Michele Morelli is Senior Vice President of Global Marketing Strategy at Toluna, a market research company. We spoke with Morelli about her day-to-day working life, and how it has been impacted by Covid-19.

Michele Morelli

Please describe your job: What do you do?

I am the Senior Vice President of global marketing strategy at Toluna. I help connect brands and consumers so companies can make informed business decisions.

How has your typical day been impacted in the short term by the pandemic?

Like many companies, the pandemic has completely disrupted our planned marketing strategy. We’ve had to pivot our plans to adjust to the new market realities. That pressure to rethink our go-to-market strategy adds to an already surreal work environment.

We had to revise plans that would normally take months of planning in a mere matter of days, and we reevaluate the plan every few weeks to ensure we are being as impactful as we can. And with a globally dispersed team, my workday does not have a hard stop or a defined beginning. It’s lucky I love what I do!

What are your favourite tools and techniques to help you get your work done at the moment?

Without a doubt, having a great team is the best tool you can have.  With the right people, you can be successful with a toothpick and an etch-a-sketch.

Our philosophy today is: create agile marketing plans. That means we don’t have detailed plans months out like we would in the past. We have the next four weeks locked in and a high level, flexible strategy for the following four weeks that we can easily alter as needed, and each is adjusted by country. For example, APAC is a very different market right now than North America or Europe, so we need to ensure our plans are tailored per region.

This strategy allows us to be timely and relevant with our content and messaging. We can listen to customer and market feedback and tailor our plans without pausing or tossing out work. It enables us to create high level scenarios for what could happen without getting involved in detailed plans that would likely result in wasted time and work.

What changes are you making to help your brand/clients connect with how people are feeling and experiencing the pandemic?

When it became obvious how serious the pandemic was and what a significant global impact it would have, we created Toluna’s biweekly Covid-19 Barometer, which has provided accurate and timely information on consumers’ perceptions throughout the pandemic. It tracks people’s changing attitudes, purchasing behaviour and general opinions across 19 global markets. We created it to help brands ensure they can pay attention to customers and their constantly changing sentiments throughout the pandemic.

We can see that customer sentiment today is different than it was even four weeks ago. And that’s likely different than it will be four weeks from now, given how quickly the situation is changing. We were careful to be sure the Barometer addresses different vertical needs since a CPG brand and consumer will have different concerns than those interested in consumer health, and so on. Brands need to know: How were people consuming media?  How have their daily lives actually been impacted? What effect does that have on their shopping behaviours and how do they feel if they can’t find their chosen brand or product?

We’ve since evolved this to focus on more forward-looking thoughts and opinions. The shift has been incredibly important as different countries move through different states of lockdown. As a retailer, you need to know if people plan to return to the store. As a consumer health expert, you need to know if people plan to rethink their health practices

Measuring impact to brands is vital. Brands have plans and strategy based on previous consumer behaviour, which has largely completely changed.

What trends have you seen over the last several weeks in your sector?

In terms of consumer trends, we have seen hesitation amongst consumers to return to normal activities and increasing interest in at-home entertainment, despite easing restrictions. For example, we found that over half (62%) of UK consumers don’t plan to eat at a restaurant in the next two months, and less than a third would feel comfortable going to a concert or cinema in the coming months. Meanwhile we’ve seen increased spending on things like at-home gaming consoles and an uptick in those who plan to spend money on home improvement projects.

If you look at market research as a whole, we are seeing three trends. First, an increased need for automation and agility. The inability to conduct research face-to-face has accelerated automation within the MR industry. The pace at which the pandemic changed has a direct impact on consumer behaviour – and researchers need to keep up.  We’ve seen organisations embracing more agile ways of conducting research to provide key insights to make informed decisions.

Secondly – brand tracking. There is real impact to brand perception in the pandemic.  From availability of product, to messaging, to CSR – brands are checking in on their brand health more frequently (which they should be!).

Lastly, acceleration of new product development.  There was a bit of a shock in the industry at first, but as people adjust to the new normal and understand the current needs of consumers, brands are resuming business in the new product development process.

Which companies have impressed you since the outbreak?

I’m very impressed with the brands that have successfully pivoted their communications to become relevant. I recently co-presented at PSFK Retail Innovation week and we talked about Mucinex. The brand launched a US public health information campaign to help Americans understand the behaviours that can prevent virus spread – called “Spread Facts not Fear.” It smartly plays into the brand but completely alters their messaging for public good.

Brawny’s current campaign also does a great job. It redefines its iconic Brawny Giant and allows people to nominate their own ‘giants’ – those in their communities going above and beyond. This campaign was especially important because according to our bi-weekly Covid-19 Barometer, 64% of consumers think brands should be messaging in support of frontline workers during the pandemic.

One example of a brand that has really stood out unrelated to the pandemic, is Ben & Jerry’s. While the world focused on Covid-19, they stayed true to their brand and went all in on social justice. They did communicate in an open letter about the steps they are taking to keep their employees and consumers safe during the pandemic – but they didn’t use the pandemic in their marketing. Instead they gave their support to the black lives matter movement – which is completely in line with their brand – in a very direct open letter about racial injustice, and multiple blog posts about the history of injustice and what every person can do to help. Their action reflects brand authenticity and is a great example of how to stay true to your brand’s voice and pillars.

What advice would you give a marketer right now?

Speak human. Talk to your consumers in a human voice, with empathy and authenticity. Your messaging should reflect an understanding of not only your audience, but also the latest events. Keep communicating as a responsible and reassuring brand. For example, if you primarily deal in food & beverage, reassure the public that you have appropriate hygiene measures in place. If you’re in CPG, let the public know what measures you are taking to resolve supply-chain disruption.

Reevaluate your brand tracking and health measures. You need to understand how opinions are changing regarding your brand. Now is not the time to wait a year to see impacts on your brand. Test sentiment and perception now – and keep testing.

Pre-test, Pre-test, Pre-test. Customer opinion is changing by the minute.  You must test all messages before launch to ensure they resonate and have the right tone, sensitivity and reflect well on the brand.

Follow your consumers. Crisis changes consumption behaviours. For some that means buying more. For others it means switching to online shopping, or having to ditch their preferred brands. Dedicated organic shoppers may rethink their shopping basket. Our Barometer has spotted an increase in usage of social media platforms such as TikTok. As a marketer, you need to quickly spot changes in trends and reevaluate your strategy.

Digital tracking is an effective way to spot changes in digital search and buying behaviour from the big-box retailers. With access to in-app buying behaviour and mobile search, our clients use digital tracking to understand when and how consumers shop, and more. We also offer a bespoke product that allows clients to track various in-app behaviours, which tie back to survey respondents.

Finally, log off and thank your team. We are in the middle of a pandemic!  Take time for yourself to destress in a new way if your current ways are not available.  And remember to thank your team for the work they are doing. Now more than ever.

What does long-term planning and strategy look like now at your brand?​

We are a global brand with clients in nearly every country, so our planning is at a global level with highly nuanced country modifications. Currently, we are looking a quarter ahead with scenarios for if and when we evolve from the new normal.  But they are scenarios, not detailed plans – so we can pivot quickly.

Because consumer sentiment changes so rapidly, our sold planning is only 4-8 weeks ahead. The key is: lean into technology to make sure your organisation and processes are agile enough to change with the consumer behaviours.

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