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What corporate America’s top CMOs have learned about marketing in a pandemic

September 18, 2020, 8:45 PM UTC

A big part of being a chief marketing officer has long been carefully crafting your company’s messaging—and then laying out a plan to communicate those ideas over the months and years to come.

Then came the pandemic.

When COVID-19 hit marketers—like the rest of us—had to throw their best-laid plans out the window and react to the demands of the moment. Reflecting on the early days of the pandemic during a Fortune Most Powerful Women virtual professional council for CMOs on Thursday, Salesforce EVP and CMO Stephanie Buscemi recalls, “We said, ‘Let’s look at everything we have planned and ask ourselves: Is this going to be relevant for these customers right now?’ A lot of it wasn’t.”

Salesforce’s solution, she says, was to “pivot”—a term that was used at least half a dozen times during the hour-long conversation—by asking customers what they did need and what they found relevant as they faced the onslaught of the virus. And when the company learned that customers were looking for products that would help them with things like contract tracing and employee response, Salesforce worked to provide them, despite the fact that such solutions fell outside of what the CRM giant typically focuses on.

The need to step outside of the usual comfort zone was a theme that ran throughout the meeting. In the case of Univision, that meant being responsive to what the company’s audience needed from a programming perspective, be it the news, news, news of the spring to the turn toward escapism that followed, said Jessica Rodriguez, president and COO, UCI Networks, and CMO, Univision. That included airing a regular 10 p.m. rom com—an unheard of programming choice. “It ended up spending all summer as the No.1 show [in that time slot], regardless of language,” she says.

For the NBA, the stretch into new territory required the league to ask how it could best serve fans when its very reason for being—playing basketball—was temporarily off the table. Recognizing that its players have “huge voices,” the NBA aimed to amplify them as they spoke out about COVID and Black Lives Matter, says the league’s EVP and CMO Kate Jhaveri. (She also nodded to the need for fans to find an “escape”—one reason the Michael Jordan documentary Last Dance ended up airing earlier than previously planned.)

The question of whether companies will continue these new, more spontaneous ways of operating or return to more established patterns remains open. But the executives agreed that their companies have learned from this unprecedented period of disruption. Talking about McDonald’s shift away from daily promotions, U.S. CMO Morgan Flatley, said: “We’re being conscious of doing something more long-term and sustainable—we found a brand voice that I think we had lost.”

While the pandemic required CMOs to be in the moment, the marketers said that decisions companies have made over the past half year about how to engage with their customers will have long-term consequences.

“Your communities are going to remember what you did and how you served them [in this moment],” says Rodriguez. “And that’s the only thing that matters right now.”