which the post-COVID brand marketing strategy is closely tied with the sales function. Once these technologies have been adopted, enterprises can leverage granular visibility of resources, costs, customer accounts, and campaign performances to adopt thorough spend management practices within the marketing function.

These are some of the most significant digital marketing priorities as brands navigate a challenging post-COVID market.

“If people believe they share values with a company, they will stay loyal to the brand.” – Howard Schultz

What next?

So what is the next step for CMOs in terms of rethinking marketing and brands, and how can they get past this tipping point, where almost everything seems to be in flux? First of all, the marketing strategy must be brought to speed with other strategic directives that are shaping up products and service portfolios in the boardroom. CMOs need to then perform a distillation of brand values from a post-COVID market lens, and reorganize their channel selections to match the post-COVID consumer traffic.

In addition, personalization and hyper-targeting will remain a pressing priority for realistic growth hacking, and adoption of new digital paradigms like customer data platforms and integrated marketing and sales toolsets will be critical to support these post-COVID marketing priorities. The CMO of a successful post-COVID business will therefore be in a close partnership with the CIO and the CFO, empowering growth at the front lines as the enterprise cascades into a newfound purpose in the post-COVID landscape.

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