Matthew Kerbel, Head of Marketing and Brand Strategy at Canoo knows that marketers are no stranger to a time of transition. With the pandemic we’re currently experiencing, he knows that putting audiences first is essential for the road ahead. We connected with Matt on the power of servant-based, mission-driven brand building and how only the truly creative will survive and thrive.
What responsibilities should marketers take on during a crisis, and what role should data & storytelling play?
There’s no playbook for a global pandemic that has fundamentally changed life as we know it. But in times of crisis—and in general during times of transition—marketers have seen the forest beyond the trees.
As marketers, it’s never been more important to actively maintain a deep understanding of our audience. An incredible amount of empathy is critical when deciding on not just what to say and how to sound, but how to act.
While many brands will roll with seemingly safer, more general “sea of sameness” messaging, it can be tiresome and washed out. The savviest marketing teams will look to data for guidance with regards to what is fundamentally top of mind for their community, and then find ways to tie those issues back to their own core purpose. From there, what will ultimately break through the noise are relevant, daring, and thoughtful creative and experiences that drive people to feel, think or act. In short, the storytelling.
Agile marketers must be at the forefront of this effort as shepherds for their brand, company, and community, ensuring over-communication during crises as they bring key stakeholders along internally. If what is executed can come across as exceptionally helpful, transparent, relentlessly consistent, and on-mission, a crisis can represent an opportunity to alter the trajectory of a brand for years to come. COVID specifically is not a marketing brief; it’s an opportunity to exemplify the change we’d like to see in the world.
What COVID-19 content & communications has your company been issuing during this time, and what has been the primary goal of the content & communications?
Canoo is a relatively new, pre-revenue electric vehicle (EV) company, planning to launch our novel membership offering in late 2021. We unveiled our first EV back in September, then opened our free-to-join waitlist to the public at the end of January, which now has several thousands of potential customers in line.
Our two primary marketing goals at this time have not wavered:
(1) Nurture those who’ve joined the waitlist with valuable content, updates, experiences, and surprises, and
(2) Create awareness, education and excitement for Canoo to attract new customers to sign up.
What has changed, however, are the planned marketing and communication strategies to achieve this during COVID. Fortunately, with a nimble cross-functional team and strong brand foundation, we have been able to pivot on a dime.
Canoo waitlisters continue to want updates on our progress, as our EV is currently in the beta phase of testing. Additionally, during COVID the data tells us that our current and intended community has a heightened desire to:
- Help others (particularly locally) however possible
- Be entertained and stay social to get through these times, and
- Obtain relevant knowledge to stay optimistic regarding the new normal
This has guided an evolved strategy, grounded in pillars of COMPASSIONATE ACTION, WELCOME DISTRACTION and INFORMED OPTIMISM, and in line with Canoo’s vision to provide people the opportunity to live greener and less stressful lives.
COMPASSIONATE ACTION [COVID]
Our team held a local fundraiser for the LA Regional Food Bank and donated thousands of masks to local hospitals. We are also working with local officials and companies to repurpose our 3D printing technology to develop face shields, as well as repair batteries for much-needed ventilators pulled from the national stockpile. Additionally, on Earth Day we announced a 3-point plan to continue reducing Canoo’s carbon footprint.
WELCOME DISTRACTION [BRAND]
We shared a music video collaboration with artist and producer Lido, custom Zoom backgrounds as soon as WFH commenced, and a tasteful April Fool’s idea that hit the right note with our community. Much more to come on this front as the pandemic continues.
INFORMED OPTIMISM [PRODUCT]
To engender optimism with regards to both our EV and the world post-COVID, we shared an exciting video showcasing frigid winter testing of our beta vehicle, as well as examples of how this crisis is positively affecting air quality and the environment around the world.
What areas of digital marketing are you seeing events budgets get re-distributed to?
In general, we are seeing events budgets re-distributed to content and digital experiences. Brands are doing this in one of two ways:
(1) Pivot or creation of experiences: Airbnb has brought their Experiences business online. The NBA hosted a virtual HORSE competition that included past and present NBA and WNBA stars. Museums have more virtual tours, fitness companies have pivoted to at-home classes and Telehealth has understandably taken off.
(2) Curation of content: Several examples of educational entities like Scholastic aggregating and curating content for home schooling. Good News with John Krasinski. Virtual events that are bringing cross-industry thought leaders together to discuss common issues.
Additionally, resources have been reallocated towards immediate, helpful action, which then is being disseminated as content. That can be a distillery now making hand sanitizer, a food chain offering free meals for those on the front lines, etc.
As a private pre-revenue startup, we’re both shifting events budget downstream (we’re still hopeful they can happen in some form) as well as repurposing some budget to research and content. Research is critically important during this time and it seems to be a bit on the backburner for many brands. It’s imperative that we comprehend how our community’s wants, needs, and perceptions have changed during this crisis, so that our offering and communications remain valuable and relevant to peoples’ lives during and following COVID-19.
Do you think this crisis will permanently change the way we do marketing in the future, and if so, how?
I believe this crisis will permanently and profoundly change the way we market. Prior to the virus, we’ve seen companies that had taken on a ‘growth at all costs’ mindset fall victim to tumultuous end results. If COVID has taught us anything as marketers, it is the power of servant-based, mission-driven brand building.
Companies of all types will see a return to their roots. Strategies will evolve to focus on mid-to-long term as much as short term. Action will be preferred over word play. Co-creation with consumers will become much more common as brands seek to behave more like people, and people try to be more like brands. “Phygital” (that is: a hybrid approach of physical and digital experiences) will over time become the norm—albeit with safety as the number one priority—as companies seek to achieve enhanced scale and creativity via digital experiences and a more intimate, local appeal from physical ones. Co-marketing and brand collaboration will continue to ramp up as a way to save on budget and increase reach.
Lastly, I expect to see a heightened focus on innovation and creativity. A prime alternative to a ‘growth at all costs’ mindset is one grounded in constant innovation and creativity. Moving forward, innovation will become the dish of choice when seeking to (A) avoid becoming a one-trick product pony, and to (B) stay ahead of rivals, both old and new. Once COVID ends, the entire world will be turning their engines back on and messaging their audience. Only the truly creative will survive and thrive.
I love what Craig Dubitsky said recently: “There is potential in any time of transition, especially where something is broken. Today there are hundreds, thousands of great new business ideas that we never before would have even imagined. Crisis, while traumatic, is also the original kickstarter.”
Outside of your company, what COVID content & communications have you been most impressed with?
There are a tremendous number of serious, heartwarming examples. Brands have jumped into the fight with both feet and without hesitation. As there are too many to list, I’ll focus elsewhere: levity.
Levity has been hard to come by throughout this process; it’s riskier than focusing on the helper message. At the same time, it’s never been needed more to distract us and keep our spirits up. Here are a few different approaches I’ve been impressed with.
- KFC UK: On Twitter, KFC in the UK challenged people stuck at home to cook up their own version of KFC and submit for rating by the chain (#RateMyKFC). KFC proceeded to verbally roast these recipes, often giving people poor ratings and a laugh in the process.
- Budweiser: Playing on quarantine, Bud revived their classic “Wassap” campaign with celebs currently at home including Dwayne Wade, Gabrielle Union, Chris Both, Candace Parker & DJ DNice. Ninety seconds of needed fun and nostalgia.
- MeUndies: Rather than using Photoshop on top of old photos, MeUndies is keeping things real by enlisting its community to be the “models” for new print launches. It’s been great to see people at home in their undies, onesies and lounge pants posing for pictures that are then being used as advertising.
What is one positive thing you will take away from this experience?
I’ll cheat and say two if that’s okay.
The first is a profound appreciation for the things we’ve always taken for granted, as well as acceptance and patience for typical frustrations like traffic, line ups, or a bad haircut. At Canoo, our team has become closer because we’re talking more about what’s happening in our lives—our pets, our kids, our little projects—which has led to better morale, productivity and work. When COVID is over, I feel great about the state of our team and hope that we continue these habits.
The second is the unexpected time I have with my kids. It’s so hard to balance it all and they can drive me crazy at times, but time is the most precious gift we have so I’m trying to appreciate every moment.