The North Face Q&A: 6 Ways Brands Are Navigating the Coronavirus Crisis
How are brands and marketers navigating the coronavirus crisis? That was the central question at the recent Brand Innovators Virtual Summit, where experts from some of the most successful brands in the world weighed in. The answer involves empowering employees and helping customers navigate the daunting challenges they face in high-stress times, according to Bethany Evans, director of digital marketing and loyalty at The North Face, a VF Company. In a conversation with Treasure Data’s Thomas “TK” Kurian, Evans shared great tips and examples of how brands are responding to coronavirus with purpose-led messaging and creativity.
You can watch the entire Brand Innovators Virtual Summit (note: the interview between Evans and Kurian starts at 215:00). So what were the takeaways? We’ve outlined six key lessons below:
#1. Put employees first.
Evans believes in the philosophy that companies who take care of their employees have employees who take care of their customers. The “employee first” mindset at The North Face means paying retail staff while physical stores are closed and taking extra precautions to keep distribution center employees safe.
It’s not just the right thing to do, she argues, it’s also good business. Right now, customers are watching the way companies respond to the crisis and how they treat their employees—and it’s impacting brand perceptions. Evans pointed out that in a matter of weeks, the site DidTheyHelp.com was created to help people find out how companies and celebrities are responding to the crisis. Leaderboards highlight the “heroes” and “zeroes.” Currently Telus, the Canadian telecommunications company, is ranked in first place on the list of heroes. You can read all about the company’s good deeds here.
Consumers are watching how companies and celebrities respond, and the site DidTheyHelp.com was created to highlight the heroes and zeroes of the crisis.
#2. Pivot to meet customers in their new world.
Kurian, director of industry solutions at Treasure Data, brought up the urgency of getting a complete picture of customer behavior, which has never been more critical as brands adjust to new retail realities and prepare for what’s next. Using all available data streams and all available channels—such as social media, web, purchase, and loyalty programs—becomes even more important in detecting the fast shifts in consumer needs that frequently happen in a crisis. (Walmart, for example, famously detected in March increased sales for tops—and tellingly, NOT pants—as many customers across America began working remotely from home using Zoom and other conferencing software that typically only shows a person from the waist up.)
“[Data] unification is the dream we’re all striving for in marketing,” Evans said when Kurian asked about the importance of getting a complete view of what customers are doing and thinking about.
#3. Embrace ‘actions, not ads.’
Evans shared the wisdom of AT&T’s Chief Brand Officer Fiona Carter, who recently spoke to Campaign US about how AT&T shifted its approach during the crisis. “It became very clear to me that we needed to adjust and focus on how we as a brand and business can support and solve issues for our customers, rather than the traditional selling that we normally do,” Carter said. “We’ve been focused on supportive practical solutions that are helpful in the time of Covid-19—actions, not ads.”
Recent consumer research shows a range in how consumers feel about hearing from brands right now, Evans said. What’s important is purpose-led messaging that helps support customers in non-intrusive ways.
At The North Face, the company launched a 50 percent healthcare workers discount without much promotion. But the news quickly spread by word-of-mouth and through social media, and the company has now extended the discount through the rest of this year due to the ongoing crisis.
Another example is Mattel’s newly launched #ThankYouHeroes collection. The collection includes action figures of front-line workers, such as nurses, doctors, EMTs, and delivery drivers, and net proceeds are being donated to First Responders First.
Mattel launched a new line of heroes that includes nurses, doctors, EMTs, and delivery drivers. Net proceeds will be donated to First Responders First.
#4. Creatively engage customers.
When done well, marketing is more than communication—it’s connection. Some of the best brands in the world have lifted the human spirit during this crisis. Nike was fast out of the gate with its Play For The World campaign. The message is simple and meaningful—we can’t play together, but we can play for the world. Nike also shifted resources to support healthcare workers with personal protective equipment and has opened up its digital resource library so those staying home can stay active indoors.
Nike’s Play For The World campaign provides inspiration and encouragement to all athletes currently at home.
Timberland is another example of a company that quickly aligned its messaging to reflect the sudden shift in consumer behavior. Its Earth Day message—essentially a love letter to Nature—is a reminder that “nature needs heroes.”
For The North Face, Evans said the company’s athletes have been sharing stories from home, including workouts and sustainability projects, like Austin Smith’s 1953 fire truck-turned-camper conversion using The North Face duffel bag materials.
And let’s not forget the fun being had on TikTok. Brands have issued challenges to those staying home, like Van’s “how you balance your Vans.”
#5. Double down on cross-team communication.
At global companies, there’s strength in communication between teams. They’re likely to experience the crisis differently, potentially seeing different trends in customer data and customer behavior, depending on geography and each team’s product lines and expertise. The marketing team at The North Face has been part of twice-weekly calls with its counterparts across all of its affiliated VF Company brands, including Dickies, JanSport, Timberland, and Vans. The teams share lessons, ideas, and feedback about what’s working and what’s not. This type of engagement is important now, but it can also help marketing teams long after this crisis if it becomes a part of the corporate culture.
#6. Prepare for what’s next.
No one knows when retail will return to “normal” or what normal will even look like, but everyone seems to agree that in-store shopping will be different. Turning the tables, Evans asked Kurian about the conversations brands are currently having with Treasure Data. The focus is on three things, Kurian said. Brands want to know what investments they need to make now to support the dramatic scaling of digital, they want to learn from other brands, and they want to prepare for the personalization needed as shoppers return to physical locations.
For more insight on how brands are navigating the coronavirus crisis, you can listen to the entire replay of the Brand Innovators Virtual Summit, reminder, the session with Evans and Kurian starts at 215:00.