The Path to Purchase Institute has assembled its most impressive collection of thought leaders ever to reflect on the impact the COVID-19 crisis will have on shopper engagement. The following series of articles presents their insightful perspectives on four questions about the current status and future potential for the shopper commerce industry.

  1. What is the most beneficial lesson you’ve learned about shoppers during the crisis?
  2. What new business practice, strategy, process or marketing tool/tactic have you adopted that you will continue to use post-pandemic? (See answers below.)
  3. What recent change in shopper behavior or retail operations do you most hope will continue after the crisis ends?
  4. Moving forward, what do you see as the greatest opportunity for achieving success with shoppers?

What new business practice, strategy, process or marketing tool/tactic have you adopted that you will continue to use post-pandemic?

Neil Ackerman
Head of Advanced Technologies, Global Supply Chain, Middle East and Africa
Johnson & Johnson

It is not specific to one marketing tool. The pandemic may end and another, different adversity will reveal itself. The key is that people have learned and continue to develop the skill of resiliency. I propose that we change the tone of the words “marketing tactics” to “purposeful engagement.” It is clear that across the globe, change will happen and the companies that engage consumers with purpose and mission will win. People want to be a part of the change in a positive and meaningful way. Those who like the old ways of doing things will continue to be more irrelevant. Personally, I look forward to seeing how all of us face these challenges together. 

Keith Anderson
SVP, Strategy & Insights

During the crisis, we’ve really made it a priority to begin with the “most generous interpretation,” a cultural behavior that grants that another party (for example, a colleague, client, prospect or partner) is doing the best they can given the circumstances. In challenging and extraordinary situations, it’s a good way to treat others with consideration and respect. It also helps condition one to make fewer assumptions, ask better questions and minimize adversarial thinking. (Worthy objectives in less “interesting” times, too.)

Shaun Brown
SVP–Managing Director & Shopper Marketing Discipline Lead

We were already shifting the vast majority of our shopper marketing capabilities to digital, shopper media and e-commerce, but what was caused by the pandemic has fast-forwarded the need for all shopper marketers to think and execute in ways that were forecasted to take place over the next five to 10 years. As a result, we were forced to balance forward-thinking and planning for key periods on the promotional calendar through nimble action in the moment. Those quick-turn opportunities focus on connecting with shoppers on digital platforms across social, retailer websites and shopper media.

Vanessa Bueno
Marketing Director

Many companies choose to decrease marketing and advertising spend during a time of crisis. This is actually a great opportunity to speak to consumers through advertising. Digital marketing ads should have a call to action that links specifically to "add to cart" functionality for online grocery shopping. It's tactical but a great way to drive trial and retention for CPG brands. 

Rich Butwinick

We've been proactive in sharing our agency's knowledge, experience and insight (and how to apply it during times of uncertainty) with a broader audience rather than keeping these learnings internally. Providing transparency into what’s going on inside our heads is something that employees, clients and partners all seem to value. Sharing knowledge increases productivity and speed. Rather than waiting for something to be perfect, moving faster and being nimble encourages more possibilities to emerge. 

April Carlisle
Vice President NRS, Shopper Marketing
Coca-Cola Co.

Digital-first shopper marketing plans. (Of course, we were doing great digital work before, but now we’ve given the great push to all stakeholders (i.e. retailers, brands, salespeople, bottlers, etc.) to lead with digital. Also, agility on messaging. Developing (or breaking down) processes to make quick decisions on marketing messaging across all touchpoints to ensure the programming/messaging is appropriate and not tone-deaf to what’s happening in the world.

Marta Cyhan
Chief Marketing Officer

As we’ve seen shopping behavior swing wildly from one week to the next, long-term planning and forecasting has become obsolete. But it is possible to respond rapidly to shifting shopper needs and attitudes by measuring and tracking those changes in real-time. It’s critical to quickly engage the right shoppers with the right message offering the right value at the right time.

Sandeep Dadlani
Chief Digital Officer
Mars, Incorporated

Overall, we feel the company’s clock speed has shot up. In a crisis, you don’t debate. Rather, you focus on how to make the impossible happen, and how to do it quickly.

We're listening to our consumers and identifying actionable insights we can implement with speed in a very dynamic series of sprints that are impacting everything from route to market to marketing. We’re doing this faster than ever before, so we’re always discussing ways to retain this speed well beyond the pandemic.

To make this happen, we continue to invest in and grow our user centricity (or consumer centricity) movement across Mars; our focus and investments in data, analytics and social listening; our focus on new digital routes to market; and our focus on automation.

Craig Elston
Global Chief Strategy Officer

For our clients, we have seen a rapid acceleration of their digital shelves. From delivery in the restaurant category and upgrades to ordering technology to the advancement of tools that facilitate contactless consultation and sales support such as mobile assistants and tele-medicine visits, many clients are not only trying to remove friction in the shopping journey, but also trying to minimize the level of physical contact between staff and shoppers.

For our business, it’s been the rapid acceleration of working remotely and conducting our days virtually. We’ve always had the tools, but our staff’s rapid adoption, acceptance and normalization of everyday work has been incredible. We are updating a lot of policies and practices, from recruitment to meetings, in order to continue operating in this way moving forward. Personally, I hope this all means less time on airplanes and more time with family in the future.

Kerry Farrell
SVP Sales & Customer Success

We’ve conducted a lot of Zoom meetings, which we did before but now have really ramped up its use. We found that when we were able to engage clients on video (not just by dialing in), that we can absolutely operate this way. We all need to be flexible and human when a dog barks, a cat walks across a screen or when we get a visit from someone’s child. It actually humanizes the experience and brings people closer together. We don’t have to be face-to-face all of the time to connect. Digital has enabled us to react with even more speed and agility. Instead of waiting a few weeks to connect with someone because of everyone’s travel schedules we are all able to get on a video conference and get things done.  

Michael Forhez
Global Managing Director, Consumer Markets

Among the many lessons learned will be the need for a more strategic focus between retailer and brand that includes an accelerated drive for digital transformation. In addition to the rapid move to 5G technology, shoppers themselves will demand and increasingly expect a seamless, personalized, frictionless experience in real-time.

Business leaders will have no choice and, in fact, will have every incentive for hastening change. The most successful retailers and brands will seek to build customer-centric, data-driven capabilities that simultaneously support flexible retail platforms and product/service offerings with resilient supply chains, informed by empowered consumers. This transformation will require:

  • The ability to turn “big data” into AI- and machine learning-processed “smart data.” In a GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] and CCPA [California Consumer Privacy Act] compliant environment, first-party internal data must be combined with first-party anonymous data to construct a 360-degree view of the total available market, not just current customers. 
  • Capabilities that include the ability to sense and respond to an individual customer journey, create specific product and marketing communications and integrated marketing communications roadmaps to evolve engagement opportunities for revenue growth.
  • Retail operational capabilities that include the ability to manage margins, enable a flexible and restructured workforce and integrate streamlined e-commerce operations.
  • Query tools that offer retailers and their suppliers the ability to easily access “smart data” through decision-support systems that allow permitted users to conduct shared interactive analysis for adapting to change in near- or real-time.
  • Systems that operate at the local, national and global level, as required, to reduce IT costs and complexity while delivering a higher ROI.

Carlos Garcia
Industry Manager, CPG-Retail

At the start of 2020, a major part of our focus was working closely with our retail and CPG partners to drive traffic to physical stores. Given the impact of COVID-19, that focus has shifted to the immediate need of driving delivery, buy-online-pickup-in-store (BOPIS) and contactless curbside pickup. Many shoppers are understandably anxious about visiting stores and about being around crowds of people. Because of this, retailers are bolstering their curbside and BOPIS capabilities. Many are using their physical stores as online fulfillment centers to help rapidly increase their capacity to meet the increased demand for buying CPG products online, which is a trend we expect to see continue. A second trend we expect to continue is CPG brands and retailers using digital tools to help people better navigate their local markets. Local CPG messaging historically has been highly promotional, focusing on what items are on sale that week at a local store.

While we expect that to continue, it will also expand to be more functional, providing shoppers with basic information like local store hours, delivery and BOPIS options and product availability especially for essential categories that have been out of stock. Both of these are areas where we will continue to support our CPG and retail partners to help make this easier for them to do. 

Sarah Gleason

COVID-19 has required that we and our clients move to ways of working entirely virtual. Post-pandemic, we expect to see a blend of virtual and face-to-face formats for training or strategy sessions. They need to be complementary to one another. There will always be times when face-to-face meetings are appropriate to get a team aligned on meaty, strategic planning. But, as technologies have progressed and people become more comfortable with them, it is possible to facilitate some really impactful virtual meetings, workshops, etc. Since this also eliminates a lot of travel for multi-nationals, this is a big win and likely a behavior that will last a long time.

Jason Goldberg
Chief Commerce Strategy Officer
Publicis Communications

Great is the enemy of good. Motivated retailers were able to move mountains to implement new processes at a pace that would have been unimaginable pre-COVID-19. That pace of innovation is the new normal.

Elizabeth Harris
Chief Strategy Officer

I am incredibly inspired by the work I am seeing come out of our agency. Leo Burnett once said, “what helps people, helps business.” As we think through with our clients, “what would help people right now,” we have come up with some pretty amazing creative ideas that simultaneously help humans and drive business for our clients. From developing contactless shopping ideas for clients like Intel and Dunkin, to creating ways for Dixie to take problems off people’s plates, to the Coors Light Zoom clone machine by Molson Coors Beverago Co. (View video below). Creativity in the service of helping people is good for everyone. 

Nick Jones
Chief Growth Officer

We’ve encouraged clients to be a source of help and guidance during the pandemic, whether it’s inspiring home cooking or kids’ activities; bundling cleaning products; helping unemployed bartenders, wait-staff and small businesses; or making it easier and more affordable to buy essential items.  Brands are like people: we’re sure shoppers will remember who had their back when all this is over.

Brian Kittelson
SVP, Managing Director of Commercialization and Shopper Services
Match Marketing Group

Social listening has always been part of what we do to stay on top of shopper attitudes, and our focus in this area will continue because of the insights it provides. During the height of the pandemic, we saw shifts in shopper attitudes and behaviors that informed our decision to either quickly adjust our messaging and creative to bolster relevancy or put our marketing efforts on hold. Social listening has and will continue to be a key indicator of real-time shopper sentiment for us and our clients.

Wendy Liebmann
CEO & Chief Shopper
WSL Strategic Retail

While we already had a very flexible and often virtual work environment at WSL, we’ve learned quickly that in times of crisis we need to stay engaged with our team to show we care and that we are there for them, that we are transparent about what’s going on and that we share both our successes and challenges and encourage innovative thinking amidst this all. We’ve adopted that same approach and built resources for our clients too. 

We've recognized that we need to be responsive and fast in understanding where shoppers are headed and the arc of their journey through the crisis. We’ve conducted our “How America Shops” research with even greater frequency, granularity and provocative thinking so that we can help clients respond, adapt and envision the future fast. 

We’ve quickly added new tools and resources to support and guide clients, including launching our “How America Shops in the COVID-19 Crisis” webinar series of quantified research (from March, April, June, August and November) and our new “Retail Safari” series where our U.S. and global scouts have been on the ground as retail reopened around the nation and the world (e.g. in Texas, Florida, New Zealand, Denmark and the UK) so clients could understand best (and worst) practices. We’ve added new modes of communication including webinars, podcasts and our weekly What’s Up @ WSL alerts (i.e. a fast and furious view of what we see and what it means), so clients can stay informed and inspired. Plus, we’ve created new strategy frameworks to help clients identify opportunities and challenges in the coming months and years.

Sheila Lukaszewski
Senior Director, Shopper Engagement

We’ll continue using video at all times while hosting and attending virtual meetings. While I have worked virtually, at least some of the time, for years, I used video only infrequently for remote meetings. I have learned how much more effective and impactful these virtual interactions are via video, and I will continue to use it for remote meetings and even quick chats.    

Tina Manikas

We now have a truly responsive model ready to move with agility to create and put work out in the world. Responsiveness means being prepared, versus being reactive. We have created new ways to create, deploy and work, as well as employ an always-on, scenario-planning mode for our clients and for our work.

Caroline Masullo
VP Marketing
Peapod Digital Labs

Now more than ever, we have streamlined business processes to put first-party data at the center of retention and prospected strategy based on high lifetime-value customer insights. We did this by further automating our internal data system processes and marketing technology stack as well as putting together a task force to spearhead COVID-19-related customer insights and persona development to improve personalization.

Laura Moser
Director, Business Leadership & Client Development
HMT Associates

We are fast-tracking test-and-learns for digital spaces that have not previously been made a priority to allow more nimble transitions of plans, if needed in the future. We also dedicated resources to concepting pivot experiences and how to engage consumers/shoppers in meaningful ways if live events are not possible.

Since many shopper journeys have been altered by new behaviors and media choices, we are working with clients to examine if our existing shopper journey maps require new behavioral research and/or if we can pivot now to address new paths. We also enhanced our connected media resources to address shifted, incremental and expanded client planning.

Brady Noon
Director of Omnichannel Marketing
SC Johnson

From omnichannel planning to fast and flexible omnichannel planning, agility is our new superpower.

Chris Perry

With influencer marketing becoming an increasingly critical part of brand strategies, one influencer stakeholder that seems to have been underleveraged historically is the employee.  

Anta Sports, one of China’s largest sportswear retailers, mobilized 30,000 employees and distributors in response to the COVID-19 business impact with an affiliate program offering sales commissions on any e-commerce purchases they drove via customized WeChat QR codes. (Many Chinese consumers buy online with QR codes via WeChat Pay linked to debit cards and bank accounts.)

Retailers and brands should consider tapping and incentivizing their hundreds to thousands of employees as official influencers to accelerate their sales in both challenging and good economic times.

Matt Rader
VP, Brand Commercialization and Shopper Services
Match Marketing Group

Continual messaging dips, as brands often have a standard practice of testing messaging six to 12 months ahead of a new packaging launch or when advertising hits the market. It’s a traditional, slow-cooker approach to “set it and forget it.” However, what is evident through this pandemic and even the more recent civil unrest, is that constant modification and adjustment to the contextual situation that brands face is imperative. It has been talked about in the past, but often is never practiced. This is something I will continue leveraging going forward. The importance of this dovetails nicely with an approach that identifies and isolates motivational trigger marketing. And finding those triggers is critical, but the contextual communication and brand narrative must also be front and center.

While working with a client that was impacted positively by the pandemic due to their portfolio offerings, we sat at the precipice of launching a new item, which quite honestly had communication ill-suited to meet the moment and the march forward in the context of the situation. However, everything was built for the brand, and just six months earlier, a communication plan had been laid out with great scores. What did we do? We needed to investigate whether the messaging was tone-deaf to the moment. So, in a matter of months, we found what was once a top claim became a bottom, quintile option compared to other claim options, which were far superior. We replanned and are in a far better situation to win with this brand because we paused to assess in the moment. To win, we need to move at the speed of the shopper, and largely we are doing that tactically, but agencies and clients need a playbook to move at the speed of the shopper strategically. Evergreen messaging dips offer a tool for facilitating that, which I plan to continue to use.  

Rob Rivenburgh
Chief Executive Officer, North America
The Mars Agency

Perfect is the enemy of good. You need to be agile and nimble as well as ready to adjust in real-time in response to consumer and retailer behavior and government and health officials’ responses. 

Bryant Ross
VP, Brand Commercialization and Shopper Services
IN Connected Marketing

We have reframed our approaches for how we work with clients on planning. While annual planning is important, we are increasingly focusing on agile planning that looks at smaller timeframes and triages activity on a monthly, even weekly, basis. Additionally, we have built new capabilities to help clients navigate retailer media networks, which have taken on increased importance during the pandemic. We recognize it is now so crucial to look at retailer search and display activity within the context of a brand’s overall media plan, and for our clients to develop analytic approaches that standardize how third-party and retailer media are measured and compared.

Dan Sabanosh
Director, Shopper Marketing
Great Northern InStore

We have applied a much more disciplined approach to monitoring marketplace and shopper trends. We always have monitored the landscape, but we have adopted a more formal process to maintain awareness and dedicated blocks of time to stay up to date on the latest information, analysis and communication through the organization.

Jonathan Schultz
Managing Director
TPN Retail

As an agency, it was important for us to first listen and learn about what was happening in the marketplace, and to do the same within our clients’ organizations. From there, we began to leverage our proprietary agency tools and resources in new, dynamic ways as well as develop actionable learnings and strategies for our brand clients. Internally, we formed a “think-force,” a cross between a think tank and task force. With a bias toward action, agile collaboration fueled this group of cross-functional leaders who worked to understand connections beyond those in a traditional shopper journey and quickly identify the implications. For instance, how shopping behavior was influenced by what was happening in the financial sector or disruptions in the telecommunications industry, were things that we drew upon. This “think force” has yielded some exciting new strategies, and we plan to leverage this approach for at least the next year. 

Marlene Sidhu
Marketing Director, Shopper Marketing
Grupo Bimbo

We will use Foresight ROI to understand pre-COVID-19 programming results to drive what we do going forward. 

Steve Sigrist
VP Customer Service & Customer Supply Chain, North America
Newell Brands

We will practice enhanced levels of safety for our people, especially those in manufacturing and distribution, plus increased levels of cross-functional collaboration and communication to anticipate and address any execution stalls.

Eric Szegda
EVP Consumer Media
Bauer USA

We will continue offering a flexible work environment. Technology has enabled my team to embrace a much more inclusive and collaborative relationship with our remote co-workers. These teammates are now much more involved in face-to-face meetings via video conferencing, and this is a practice that will continue post-pandemic.

Ted Utoft
Vice President
BVA Nudge

We, like everyone I assume, have transitioned to entirely digital meetings, from internal catch-ups to hosting a webinar about “Nudging a Sustainable Future for Consumer goods” with over 550 registrants and 330 attendees, to running a full-fledged, co-created client workshop for a CPG manufacturer in Italy. I’ll admit, I far prefer meeting and collaborating with our team and clients in person, so it’s been an adjustment, but I think, collectively, we’ve found solutions to our typical practices that have worked really well. I think what’s important is following up. It’s one thing in a face-to-face meeting or while networking after an event that we host in person, but when everything is digital it’s really important to engage clients, send them interesting articles, provide a point of view, etc. 

Rodney Waights
Vice President, Shopper & Customer Marketing

We won’t practice anything particularly “new,” to be honest. What we have done is shifted our marketing mix towards elements that are most relevant to shoppers (and consumers) in the current environment, pivoted our communication/ messaging and developed new and relevant campaigns. Plus, we are accelerating our digital roadmap. I subscribe to the notion that the digital agenda has accelerated nominally three-four years, and we need to move our methods and resources to get ahead of this again.

Andy Walter
AJW Advisory

Video connections now are a mainstay for key leader connections. In the past, it was considered a poor substitute for in-person encounters, whereas it has now been embraced as a way to be more agile.