Marketing in Pandemic Times
Cavan Images/Getty Images

Marketing in Pandemic Times

When Covid-19 hit, companies needed to quickly alter their messages, and some are changing the way they communicate with customers over the long haul.

Windows and doors are built to be durable products that are long-term investments for homeowners. Campaigns that market these products should not be ephemeral.

Annie Zipfel, chief marketing officer and senior vice president of Bayport-based Andersen Corp., wanted a company slogan that would resonate with customers and be memorable. She and her colleagues spent most of 2019 working on a brand refresh for Andersen’s windows and doors.

Zipfel was planning for a big day on Feb. 12, 2020, when she would help unveil a new marketing approach to Andersen’s sales team that was meeting in the Twin Cities. Andersen’s updated branding included a refreshed logo, the tagline “Love the Life You See,” and a national marketing campaign.

“Then two weeks later, the world shut down,” Zipfel recalls. Suddenly, the campaign’s upbeat messages of how its products enhance homeowner self-expression no longer seemed to fit the nation’s dour mood. People were anxious about staying healthy and employed.

How Andersen’s marketing pivoted when the Covid-19 pandemic hit reflects changes in the ways businesses of all kinds responded. Companies and their marketing agencies had to act quickly—even if their moves were simply to pull the plug on campaigns for two or three months.

They needed time to understand what customers were going through emotionally, their fears and their hopes. They also recognized they had to offer messages that spoke to what people were feeling, messages that were more direct and less rote than variations on the “We’re all in this together” theme.

The pandemic has driven marketing agencies to move quickly on client work and change their internal business operations. They’ve ramped up use of technologies such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams to share campaign components, make pitches, and remotely manage video shoots. Many agencies have indicated that some of these changes could become permanent after the pandemic lifts. 

For businesses and their marketing agencies, the pandemic has spawned a critical lesson: Listen more closely to your customers and nimbly adapt your marketing strategies to meet their needs. 

New visions

After the coronavirus surfaced, Andersen hit the pause button, Zipfel says. The company spent several weeks “thinking carefully about our messaging and making sure we weren’t showing up tone-deaf to our employees, our customers, and our community.”

Andersen had hired Rise and Shine and Partners, a Minneapolis-based brand and creative agency, to develop its brand refresh. The agency’s clients all took a two- to three-month “serious pause, where media dollars put into the market were either put on hold or cancelled,” says Kevin DiLorenzo, the agency’s president and CEO. Campaigns and budgets needed to be re-evaluated. The agency’s job was making sure its clients didn’t appear out of sync with the grave mood of the country, he adds.

Andersen and its agency observed that as people were forced to stay home, they were “being cut off from neighbors and community, from work and from school,” DiLorenzo says. “So windows naturally became a vehicle by which communities and neighborhoods started to communicate with each other. We recognized that this was a very authentic way for Andersen to participate in what’s happening.”

Zipfel notes the scenes across the world in which people leaned out of their windows. They were banging pots and pans, singing to each other, greeting mail carriers and first responders as they went about their work, and simply waving to each other from behind glass. “People were spreading joy any way they could spread joy without getting together physically,” she notes. In the U.S., children covered their homes’ windows with finger-painting and images of butterflies and teddy bears.

“We had put out a call to [Andersen] employees asking them to send us their pictures of their families in front of windows and doors,” Zipfel says. These images were used in four social media marketing pieces. “They’re really not about Andersen,” she adds. “They’re about connecting and love.” And they did help keep the Andersen brand fresh in consumers’ minds.

woman taking care of two children
Home Front-After Covid hit, Hefty Party Cups shifted its message from gathering at parties to taking care of children and chores in American homes.

Keeping pandemic changes

Since Rise and Shine is a relatively small, independent shop, it could shift gears easily. In 2020, larger agencies found they needed to be just as nimble.

“The need for us to be agile and change quickly—change programs quickly, change media buys quickly, come up with new ideas on behalf of our clients—really accelerated,” says Cari Bucci-Hulings, president of Minneapolis-based agency Periscope. “We had to come up with totally new solutions, either because a client’s distribution had changed in some way or, more often, because consumers’ mindset had shifted suddenly and dramatically.”

Periscope responded to this mindset in work it did early in the pandemic for Hefty Party Cups. “As soon as Covid hit, we obviously couldn’t encourage parties,” Bucci-Hulings notes. “So we quickly shifted the strategy and execution to a different theme: ‘Let us do the dishes.’ Early on, everyone was feeling so overwhelmed, so this message made a lot of sense.”

Read more from this issue

As time went on, the client and the agency realized that consumer mindsets were shifting as social distancing lasted longer than they’d anticipated. So Hefty and Periscope returned to the Hefty Party Cups campaign and messages about “small moments of celebration” while still not encouraging people to gather.

While remaining focused on current marketing challenges, Periscope and its clientele also are looking ahead to the post-pandemic period. As Bucci-Hulings notes, there are “uncertainties about how much we’ll go back to the old normal or whether patterns instilled during the pandemic will be permanent to some extent.” Something she expects to continue: the pandemic-driven boom in online shopping and home delivery. “I’ll be interested to see what happens in the world of delivery,” Bucci-Hulings says. “That feels like a media channel to me. When consumers open a box that’s been delivered to them, that’s also a brand experience.”

The big shift to online shopping has been a major component of what’s often been termed “the new normal.” But with so much shifting and reshifting in the pandemic period, “we like to call it ‘next normal’ because it’s changing so fast,” says Julie Batliner, president and managing partner of Minneapolis-based Carmichael Lynch.

As Covid-19 began to spread across the landscape, Batliner and her colleagues thought through all of the stages that consumers and customers were going through. “We also helped our clients be authentically helpful in those stages, rather than offering cookie-cutter ‘We’re here for you’ messages,” Batliner says. “Of course, we wanted all of our clients to let their audiences know that. But what ways were we really going to help them from a business standpoint?” The agency and its clients needed to respond with “authentic, helpful information—not just marketing messages,” she says, “but how can we truly help during this seismic shift in the way consumers can shop for products?”

Covid-19 has pushed agencies to expand the use of technology tools. In March, Carmichael trained its employees on digital platforms for working remotely, including video conferencing and digital document-sharing platforms. And like many other agencies, Carmichael Lynch has adjusted how it shoots TV commercials and other video productions. Instead of sending an entire team of five or six staffers to the location, the agency keeps at least half of them at home. Those not out in the field can watch and critique the shoot from their home offices in real time. When Covid-19 dissipates, “we’re going to continue using the things that are working really well,” Batliner says.

Early in 2020, another large Minneapolis-based agency, Colle McVoy, strategically realigned its operations into four “nimble teams.” The goal, CEO Christine Fruechte says, was to be able to move faster for its clients.

The reorganization’s timing turned out to be fortuitous; it allowed Colle McVoy to shift gears on numerous campaigns and projects in the face of the pandemic. For instance, the agency paused the rambunctious “Stay Wild” theme it had developed for Wyoming ski and outdoor destination Jackson Hole, instead moving to encourage visitors to “be outside responsibly,” Fruechte says. “We came up with a framework called ‘Clean, Careful, Connected.’ We wanted to invite people back, but we wanted them to come back safely.”

For another client, Texas-based pediatric health care provider Children’s Health, Colle McVoy had a new campaign ready to launch in 2020. “But we had to press pause and reset,” Fruechte says. “What families really needed was reassurance that seeking much-needed care would be safe.” Colle McVoy’s “Tougher Together” campaign was “one that was needed in that moment.”

Technology allows agencies to shift messages and campaigns more quickly. Colle McVoy has increased the use of email and social media as marketing platforms. “That’s not saying that we’ve walked away from some of the traditional channels,” Fruechte says, but agencies are positioning themselves to respond rapidly to changes in their clients’ marketing needs—which reflect how their customers’ needs are changing.

That ability to pivot may well become a permanent part of how most businesses do business as they come out of the pandemic. As Fruechte observes, “very few companies are going back to how they were operating in 2019.”

Messages of trust

Advertising and marketing agencies with niche practices also helped their clients adjust their messaging.

“With the circumstances we’re in, we feel very fortunate that we’re a B2B agency,” says Chris Schermer, president of Minneapolis-based Schermer. By and large, companies in the business-to-business space are still operating. “There are still the same types of longer-term sales cycles, complex sales processes, longer buying cycles,” Schermer says. Many of his clients have been “steady as she goes” and already had revenue locked up for the pandemic period.

Even so, “every organization we work with has had to shift and adjust not only their marketing mix but also their marketing strategy,” Schermer adds. There’s been a shift during the pandemic to “a mentality of ‘How do we support the customer and what they’re going through?’ And for us, it’s ‘How do we demonstrate good partnership to our clients?’ ”

Partnerships have taken different forms for different clients. In some cases, the agency has helped its clients keep their names in front of current and potential customers through emails, social media posts, and other messaging that puts less emphasis on selling a product and more on providing product-related information. For other clients, Schermer helped position them to create longer-term demand.

Schermer developed a new website for North Carolina-based Dude Solutions, a facility management software company. It uses the site to maintain and grow business. With customers’ facilities mostly closed, Dude Solutions could have hunkered down. Instead, Schermer says, the company saw the website as a way to ultimately capture market share.

Health care is another sector that has confronted a challenging market during the pandemic.

“When Covid hit, I thought, ‘OK, we’re well positioned to help our clients to remain vibrant. They’re going to need to direct patients to the right kind of care,’ ” recalls Mike Seyfer, CEO of Duluth-based marketing firm Hailey Sault. The agency’s client base is primarily hospitals and health systems.

“As it turned out, along with retail, restaurants, and other highly impacted businesses, health care was significantly adversely affected,” he says. That’s because patients deferred elective surgeries and non-urgent appointments with their physicians. When the pandemic eased in early summer, patients cautiously returned for care. “We expected third and fourth quarters to continue on an upward trend,” Seyfer adds. But with coronavirus cases skyrocketing in the fall, the agency has seen clients put marketing efforts off until the first quarter of 2021, he says. 

So Hailey Sault has responded by putting together research studies and other information that clients can use to make management decisions. It also has worked with its clients to develop “Covid communications” that can position health care systems as trusted coronavirus-information resources for patients. These approaches don’t have a strong call to action, Seyfer notes. But they are expressing empathy while keeping the health care provider’s name in front of potential patients.

What’s next?

Last summer, Andersen Windows & Doors retuned its messaging. “As the early summer hit, we saw a strong rebound in business,” Andersen CMO Zipfel notes. With many of its customers working from home and unable to take big vacations, they were willing to spend money on home improvements. Consumer confidence stabilized in late summer and into the fall, Zipfel adds.

And Andersen felt confident enough to reactivate the campaign it had planned to launch before the pandemic hit. In the fall, it test-marketed “Love the Life You See” commercials and print ads in Denver and Boston to make sure the messaging was accepted and appropriate. The campaign work, she adds, “is filled with real customers.” The campaign will continue to run in those markets through the spring. Andersen will assess what it learns before taking the campaign into other markets later this year.

As 2021 unfolds, marketing leaders are optimistic that many business sectors will benefit from an economic recovery in late 2021 and early 2022.

Gene Rebeck is TCB’s northern Minnesota correspondent.