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Kate Stanford, vice president of ads marketing, Google

In the nearly 15 months since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, life has changed incalculably. 

Globally, there have been massive shifts in how people interact with businesses. Buying behavior changed drastically, as customers went online to explore, research and plan more of their purchases. The new reality during the pandemic forced many brands to radically change their marketing strategies; others accelerated strategies that were already underway.

Amid all of the past year’s challenges, brands showed up for consumers like never before, creating a blueprint for marketing that is even more customer focused. By leaning into solutions such as first-party data and automation, companies are providing more privacy, personalization and convenience to the people who interact with and experience their brands.

As the U.S. begins to picture returning to some semblance of normalcy, we spoke to five marketing leaders across different sectors who made customer-centric changes to ensure their businesses are ready for what’s next.

How Square fostered connections to create community 

COVID-19 arrived just as Square was preparing its first-ever major brand campaign, derailing the launch. With small business owners deeply affected by the crisis, Square immediately redirected its marketing budget to offer free software and refunds to its customers.

The company also evolved its original messaging strategy to highlight the solutions business owners would need most to face the new realities of doing business such as contactless payments, online stores, curbside pickup and delivery and Paycheck Protection (PPP) loans.

Then, to further support the small business community, Square invited customers to share their stories of struggle and resilience by calling a toll-free hotline. The messages it received sparked Square’s Seller Stories video series, which paired inspiring small business stories, such as how Detroit’s oldest menswear retailer built an e-commerce presence to stay open, with guidance on ways to thrive in difficult times.

“In the financial services world, it’s easy to get caught up in the utility of the products we offer,” said Lauren Weinberg, Chief Marketing Officer at Square. “But at the end of the day, money and running a business are very personal. Small business owners depend on connecting with other people, and video helps us tell those human stories. Through YouTube, we’re able to reach merchants who are craving inspiration and ideas for how to survive and thrive.”

By developing this two-pronged approach, Square drove an 82% lift in prospective customer web traffic year over year, and increased time spent on its campaign landing page by more than 3X.

Walmart’s customer-centricity turned customers into loyal superfans

To meet shoppers’ changing needs during the pandemic, Walmart accelerated and expanded its existing curbside pickup, pickup in-store, same-day delivery and in-home delivery services. And to further streamline customers’ online shopping experience, the company combined its once-separate grocery and shopping apps.

Walmart knew it also needed to build brand love to earn return customers in a hypercompetitive market. The solution was Walmart+, a new kind of membership that gave shoppers benefits that help save time and money, including a scan-and-go mobile checkout experience in retail stores and fast, free shipping for online purchases. In addition, Walmart began offering larger scale “brand gestures,” such as hosting drive-in movies in store parking lots, to foster customer relationships.

Already, Walmart has seen the impact of becoming more customer-centric. Its efforts contributed to a 37% growth in online sales and a 6% total sales growth in the U.S. for Q1 of the current fiscal year.

“We’ve been actively trying to shorten the distance between inspiration and purchase for our customers,” said William White, senior vice president and Chief Marketing Officer at Walmart U.S. “When someone is inspired by a product, we want to be there to help close the transaction, so we’ve made a number of advancements in the social commerce space. Customer-centricity has always been a focus for our company, and we’re continuing to sharpen the pencil on what that means.”

Hyatt put content in context through first-party data 

For Hyatt, COVID-19 became a forcing function to accelerate the company’s use of customer signals to offer smarter custom interactions. The company pivoted its third-party data strategy to a privacy-led, first-party approach, which allowed Hyatt to build direct relationships with guests and offer them value in exchange for their information. This “content in context” offering included personalized, relevant details about destinations, such as nearby restaurants, sporting events, concerts and even local travel delays.

“Contactless travel doesn’t have to be less personal,” said Julia Vander Ploeg, senior vice president and global head of digital and technology at Hyatt Hotels. “When we know a customer’s preferences or loyalty program membership, we can use it to offer the right upgrade and share the most relevant resources, like details about our restaurants if they’re a foodie or spa information if they love relaxation. Using first-party data this way allows us to personalize experiences and free up our on-property colleagues’ time to ensure these experiences are exceptional.”

Through its move to prioritize first-party data and being more personal, Hyatt was able to reach 13X more customers in 2020. The company will continue to leverage the success of customer-centric brand experiences to grow loyalty across its family of brands.

How GoDaddy pivoted to optimism

When the pandemic hit, GoDaddy quickly heard from customers that they needed help in new and different ways. In response, the company launched #OpenWeStand, a campaign that brought more than 70 corporate partners together to help entrepreneurs navigate small business ownership during uncertain times. On the campaign site, GoDaddy curated extensive resources to help the small business community rally around a powerful call to action: “How to stay open, even if your doors are closed.”

To understand how #OpenWeStand content resonated with its audience, GoDaddy partnered with Google to develop a measurement methodology and framework. The company used Brand Lift studies to gauge changes in brand awareness, consideration, search interest and applied attribution modeling to measure impact across the customer journey. Based on results, GoDaddy was then able to optimize the campaign over time. It increased its use of automated bidding and implemented responsive search ads, for example, to reach customers in the right moments with a relevant message.

To date, the #OpenWeStand anthem video has tallied more than 65 million views and the campaign is evolving.

“As we moved toward 2021, we repeatedly heard from our customers about the optimism they had for the future,” said Fara Howard, Chief Marketing Officer at GoDaddy. “Their optimism, coupled with the important role entrepreneurs play in fueling ideas and the economy, helped us evolve #OpenWeStand into our 2021 message of ‘Make a Different Future.’”

How Ford delivered differentiated experiences

While many businesses were focused on simply staying afloat through the pandemic, Ford had a bigger vision. At a time when automotive industry sales were down 15%, the company saw an opportunity for business transformation and began mapping out a plan.

Led by a new CEO, Ford began questioning everything from its organizational silos to its leadership, to the future of its vehicles. As part of the process, the brand embarked on a strategic partnership with Google to completely reinvent customer experiences through new technology, such as enhanced connected vehicles, and more personalized services, such as real-time maintenance requests.

“When it came to the auto sector’s online services adoption, what should have taken three to five years took six months,” said Suzy Deering, Global Chief Marketing Officer at Ford Motor Company. “Massive learning curves happened overnight. It wasn’t easy, but there were a lot of new opportunities. Customers can create relationships they never thought possible with brands. So as brands, we need to think about how we can meet customer needs and use data to truly show up for them. We are trying to change the entire customer relationship model.”

In its marketing efforts, Ford is also bringing customer relationships to the forefront. The company is quickly shifting from an acquisition model to a loyalty-based model that will allow it to meet people’s ongoing needs in a more personalized way.

Without knowing what a new normal would look like, these companies prioritized meeting their customers’ needs by investing in first-party data and automation. While it’s difficult to predict what challenges lie ahead, finding new approaches that put customers at the heart of every business is an essential step for marketers to ensure that their brands are ready for whatever comes next.

A version of this article was originally published at Think with Google.

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