How Executives Kept Their Marketing Going Amid Pandemic-Driven Budget Cuts

In survival mode, retail and restaurant chains had to do more with less

We asked executives from Wendy's, ThirdLove, Getty Images and Purple Innovations how they adapted to the coronavirus crisis. Wendy's, ThirdLove, Getty Images, Purple Innovations
Headshot of Richard Collings

Key insights:

When the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in the U.S. in March, retail and restaurant chains quickly went into survival mode.

Physical storefronts were largely shuttered for nonessential services, which meant many consumer-facing companies would burn through piles of cash on rent and mortgages to stay afloat as revenues and profits took a hit. With that, marketers were forced to slash or reallocate their marketing spend in order to preserve cash.

“It certainly has been an interesting time for marketers in the middle of a global pandemic, and a challenging economic environment for our customers,” said Carl Loredo, CMO of Wendy’s.

For businesses, changes came quickly and didn’t stop, said Burke Morley, vp of brand and executive creative director at mattress maker Purple. He said the executive team initially met twice every day, in the morning and then again at night.

“The strategy could change from morning to afternoon,” Morley said.

Preparing for all situations was necessary. Heidi Zak, co-founder and CEO of DTC intimates brand ThirdLove, said the team modeled their worst-case scenario, and then behaved as though that was the trajectory of the business going forward.

“Anyone who is running a company has multiple scenarios,” Zak said. “We were pretty aggressive in cost-cutting so that we would survive and thrive given worst case.”

Wendy’s, ThirdLove and Purple Mattress were hardly alone.

“We’re all in the same boat,” said Natasha Fishman, evp of marketing at Authentic Brands Group, commenting on her and other companies’ efforts to save money and making do with less.

Even still, Fishman said the company “didn’t take the pedal off advertising and marketing.” Instead, with less money to spend, marketing executives had to be more nimble than ever to connect with consumers.

That approach often led brands to rely more heavily on in-house marketing teams, repurposing existing content to create new ads, guiding influencer networks to generate additional messaging, and shifting more dollars to digital channels such as direct email while delaying outreach on more traditional channels such as linear TV.

Wendy’s focuses on promotions and gaming platforms

For Wendy’s, traditional marketing took a backseat in the early days of the pandemic. To cut costs, Loredo moved previously planned spending to a future time period when customers would be more receptive, and sought alternative channels for communications and messaging.

The change in strategy, despite the need to save where it could, underlined that marketing—in new and innovative forms, in particular—was and is still crucial in these times.

“My focus now is in ensuring every dime spent is as powerful, relevant and meaningful as it can be,” he said. “Knowing the vast impact of the pandemic on our consumers’ lives, we needed to adjust to their evolving landscape and be there for them.”

He cited GroupNug, a four-piece chicken nugget giveaway orchestrated by Wendy’s on April 24, and working with gaming platform Twitch as some of the ways the fast food brand has kept pace with its customers.

“We’re being really thoughtful about how we can provide more value to our fans through things like gaming content, menu offerings and promotions,” he said.

He said Wendy’s “scrappy mentality” when it comes to marketing positioned it well to weather the impact of the coronavirus.

“The good news for Wendy’s is we entered the pandemic from a position of strength,” he said. “We had significant momentum in our business coming into this, with healthy global same-restaurant sales growth and a very strong launch of our breakfast daypart in the U.S. which we saw global same-restaurant sales up 15% in launch week.

“The past couple of months have forced us to be even more nimble on a consistent basis,” Loredo said.

Authentic Brands turns to its influencer network Winston

As the pandemic began and shifts became necessary, Authentic Brands, the parent company of retail labels such as Forever 21 and Vince Camuto, saw much of its marketing dollars retargeted toward social, Fishman said.

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@RichCollings Richard Collings is a retail reporter at Adweek.