Navigating COVID-19 as the New CMO


Peter Guagenti started his new role as CMO at Cockroach Labs just as public response to COVID-19 hit full throttle. He shares marketing principles that have helped him step into leading an established team and guiding communications during a global crisis.

The first few days of my new job as chief marketing officer at Cockroach Labs, which I started mid-March 2020, were nothing like the onboarding of my previous roles at different companies. My first immediate tasks were shaping and delivering the company’s official COVID-19 response communications, redeveloping our pipeline generation programs to account for the loss of in-person interactions, and completely rethinking budget allocations in the face of uncertain sales. This, of course, is not how I planned on starting my new role or introducing myself to my team. I didn’t expect to be called upon as the voice of the brand right away, but that’s the thing about crises: they are never expected.

Over the years, I’ve observed that there are really only two types of marketers: those who execute campaigns based on ideas borrowed from peers and competitors (followers); and those who craft meaningful experiences based on insight into their audiences, market and product (leaders). Crises have a way of naturally separating the two, with leaders adapting and exceling while followers flounder and fall behind. Many of the marketing playbooks that have been established over the past ten years are not going to work in the foreseeable future; those who simply follow the patterns others have established are sure to fail.

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I’ve led teams through many times of dramatic change, including three economic downturns. The lessons I’ve learned from navigating those experiences taught me a few marketing fundamentals that can help brands weather difficult times.

1. Get Back to Basics; Listen to Your Customers and Don’t Assume Anything

Even in times of tumult, there is business to be had – it just may not be from the same people and through the same techniques as before. If you reach out and listen to customers, new patterns will emerge.
For example, at CockroachDB we are seeing interest in our product remain strong, but we are certainly not selling to the same people we were selling to eight weeks ago. At the moment, many businesses are experiencing feast or famine, and some are even seeing both at the same time from different parts of their business. On one end of the spectrum, we have customers in travel and leisure worried about whether their businesses will still be around in six to twelve months. We have e-commerce customers that are so overwhelmed with the increase in demand that they need extra support and additional products. We even have traditional retailers being squeezed between lost revenue from closed stores while their IT teams are scrambling to scale to meet new demand. All of this means uncertainty and disruption for everyone involved.

Good marketing always meets people where they are. Bringing the human element to your brand is always important, and even more critical in a crisis. For my team and many other service providers, that meant shifting communications to reflect empathy for those in need (including meaningful offers of support with regard to contracts and pricing), and encouragement and guidance for those facing challenging new opportunities. By doing what’s right for the customer right now, you will build relationships that will benefit your brand for a long time to come.

2. Help Your Company Be its Best Self in Response to Challenges

The best marketers keep their fingers on the pulse of the market, and then use that insight to guide their company’s product pipeline to bring their brand values to life. Especially in times of uncertainty and change, it’s important that product development and marketing teams work together to craft a response that clearly demonstrates a company’s commitment to its customers, it’s community, and the network of partners and suppliers it works with.

Some of the most responsive brands – brands that are going to be remembered long after COVID-19 –shifted their production on day one of the pandemic to focus on items that would be helpful and showcase their expertise.

For example, distillers and breweries pivoted quickly to mass-producing hand sanitizer – fulfilling an immediate need, building goodwill and helping themselves and their suppliers to survive economically in the process. Manufacturers shifted their production to medical equipment, with even well-heeled brands like Ferrari converting their 3D printing to produce ventilator parts. Fashion brands also got in on the action: pivoting to produce and share medical gear, helping relief efforts, and building positive brand association and customer loyalty along the way. You can do well as a business while still doing good in the world.

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3. Be Proactive and You’ll Be Remembered

Every purchase is an emotional purchase, even for products like enterprise software. No one buys a product personally or for an organization without also having a high degree of trust in the brand they are buying from. In normal conditions, marketers focus on the customer’s needs and aspirations, and create an association with their brands by demonstrating shared values. In trying times, those associations have to transcend simple advertising and communications to get to the heart of how you interact personally with prospects and customers.

Deliver the experiences (and the associated feelings) that your customers need the most before they have to come looking for them. This could be as simple or as personalized as is appropriate for your price point and the depth of your relationship with the customer.

For example, many in the enterprise software space have shifted to prioritizing experiences that promote stability, like providing expert guidance to help their customers regain a feeling of control. Others, including Cockroach Labs, have done proactive outreach to customers we suspect would be dealing with financial hardship to offer financial relief, and additional staffing and support for those working hard to address fluctuating demands. Regardless of whether or not they take advantage of these offers, customers will never forget meaningful expressions of support and loyalty when times are hard.

The Road Ahead

Brands are built over time through countless interactions, finding success by a thousand steps or suffering death by paper cut. Crisis is the proving ground where lasting brands are built. Customers will not only remember the impactful things you did (or didn’t do) but how you made them feel. And they’ll associate those actions and emotions with your brand for life, for good or bad.

When all is said and done, the greatest value a senior marketing executive can offer their company is the reminder that company behaviors and attitudes are what builds a business just as much as products. Our tone and approach are what shape our relationships. And our relationships – with customers, prospects, and employees – are what businesses are built upon.

If marketers on all levels take hard times like COVID-19 as an opportunity to revisit their assumptions and refocus on really understanding their audiences, difficult circumstances can turn into opportunities.