Leading Through A Crisis

This is not a business as usual moment. Whatever plans you had in place for 2020 have no doubt been disrupted if not tossed out the window. Undoubtedly, it is a moment that will test the resolve of just about every business and its leaders. In short, this is a leadership moment, during which brands like individuals can show their true colors. Ken Chenault, who as CEO successfully guided American Express through both the aftermath of 911 and the great recession, presciently exclaimed, “leadership reputations are made or lost during a time of crisis.”

So how are CMOs leading their brands through this crisis? To understand this question, I reached out to seven CMOs from a range of industries, each sharing their actions to date and key lessons learned. While much of what you’ll see will look familiar including a focus on employee safety, limiting travel, transparent customer communications and the canceling of public events, what you won’t see is any move towards profiteering. In fact, you’ll learn how several brands are doing the opposite, embracing an enlightened “we’re all in this together” spirit.

Let Purpose be your Guide

It’s times like these where you can appreciate the tremendous value of all that time you spent discovering your company’s true purpose. It serves as an overarching, guiding force behind everything that you do, and it can be the North Star that guides your decisions when everything you’d planned has been turned on its head. As Alicia Tillman, CMO of SAP, says, “Our purpose at SAP is to help the world run better and improve people’s lives and the situation we find ourselves in allows us to bring our purpose to life in a unique manner.”

Put Employee Safety First

At this point, just about every business in the US that doesn’t have a retail presence has mandated its office staff work remotely. Explains Jeff Perkins, CMO of ParkMobile, “Our top priority is to ensure the safety of our employees while maintaining business continuity for our clients.” Perkins notes that having the right technology is essential here, “between laptops, email, Slack and Zoom, our teams can be very productive while working from home.”

Limit but Don’t Cancel All Travel (yet)

Many companies have instituted complete travel bans for their employees. Mandy Dhaliwal, CMO of Dell Boomi, confirms, “We have put in place travel restrictions, to protect our employees, customers, and communities, but we also have a culture of customer first, so we have a process in place whereby our CEO determines customer critical issues and decides to approve travel based on that.” This flexibility, explains Dhaliwal, balances the desire to avoid putting “employees (and our customers) in harm’s way” while ensuring that customers “know we’re partners and we’re here to ensure they can continue to operate.”

Strengthen your Digital Everything

Alicia Tillman, CMO at SAP, acknowledges “this is an unprecedented moment in time for all business” making the need for contingency planning essential. Having already “cancelled SAP Concur Fusion, SAP Ariba Live, X4, SAP NOW events, as well as participation in all third-party events, including SXSW,” Tillman and co are looking at taking many of these events digital. She explains, “While remote won’t replace the power of face to face communication, it may transform the way we conduct business moving forward and this is a great opportunity to strengthen our digital offerings.”

Shift to Virtual Events

With 99% of trade shows, conferences and other gatherings having been outright canceled or postponed, many companies are looking at virtual events as an option. Sara Larsen, CMO of Brightcove, reports that PLAY, “the industry’s leading video event” which had been scheduled for May 18-20 in Boston, will go virtual. Explains Larsen, “Given the uncertainties, and in the best interest of our attendees and employees, we will be shortly announcing an innovative video-powered PLAY event for 2020.” [It’s worth noting that Adobe recently announced their huge spring Summit would be virtual as well.]

Take Cues from Your Customers

Staying close to customers could be particularly challenging as face-to-face opportunities evaporate. Sara Varni, CMO of Twilio, whose company depends on the goodwill of the developer community, is looking to these folks for inspiration. Seeing “our developer communities convening on HackerNews, StackOverflow, Twitch and Facebook Groups among others,” Varni notes, “when you’ve got dynamic audiences, you’re not going to find them all in one place.” “The way we think about staying connected as things go remote has to be similarly dynamic,” she concludes.

Do Well by Doing Good

When opportunity knocks, avoid profiteering. Witnessing a massive increase in video conferencing as millions of employees are suddenly working remotely, Zoom could certainly be seen as benefiting from the current crisis. Their CMO Janine Pelosi relays that “Zoom is doing everything we can to provide resources and support to those navigating the coronavirus outbreak.” Pelosi offers two concrete examples, noting “we temporarily lifted the 40-minute limit on meetings with more than two participants for our Basic (free) users in China, providing unlimited time to collaborate and we’ve also temporarily lifted the 40-minute limit on meetings from our Basic offering for K-12 schools in certain countries.”

Listen and Respond Quickly

Among Sara Larsen’s biggest takeaways from this experience is the need for agility, sharing that “while marketers are usually an agile bunch, this is an extraordinary time, so be available and help problem-solve.” By way of example, Larsen notes hearing “early on from our customers in Asia about their need for video solutions” and the related challenge of “business continuity and keeping business operations moving forward.” Recognizing this situation, Larsen explains, “We quickly put into action Brightcove’s continuity offer which provides organizations with 50 hours of live streaming, at no cost.”

Keep Your Eye on the Bigger Picture

Until a few weeks ago, the rising economic tide was lifting almost every boat making it easy to focus on one’s own rudder. That approach could sink your business today says Paul Sparrow, Area Managing Director & CMO with Chief Outsiders, suggesting “It’s vitally important that CMOs focus not just on marketing strategies but on the economic factors that enable or prevent a business from growing.” Cautions Sparrow, “CMOs who don’t provide this view for their companies will be handicapped in charting the right path to minimize the threats and even leverage the opportunities that will arise.”

Final Note: No one knows how long the pandemic will last and of course, everyone hopes for a speedy return to normalcy. That said, all are well advised to join Jeff Perkins who notes, “we are prepared if this drags out.”

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