3 Chief Marketers on the Skills Needed to Lead Through Crisis

Why empathy and positive thinking can make a huge impact

Screenshot from Brandweek 2020
Kellyn Smith Kenny, Marcel Marcondes and Seth Solomons led a Masterclass on leading through crisis. Adweek
Headshot of Diana Pearl

The past six months have brought challenges and changes that even the savviest of marketers couldn’t have foreseen and prepared for. Leadership at the top of the marketing department has proved to be more essential than ever, as people not only steer an organization’s marketing, but also their respective teams through times of turmoil and crisis.

At this year’s Brandweek, three top marketers—Kellyn Smith Kenny, former CMO at Hilton, Marcel Marcondes, the U.S. CMO at Anheuser-Busch, and Seth Solomons, the CMO of Equinox—discussed the tactics they’ve employed to successfully help their teams—and their advertising—meet this moment.

Lead with emotion

Given the current state of events, emotion is dictating people’s actions perhaps more than it would normally. Smith Kenny said that leaders need to respond accordingly and consider the place people are coming from in this moment.

“Thinking rationally is obviously incredibly important times of crisis,” she said. “But when a leader speaking rationally, to someone else, who is listening emotionally, that again leads to confusion, dissension and frustration.”

Give your team a chance to catch up

In times of crisis, “it’s completely unrealistic to expect a team to process a crisis as quickly as their leaders do,” Smith Kenny said. That’s because leaders usually have more information and context, as well as “organizational capital” to equip them to handle the hurdle. Smith Kenny also said that instead of expecting everyone to be on your level, “you need to absolutely meet them where they are.”

Get to talking to find out what your team needs and how you can bring them up to speed. “If you encourage dialogue and you listen intently, the types of questions your team asks will help you diagnose what stage they’re in,” she said. “Once you understand where they are, you can respond appropriately.”

Use times of trial as an opportunity to grow

Marcondes said that rather than (impatiently) waiting for the world to return to “normal,” marketers should use this moment to carve a better, more inventive future for their brand. “Let’s forget about normal,” he said. “Let’s be optimistic. And let’s take this as an opportunity to get better to get to a better place.”

At Anheuser-Busch, Marcondes said they saw several of their typical places of engagement with consumers—event venues, bars and restaurants—temporarily close their doors at the onset of the pandemic, which meant that they had to find new ways to connect. As a result, they pivoted to new ventures that did good, such as producing hand sanitizer and hosting blood drives, and captured consumer attention.

“It was really rewarding to be able to support thousands of people by doing that,” he said. “This is when you use the scale of your company for good.”

Show up for customers

Times of crisis may change what consumers are doing, or where they’re gathering, but it doesn’t lessen the need to connect with them. Instead, brands need to adjust and meet consumers where they are. For gym brand Equinox, that meant moving their operations almost entirely online when the pandemic forced them to close their locations across the globe. Instead, they created digital content and programming for members to engage with, which the brand dubbed ‘Equinox Talks,’ with guest appearances from familiar faces like Antoni Porowski of Queer Eye fame, and centered around health and wellness-related topics, like mindful sex or fasting.

Those adjustments can have a positive impact beyond the current moment, and can challenge you to rethink how your business operates in the future. For Equinox, Solomons said, “We’re moving into a situation where we’re much more in the outcomes business, providing our members with solutions that help them achieve their goals.”

@dianapearl_ diana.pearl@adweek.com Diana is the deputy brands editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.