Branding in the COVID-19 environment and beyond

Margaret Molloy, Global CMO of Siegel+Gale
Margaret Molloy, Global CMO of Siegel+Gale, is one of the world's foremost marketers when it comes to branding. The 2020 Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has brought into focus some of the key tenants of great brand strategy and implementation. 

You’ve been working from home for a few weeks now. Tell us about that on a personal level.

On a personal level, it’s quite a change. Like in London, today is a glorious day in New York, but we are homebound. I live in Manhattan, middle of the city. I have two teenage boys who are homeschooling, and my husband is also working from home. So it’s a fascinating time, it’s getting us all to develop new muscles and new tolerances. But all in all, we’re just fine. On a professional level, I’ve observed Siegel+Gale are doing very well in this transition. And when I reflect on that, I believe there are a number of reasons. One, we have a very clear purpose. We’re in the business of making it easy for our clients and colleagues to be successful. So that clarity of purpose has helped us. We also have very clear values that we recruit for and live by, and those values are smart, nice and unstoppable. So when you have a clear purpose, when you have values, it really helps inform your behaviours. Now stepping back from our own experience in terms of working at home, to more generalised comments around working in a distributed environment, I’ve been thinking about framework. Because for me, we need frameworks to provide a scaffolding for our thinking, I think of this idea of an A.C.E in flux, Action, Communication and Empathy. So, beginning with empathy, it’s really important in this environment to recognise people are different, and to challenge the assumptions around how people work. For example, not everyone is comfortable with a video conference in their living room. They have boundaries between work and home that are being challenged. Employee communications are vitally important in a distributed workforce and it might surprise you for me to say I’m putting a premium today on written communications, because good writing is good thinking. So everything we’re doing, we have in a very clear, codified brief. Other communication artefacts I found intriguing as we work in a distributed way, include emojis, emojis let you express tone, and tone is really difficult when you’re remote. The third thing I would say in terms of my A.C.E framework is action, how we bring ourselves to that place of balancing empathy, and action. One insight is the tools work really well. The video conferencing tools, the slack tools are really quite powerful. Another is time, I have a number of colleagues working in different time zones. So the ability to do asymmetric work is quite powerful as we follow the sun. So I would suggest our productivity is quite strong at this time.

Is your framework something you’ve sort of acknowledged and created over the course of time? Or is it something that’s been developed by Siegel+Gale, as a way to operate as a company?

I think culture, so much of this is culture. Our culture around our client’s centricity and our quest for simplicity, which we’ll touch on later, really helps inform our behaviours. And then in the context of my team in general, I lead our business development and marketing team. We sat back when Covid-19 came upon us and said, let’s articulate a series of guiding principles that will inform our decisions and serve as a filter for us. So, perhaps I would highlight a few. One guiding principle is, internal first, or as one of my colleagues expressed it, put on your own oxygen mask before you help the person beside you. It’s about making sure we’re really taking care of our colleagues, that we have processes, procedures, daily stand ups that really deal with the internal component. Another guiding principle is, embrace constraints. So, we’re in a constrained environment and like you, we are identifying areas where we can be creative and build new muscle. So using video conferencing and experiencing asymmetric work for example. Another guiding principle is simplifying. Priorities change, so making sure we simplify our work and our communications with each other. The fourth one is listen really hard. Listen to our clients to find out what they need. Listen to do better in new business opportunities as well. And perhaps the most important guiding principle we’ve articulated is, how to be useful. This guiding principle informs our communications with each other, with our clients and with the community at large. And when we take these guiding principles, they help us decide, how to communicate, what to communicate, when to communicate, and what to prioritise.

CMO roles vary a lot, tell us about yours.

Let me elaborate on Siegel+Gale as a backdrop. As you mentioned at the outset, Siegel+Gale is one of the world’s pre-eminent brand strategy, design and experience consultancies. We work with clients to help build brands and we’re part of the Omnicom group. Our work spans the entire brand process, from designing the NBA logo, to standing up Hewlett Packard enterprises when they split from HP, and to a myriad of other wonderful brands around the world. In our experience, clients come to us at inflection points. So at a merger, acquisition or split they need to stand up a new company, give it a new identity in your presence. They also come to us upon the arrival of a new CMO or CEO, when that executive’s ambition for the brand is greater than its current state. A third scenario, quite common, is when a client wants to improve their customer brand experience. So given that context, those are the scenarios in which clients call on Siegel+Gale. My role as our chief marketing officer and that of my team, is to make sure Siegel+Gale is discovered at those points. Often that means creating content, that’s thought leadership and orientation, hosting a lot of events around the world, and indeed responding to client inquiries. So that’s the heart of the job. It’s putting the Siegel+Gale brand in-market, in a way that’s relevant to our client population, and to our colleagues of course.

It seems you deal with companies that are going through periods of great disruption, so whilst we’re seeing an example of a global pandemic being a disruption, it also strikes me that you probably speak with a lot of people at a lot of uncertain times day-to-day. So, do you recognise any similarities in these inflection points where people are looking to change how they’re perceived or how their brands are going to be looked at, in today’s scenario vs a more day-to-day scenario?

That’s a very interesting inference, Joe, I haven’t thought about it like that before. But I think what is important is we anchor the discussion in, what is brand. Because very often that term can be misunderstood. Now for me, I’m a simplifier, I believe in the old fashioned definition that brand is a promise kept. I’ll tell you a story. You mentioned at the outset, I’m Irish. Well I grew up very modestly in Ireland and my father was a gentleman who cared a lot about reputation, sixth grade education, he was a man of great integrity. And I remember as a child growing up, he would repeatedly tell the story of his school master, master Cox. Master Cox he said would admonish the children for writing their names on the desks. Instead he would say, you will be remembered by the deeds you do. And to me that’s a really interesting story because in my father’s context it was about, he would never use this term, building your personal brand, but it’s also true of brands today and always, today even more so. To your question, brands will be remembered by their behaviours. How they behaved will inform their reputation and how they behaved in this environment is going to be crucially important. So in an interesting way, it’s giving brands a context to show their purpose. So we work with many clients and often the beginning of the engagement is helping to articulate a compelling purpose. But in this context, it’s putting purpose to the test. It’s forcing brand leaders to live that purpose and make the necessary sacrifices that sometimes are inherent in living purpose.

You speak regularly about the importance of simplicity in branding, why do you think simple is better?

So at Siegel+Gale for the past 50 years, we’ve believed simple is smart. It’s the ethos upon which our firm was founded, and it is perhaps that North star, that informs all of us when we choose to work with the firm. And indeed our clients quest for simplicity is often the reason they choose Siegel+Gale as their branding partner. But in all of these situations I think it’s helpful to step back, because simplicity is often misunderstood. Some people believe it to be a very reductive concept, others yet think it’s about clarity, yet at Siegel+Gale, we see many dimensions to simplicity. Clarity, of course, which is the ease of understanding. Freshness, in creating a fresh customer experience. Transparency and utility, being useful. Those are the dimensions of simplicity. So, for example people talk to me about simplicity as just clarity, well frankly, if simplicity is just clarity, it runs the risk of being dull and boring. So you need freshness, to create a remarkably clear and fresh customer experience. That’s a little bit of background, your question is more pointed towards why. We’re also a very fact based organisation, we have over the years done extensive research around simplicity, very specifically around simple customer experiences. And at a high level what we have learned is customers reward brands that deliver simple experiences. They reward them with their loyalty, they’re more likely to recommend a brand that provides simpler experiences. They’re also more willing to pay a price premium for brands that afford simple experiences. And finally, we have over the past decade embraced an interesting exercise of ranking the world’s top brands. We call it our world’s simplest brand study. We look at the top performers in that index and compare their stock market performance to their ranking in the index. Interestingly enough, the top 10 brands in the simplicity index consistently outperform the stock markets, which is an indication that perhaps Wall Street rewards simplicity too.

Where can people look to simplify their branding? 

I’ll offer a number of ideas and I’ll refer people to for more depth. The first idea I think begins with a mindset. It has to be intentional, you have to want to simplify. Second point, it has to come from the top down. Leaders have to embrace simplicity as part of their value system, reward behaviours that exhibit simplicity and embedded it into everything they do. Very tactically, clean language is a great place to start. So often we have a tendency to be excessively verbose. There was a time and era when using jargon projected knowledge, with this it’s the opposite, it’s around using simple language. Another opportunity is presented by design. How can we use iconography and visuals to simplify. And of course, intrical to all of this is understanding your customers journey and identifying the points on that journey where you can remove friction. For me a lot of these conversations come down to mindset. If I look at the brands who are doing well on simplicity, firstly, they’re very intentional about it, but secondly, they’re positioning their companies, not just in the thinking of consumers, but in the doing. They’re focused not merely on the buying experience, but how the customer experiences the product when they use it. So that’s a meaningful distinction. They spend less time thinking about winning an award in award shows and more time getting a referral in applications like Yelp. So, it’s really about thinking in a truly customer centric way and using simplicity at every point where you can simplify the customer’s interaction. I’ll leave you with a final thought. For me, as I reflect on simplicity and customer experience, it’s about reducing the cognitive load on your user, your reader, anyone in your constituency to interact with your brand.

How does an agency prepare for a crisis like this?

There is certainly no blueprint for a pandemic like the one we’re experiencing. But I believe some of the points I touched on earlier, having a clear purpose, having clarity around your values, having a culture where people feel they’re about something greater than just their individual performance. Those qualities will work for any company in terms of standing any shock it will experience. Leadership, having leaders who really empathise with their colleagues, having communication systems that work are really profoundly useful. And when I say leadership, of course, there are the CEOs and the C suite, but also, everyone can be a leader. What’s fascinating about this experience, I’m observing at our own company and in the clients I speak with, is the emergence of leaders, people stepping up and being what we would call at Siegel+Gale, culture carriers. They’re exhibiting the culture and they’re serving as role models for others. Another aspect that’s important is for CEOs and others in leadership positions to have access to clients. Be of direct access of course, but also through platforms like LinkedIn. Using these platforms to communicate their message directly is vitally important with the market. And the messaging has to essentially balance the showing of gratitude to the employees, showing business continuity and thirdly, articulating what that company is doing, be it an agency or brand, for the community. And we’re seeing C level leaders across the board use LinkedIn to exhibit those qualities.

In your opinion, what is the role of leadership and communication in times of crisis like Covid-19?

I think in times such as this, we all look to leaders for guidance, we look to leaders for empathy. What will be interesting, is after this crisis settles, and we look back, I think would be an exploration of leadership styles. In recent years, laissez-faire leadership has been very much in vogue. The traditional command and control approach hasn’t been as popular, at least in the literature and popular culture. I suspect there’ll be something of an upheaval in that going forward. There’s a demand for leaders who will be decisive, who will make decisions, because speed is of essence. I think also brands can be leaders and we may get to that in a moment. With leaders who have the courage of their convictions, are able to empathise with their colleagues, their employees, and also the larger ecosystem to create partnerships that may not previously existed. It’s also interesting when we reflect on our own lives, brands and for that matter, corporations are more important, arguably and have more muscle, than sometimes government. So there is in this era, tremendous obligation and responsibility on brands and companies to show leadership. It’s an opportunity, but it’s also a responsibility I believe.

Should brands who are short in their positioning and tone of voice, who are still doing well at this time, in this time, use this as an opportunity to try new things? Or, if it’s working should they just be carrying on? (asked by James Sandbrook)

I think it’s always important to take the temperature of your environment. So I’m looking now at many brands, and I’m very impressed by the number of brands who are acting very appropriately in this environment. I put them into a number of camps, which may have James sort of articulate which company he’s thinking about, or which camp. The first one is taking care of employees. I look at companies like Target in the US and others who are asking more of frontline workers. So they are doing things like improving wages and bonuses for employees. The second category is being useful. There are a variety of ways in which companies are being useful. We see fashion and lifestyle brands like the Gap or Zara retooling their operations to create gowns for hospital workers. We see LVMH changing their fragrance plant to create sanitizer and make it available free to French hospitals. In the being useful camp, we also see large manufacturers like GM and Ford realigning their production capabilities to create ventilators. And if we look at service providers, who are not in the product business but in the service business, we see entities like Ireland’s postal service An Post, re-deploying postmen to check on the elderly in addition to delivering mail. Gorgeous activities around being useful. Another dimension is being inspiring. So Diageo for example, with their Guinness ad, re-visited that campaign entirely on March 17th, which for them is a huge day, it’s the day of the St. Patrick’s Day parades around the world. They came out with a wonderful ad that said ‘we will march again’, that’s inspiring. So, there’s being useful in a very functional way, there’s inspiring, there’s taking care of employees and also frankly, there’s donating. So, I’m very inspired by the companies who are contributing either financial resources or other resources. JetBlue, the US carrier, has made flights available free for frontline workers. Marriott Hotels, also similar programming. So when you’re doing well, is a good time to do good.

What about brands making missteps?

I am seeing missteps and they usually occur when brands are being too opportunistic or too centred around themselves. So, one large tech company launched a premium technology product during this era, at a time when it was surrounded by people who are struggling with their livelihoods. It felt very off in terms of tone and it lacked empathy. Other brands are doing things like shouting about themselves and it’s just so off. One brand in Singapore for example, took the sanitizer bottle and the brand name Dettol, a supplier of sanitizer, and switched out Dettol and put Data. It just seemed so opportunistic and so off in terms of where the climate is. So, there is no blueprint, it’s hard to get it right, but it does speak to the discussion we had earlier. If you know your purpose and if you articulate guiding principles, then those principles should serve as filters. So, in my situation, if I articulated a principle of ‘is it useful?’ arguably, those two behaviours wouldn’t have gotten through that filter.

Is there a place for humour in response to Covid-19?

Humour is always tricky, and I certainly don’t pride myself in my ability to be humorous. But I would say there’s an opportunity for fun, maybe fun versus humour. For example, West Elm, the furniture company, the team there experienced zoom conference calls much like we’re having. They decided to create fun backdrops that people could use to illuminate and essentially have fun with their zoom experience. So, that’s sort of fun versus humour. Because humour is difficult at the best of times. I saw some funny memes going around early in the process and at different stages. But if we come back to the four stage process, one needs to take the temperature of the market and see where there’s an opportunity for the different types of humour, perhaps anti-humour. I believe a rather smart campaign was run by T-Mobile. T-Mobile are famous for their April Fool’s Day pranks. So they decided this year to stop with pranks. Instead, they launched something along the lines of give thanks not pranks as a campaign, and they made a donation. They also donated quite a significant amount for each person who would retweet that campaign. So it’s about creating entertainment, without trying to be too humorous.

A lot of brands have changed their logos to promote social distancing, what are your thoughts on this?

So, that’s a category I call brands as disseminators of public service announcements. So, trying to perpetuate the desired behaviour of social distancing. I believe, for the most part, the brands who are doing this are well-intentioned and they’re trying to be creative. However, I think it’s flawed, I think it lacks a strategic underpinning. So for example, one brand purchased a billboard in Times Square, and they affected their logo in such a way that it demonstrated social distancing. For me, there was an awkward irony about that, you’re buying outdoor in an environment where we’re not supposed to go out. So that didn’t quite hang together for me. Another brand did a similar thing, a very well known brand, and I think what struck me about it wasn’t the poor execution, it was from a design standpoint executed well, it was the misallocation of resources. What is the opportunity cost? What could you be doing with the money you’re spending on that has more impact in the community? I’ll give you an example Joe, of an alternative. Nike decided, with the same intention, to spread the message that social distancing is desirable. They launched a social media campaign and essentially, they were encouraging people to stay inside or play inside. They launched their campaign on social media and they had some of their very influential followers and influencers re-tweet it. Much higher impact, much smarter in my view, all well-intentioned, but the execution was superior because it was useful.

There’s almost a feeling like brands feel they have to engage. Do brands have to say anything?

I think there’s wisdom to that, they certainly need to speak to their employees, that’s absolute. In terms of what you’re saying to the market, it’s a question of proportions. What is the proportion of communication versus action, and if those proportions get off, then maybe you want to revisit the strategy. Relevance too. Your brand may have the ability to retune to provide direct support to frontline workers. You may have the financial resources to be able to make donations, but also celebrating your employees. I submit to you Joe, in the not too distant future, our adoration of celebrities and so called influencers will shift and we will suddenly start really appreciating frontline workers, the truck drivers, the shop assistants, the wonderful people in our hospitals. Those are the heroes, our heroes are going to change. And companies and brands are full of heroes who are doing tremendous work on behalf of clients. Those are the people who should be speaking for the brands right now, not least in their actions.

How do you differentiate between your content and opinion, rather than just adding to the noise during this time? (asked by Jen Smith)

Obviously, it depends on your industry and your sector. I would offer some filters. Relevance. Is it relevant and to whom? Is your content useful? Is it actionable? Is it backed up by fact? Is it a new idea, or are you just contributing to the noise? Or are you framing an old issue in a new and fresh way? Perhaps this is a good point to remind ourselves of the framework from the beginning, the different stages in the COVID-19 crisis. Your content must map to the mindset of your audience at those stages. So if you have something incredibly useful, a ‘how to’ piece for example, but you can’t present that in an environment where people are in a shock stage, because they’re not in the mindset to receive it. However, when people perhaps are in the dislocation stage, they may be more open to that content. So being aware of context can be vitally important in forming the cadence of your content.

We are seeing brands engage in new partnerships in the face of Covid-19. What brands are getting it right?

I think that is one of the most exciting outcomes/unintended consequences of COVID-19, brands are looking outside their own four walls. I’m particularly intrigued by these public and private partnerships. One example jumped out yesterday, CVS health, a major healthcare company and drugstore here in the United States, announced a partnership whereby they would work with the new Abbott test to provide testing facilities for more than a thousand people a day in the states of Rhode Island and in Georgia. What a wonderful partnership, really supporting the government in new and creative ways. Another one that came out yesterday, American Express and Hilton Hotels are partnering with the owner communities of the many Hilton properties to create lodgings for first line workers. These are partnerships that may never have been conceived of previously. And it shows a perspective from when people open their minds to thinking differently, great outcomes can happen. Often when they lose the shackles of selfishness, when they really embrace constraints, lots of the principles we talked about at the outset, they try to simplify. They embrace constraints, they try to be useful. They look outside themselves, great things can happen. And my hope is that would be an enduring legacy of this all together rather negative experience.

We keep being told now is the time to divert from performance metrics to brand engagement, but what specifically does brand engagement mean? How do you measure the effectiveness of these brand metrics? (asked by Trisha)

So that’s a long question and I’m happy to have another conversation about it, but the premise to the question is sound, which is, we should measure. There are different ways to look at it. The obvious ones include social media engagement. The others include commercial metrics, like purchase of your product, referral of your product and reduced cost of sale. The third’s a core set of metrics, our business outcomes. So its sales, its stock market performance improvement. But it’s also important to recognise we’re in a strange time right now, so the data may be very skewed. So first look and see what’s your baseline. Companies need to have a baseline brand metrics, and then look at the outcome of changing any of their behaviours. So certainly, social media is powerful for engagement, sentiment, the traditional brand tracker metrics. Or perhaps it might behove a company to think about the questions they’re asking. So are you aware of my brand, there might be an opportunity to do new studies to see how they’re perceived in terms of their actions in a COVID-19 context.

How can companies best enable their staff to live their purpose? (asked by Phil)

First things first, have a clear purpose. Make sure people understand it. We have worked with so many companies and done research where there is a purpose, but people don’t know it. So is it a good purpose? Is it a purpose people can buy into? Is it well understood across the company? Then, are their values articulated that exhibit how that purpose comes to life? So one of the best ways is to show role models. Highlight people who are living the purpose. We’re in an era now where we will remember the stories, it’s a storytelling era, it’s a people era. So telling stories, highlighting purpose in action, makes it very tangible for people. And I would offer that as a quick suggestion.

Many ‘thought-leaders’ are giving advice right now that it is very much the time to double down on branding for when the new normal begins, as customers will remember the brands that stood up and were counted. Do you agree with this advice, and if so, do you have any ideas for those looking to invest the time in their branding?

I believe you’re right and I think it comes back to, maybe that’s how it should always be. So, if we define brand, as experiences, brand is the set summation of all the experiences your company delivers to customers, then these are sets of experiences. I think one of the challenges when people talk about doubling down on brand is they define brand way too narrowly, they define brand as words and pictures, as broadcasting messages. Instead, I would offer you that today, brand is no longer static, brand is not merely words and pictures. Those are important elements of brands, what brand is about experience. If that’s how you’re defining doubling down on brand, then absolutely, I agree with the thought leaders. But if it’s about pontificating about yourself, then it’s flawed. I will say though, it’s challenging for marketing leaders right now to prioritise and there is a temptation to spend all your budget on performance marketing, demand generation etc. and that’s flawed also because you miss the opportunity to essentially build your brand. So, it’s vitally important for brand leaders not to swing the pendulum too far and be so focused on lead generation, at the expense of having a great brand and having a tremendous brand experience.

What do you think is top of mind for CMO’s right now?

I’ll attempt to simplify a caveat and say it depends on the category. Obviously in a growth category versus an industry that’s struggling, it will vary. I hope top of mind, is supporting leadership, in looking after employees. Another one is business continuity. Many CMO’s have had significant growth targets and they have to revisit those targets. They may be up, they may be down. Third is brand, how will we be remembered after the crisis, what’s the reputation, what do we want to be known for? The fourth is how to go from this dislocation phase, to the recovery phase. Sometimes that involves changing the creatives on ad campaigns. Sometimes that involves visiting with a merger or acquisition that may or may not have been sensible at the beginning of the conversation. And finally, thinking about, what is the new normal, what are the new behaviours we’re learning now, that will not go away? Those of us who were in professional context, around 9/11 will remember, it was a different world. Security checks were different at the airport, security checks going into offices were different. So there is a new normal. We will never go back to 2019 and CMO’s are thinking about what is the new normal, but that’s phase four, they’re not there yet.

Does applying simplicity apply to both B2B and B2C brands? And what are the important differences? (asked by Claire)

So I would refer you to some studies at Absolutely, your premise Claire is spot on. In fact, B2B brands are among our top clients when it comes to simplicity, because they recognise they’re often complex. Here’s what I would say to you, people buy from people. The buyers at B2B companies are humans too, there’s an insight for you. They too want to reduce the cognitive effort in purchasing from your company. They too want to navigate a product architecture that’s easy. They too need clarity. They too need a little bit of freshness and surprise I talked about. How you go about it will vary, but those principles and dimensions of simplicity absolutely apply to B2B, and they are some of my favourite opportunities to simplify.

Finally, we’d like to ask about your personal passions and projects like #WearingIrish. Briefly tell us about that and why you started a side hustle. 

I’ll go back to storytelling. About four years ago, I discovered an untold story, brands across Ireland are producing world class fashion and accessories, yet few people outside Ireland could name an Irish fashion brand. So I created the hashtag #WearingIrish to change that. Fast forward to today and it’s something of a movement. We’ve hosted a variety of events in New York, with the collaboration of some wonderful partners. There’s a website, I would love it if your followers and the community would follow Wearing Irish on Instagram and Twitter. And frankly, it’s a passion project for me because it lets me use the gifts I have, the gift of access, the gift of the ability to give exposure to these brands. And in a funny way, it seems very timely right now. Supporting small brands, supporting small business, is something we should all be considering. And my lessons from wearing Irish, I think will parlay well into that.

A little something for you, our positively lovely reader, to think about during these hard times.

During this talk, Margaret made so many incredibly insightful points, but if there’s one takeaway we believe you should walk away with, it’s to be empathetic. Whether you’re working on a piece of marketing collateral or going about your daily life, realise it’s not about you, me or I, it’s about us. We’re all in this situation together, so a little support shown from time-to-time can and will go a long way. As master Cox said, “we will be remembered for the deeds we do”.