How 12 Canadian Marketing Executives Are Navigating Through Uncertainty
Updated: Aug 6, 2020
2020 truly has been a transformative year with a global pandemic, economic recession, and social issues coming to light. Now more than ever marketers are finding themselves in a challenging position to pivot and adapt to this ever-changing landscape. Given this unprecedented year, The Sponsorship Space connected with 12 marketing and sponsorship leaders across Canada in multiple organizations to get their take on what they’re doing to adjust and the trends they foresee in the future by asking them to respond to the two questions below:
Question #1: How has your company adapted to what's happening in the world?
Question #2: What are some trends you are watching & predicting heading into a post-COVID world?
#1: These unprecedented times have definitely presented challenges, however they have also been a catalyst to change how we think about things like how we deliver content to consumers, how we engage with people and meet them where they are today, as well as how we redefine our processes to become more agile. The pandemic forced us to relook at our back-half plans in the context of the current environment, through the lens of the consumer mindset today and re-write a much stronger, more consumer-centric marketing plan.
#2: There are many trends that are rising to the top and other new ones that are emerging. The economic downturn and its effect on consumer discretionary spend is obviously one that we are monitoring closely in retail. As consumers focus spend on needs vs. wants, we need to understand the value equation more than ever. Specific to fashion retail, I believe we will see consumers spending less on fast fashion and turning more to buying timeless, quality wardrobe pieces that transcend multiple seasons. Another trend that has accelerated is the shift to e-commerce as a primary channel. We saw a dramatic shift of consumers that traditionally shopped bricks and mortar move to online purchases through COVID. Now more than ever, we need to ensure that our online experience matches our in-store experience, including things like figuring out how to create event experiences virtually that were traditionally held live in-store.
#1: We continue to adapt every day. In Canada, we’re focused on engaging our fans – notably, we just launched a celebration of Vince Carter’s career with a campaign called “Thank you Vince”. His record-breaking career was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic and we want to give fans the chance to say goodbye the right way. The campaign will be supported via NBA media – to learn more visit nba.com/vince.
More broadly, we used the hiatus to test and release a lot of new content including The Last Dance on ESPN and Netflix, a new series of #NBATogether programming including interviews with Ernie Johnson and discussions around social justice with Caron Butler. The WNBA executed the first virtual draft and two of our network partners have developed documentaries covering NBA athletes that will be released this season.
#2: As so much of the world adopted delivery services during the height of the pandemic, at the same time we’re seeing this drive to support local businesses, so I see more localized collaborations for licensed goods, for example. The movement for social justice, and the drive to create equal opportunities for Black or Afro-Canadians will continue with many corporations like ours, looking at what we can do to ensure we’re providing opportunity and supporting career growth. And, to the extent that people remain cut off from large gatherings, I think there’s a real opportunity to look at digital experiences and take them to the next level. Customer behaviours have changed as a result of the pandemic, people are now willing to join a remote panel or experience for more than an hour online. With any behaviour change, there lies opportunity and I’m excited to see the different ways brands and properties experiment in this space.
#1: REVXM was launched on June 1st, in the early days of the pandemic. The formulation of REVXM and the vision was conceived in February and early March, almost pre-Covid, so we were adjusting the strategy literally in "real-time" prior to June 1. That said, REVXM was launched with themes like innovation, virtual, digital and "new normal" in our DNA. We did not really have to adapt or pivot, if you will, as much as stay nimble and have an open mind to how the world was adjusting and evolving quickly. It was much easier to go from zero to hundred than 100 to zero and then try to regain momentum.
#2: What is the saying... "necessity is the mother of invention"? Well that has never been more true in modern times than right now. Some of the changes and trends and innovation we are seeing now has been exposed out of need but was created pre-Covid. And some will explode out of this and some trends will replace things and ideals that maybe should have been replaced decades ago.
- Obviously the "second-screen" phenomenon is trending. This has also been compounded in pro-sports, for example, with no fans in venues. Digital/social interaction, gaming, real-time betting are changing behaviour but also in how broadcasts and partnerships are being delivered.
- What we support and we invest in has also changed quite quickly. Social inequality and cause related platforms are finally at the forefront and I personally hope this is not just a trend but REAL and permanent change. How cool is it to see "Black Lives Matter" on an NBA court, for example.
- Our clients and partners are also being forced to be more creative with how to replace physical interactions and conversations with digital or hybrid models. My opinion is that this trend will not do a 180. You can never really replace physical interaction, but tech and innovation, like AI and AR has allowed us to do it much more efficiently, at scale and with far better precision when it comes to targeting.
- Obviously, all of us want to get back to "normal" as quickly as possible, but how we consume, how we watch, how we interact has changed forever and some would argue that change is always for the better.
#1: The initial priority for Tangerine was to work closely with the various levels of government to establish important hardship programs for our existing client base. COVID had tremendous implications on people’s economic security, either due to loss of employment, significant decreases in cash flow, portfolio value, etc. We have always prided ourselves on putting our customers at the forefront of decision making as they, along with our employees are the lifeblood of the bank. Once these initiatives (among other COVID related topics) were rolled out through consistent and empathetic communications, we collectively worked to produce a new campaign spot that promoted a message of hope and optimism, grounded in truth and the role Tangerine plays in our client’s lives.
Specifically, as to how the changing landscape challenged our partnership vertical, we needed to re-examine our strategy of how we’ve historically been engaging with fans of our various sponsorship investments and update/pivot to reflect the realities of the current environment. It was essential to have candid conversations with rights holders about the realities of our business due to COVID and equally as important, truly understand the potential impact to theirs. Tangerine views each investment as a real partnership, which means that all parties are motivated to assist each other whenever possible to ensure a mutually beneficial relationship where everyone wins (even in the toughest of circumstances).
#2: Every organization is being forced to evolve their business models due to the impact of COVID. Through hardship will come innovation and new opportunities for meaningful engagement. With empty stadiums and arenas becoming the norm (at least in the short term), additional emphasis and focus will be placed on establishing digital fan connections that scale. This had already been a huge area of focus for Tangerine pre-COVID, but the significance has grown exponentially. The power of digital will inevitably unlock key behaviours, preferences and personalization opportunities through data that can be applied on top of our existing customer insights - leading to smarter data driven decision making across the bank. Discretionary marketing spends are likely going to be scrutinized in the interim based on the economic landscape, so we’ll need to be prescriptive, focused and scientific in how we calculate ROI for our respective organizations.
We will continue to monitor global trends, digital innovation and observe best practices across the world of sports and entertainment that can be methodically applied to our core business/partnership objectives. I anticipate the world of sponsorship will look incredibly different 3-5 years down the road, look no further than what emerged from the 2008 Financial Crisis. It’s our responsibility as sponsorship professionals to be on top (or in some cases, ahead) of these trends and to embrace an agility model that enables Tangerine to react and apply these strategies in real time.
#1: IMG and the broader Endeavor network has been a trailblazer in bringing back live sporting events during COVID-19:
Professional Bull Riders (PBR) was the first professional sport in North America to return from the COVID-19 shutdown, returning to competition with a broadcast-only event weekend at the Lazy E Arena in Logan County, Oklahoma in April. The due diligence and protocols that were created and instituted for PBR became the basis for other leagues who have since come back.
Following in the footsteps of PBR, UFC has also successfully run nine events across three sites including this past weekend’s UFC 251, which took place on Fight Island (Yas Island, Abu Dhabi).
IMG has also built out virtual events and platforms where live events weren’t possible:
When the Frieze New York art fair was cancelled due to COVID-19, we debuted Frieze Viewing Room, a new, free to enter digital initiative hosting the 2020 edition of the Frieze New York fair. Available from May 8-15, the mobile app and web-based platform offered visitors the opportunity to enter more than 200 virtual gallery spaces and saw significant traffic that resulted in a $2 million sale for one of the galleries.
At the beginning of May, we created the first-ever “Stay At Home Slam”, an esports event streamed live on Facebook Gaming where leading tennis players paired up with celebrities to compete on Nintendo’s Mario Tennis Aces game and raise more than $1 million for COVID-19 relief.
#2: I personally believe that live events will return quickly in a post-COVID world. People are yearning to connect with their favourite sports teams, musicians and personalities, and want to be part of a large community. Additionally, now that virtual events and experiences have become the norm, I believe that virtual elements will continue to play a major role, not as a replacement to a live event, but as a companion. This will allow events to expand their reach, become more innovative and reach new audiences in other territories.
Like many businesses, we have been looking at shifting our priorities in light of COVID-19 and we’ve determined two important focuses right now – delivery of an optimal experience for Team Canada athletes at Games, and COVID recovery for sport.
We continue to put health and safety as priority #1, as we did back in March when we determined we would not send the athletes to the games, due to COVID-19 risks. That priority continues to drive our planning through this recovery phase into a Return to Sport and into Tokyo 2020 next summer.
Bringing a high performing Canadian Olympic Team to the Games will always be one of our top priorities - our commitment is to not miss a beat in delivering on this mission heading into Tokyo next year.
Now that we’ve all taken a collective breath, planning is well underway on how to turn our current reality into a competitive advantage for Team Canada through our focus on helping athletes Return to Sport.
Additionally, as cities and provinces open up, sport has a powerful role to play in our post COVID-19 recovery efforts as a catalyst for a healthier life, both physically and mentally, as we all look forward to this next phase.
In this recovery phase we are shifting our focus to how Team Canada can help inspire and motivate Canadians to come back even stronger and more united than ever.
#2: We are seeing and monitoring a number of trends including:
Partnerships - Enduring partnerships weather the storm together. Taking a long-term view to partnership value is fundamental to business success for both parties, particularly in this time of vulnerability.
Your Purpose matters - Recent tragic events have caused us all to self-reflect to see how we can be better. At the COC, we do not have all the answers, but we will unite with our athletes and all Canadians in the fight against racism. For us, that starts with listening, dialogue, and amplifying diverse voices for positive change in our world through sport.
Consumption/Shopping habits – Post COVID-19 consumers may continue to be more conscious of their purchases. Needs vs. wants and supporting local will be important factors.
Events – Events will continue to evolve in the digital landscape as a place to connect, learn, and play. This will create tremendous innovation and creativity within the traditional events concept with larger reach potential and opportunity for cost efficiencies.
Self-Improvement – Consumers have had more personal time and have been using this additional time for self-improvement of mind, body and soul. It will be interesting to see which brands continue to enable this, given the unpredictability of a return to post-COVID.
Is the Era of Social Media Accountability Here? Whether its Twitter applying disclaimers to updates from President Trump or Facebook facing increased scrutiny from advertisers with the Stop Hate For Profit campaign, it feels like there’s an increasing willingness to legitimately address social media disinformation.
The Return of Pro Sports in North America – Will the return of live sports in North America during the pandemic serve as a slight return to normalcy? What’s clear is that this is uncharted territory and how these organizations navigate this challenge will be fascinating to monitor.
#1: For more than 170 years, Labatt has been committed to serving and supporting Canada and its communities through a range of sponsorships and various trade and charitable programs. When the unlikely course of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent, Labatt adopted this “can-do” spirit to lessen its impact of those in need.
We acted early with COVID-19-related relief efforts including the production and donation of 100,000 bottles of hand sanitizer to Food Banks Canada and frontline workers in the bar and restaurant industry, Stella Artois’ Rally for Restaurants program, and Budweiser’s $500,000 donation to the Canadian Red Cross. Labatt also tapped its established Disaster Relief Program to produce drinking water and donate it to the cities of Toronto and Fort McMurray, Alberta.
We also partnered with POST Promise (People Outside Safely Together), an initiative that promotes five key steps to help Canadians safely take the first steps back into public spaces and workplaces. Support for bars and restaurants is a particularly important part of Canada’s economic recovery, and Labatt along with its brands have committed to working with Restaurants Canada to extend the POST Promise establishments from coast to coast.
Labatt has a long history of using capabilities and reach to do our part when needed most, so our COVID-19 response has been both timely and effective.
#2: 2020 has been a challenging year, and indications are that we won’t be back to “full normal” for some time. With a focus on health and safety, we will continue to navigate through the pandemic and do everything we can to support our employees, commercial partners, consumers and all Canadians.
While staying close to understanding consumer trends during reopening phases, it’s clear that brands need to reimagine what the future of gathering in public spaces will look like. We’ve seen some excellent examples of venues taking an innovative and agile approach to adapting to social distancing guidelines. I foresee more drive-in options to experience concerts and art spaces; stadiums could go in the direction of implementing additional box spaces in-bowl to enjoy events in smaller groups. To ensure the safety on our community, no idea is a bad one.
#1: The business of Sport & Entertainment has taken an incredible hit in 2020 due to Covid-19 and it’s something that we could not have anticipated, but while it has caused chaos in some circles, it has also provided various opportunities for organizations like ours. At MediaCom Sport & Entertainment, we have grown our business over the past 2 years (from 4 to 20 client partners and we’re fortunate that we are still seeing strong growth this year), however the current environment has had the effect of other partners across our GroupM family of agencies (and beyond) reaching out to access our services in an effort to assist them with their Sponsorship Marketing efforts while we are in this moment of “Covid-19 Pause”. What areas are we focusing on? Well, many savvy organizations are looking at their sponsorships from an investment standpoint – are they getting the value from it and are the assets they have the right tools to convey their marketing communications objectives. We provide those organizations with insights and value-based outputs using our Connected Sponsorship Tool that analyses sponsorship assets and converts their delivery into a media value equivalent that marketers clearly understand (based on their actual target audiences, sponsorship asset impact factors and GroupM buying rates).
The other area where we are seeing more proactivity is on developing or more so, re-examining our partner’s sponsorship strategy. Many partners are asking us to evaluate their sponsorship portfolio – are the sponsorship properties the right ones for their brand(s) or organization? Do the properties that they are invested in provide the best possible avenue to communicate and engage with their target demographic and consumer? We applaud these partners who take this approach as they are grounding themselves in insights, target alignment to viewer/fan and ensure that they are using a sport/property to engage with its fans or followers in an effort to stay top of mind, build affinity and drive sales for their products and services. We anticipate increased use of our Sponsorship Framework Tool moving forward to help our partners ensure that their investments are achieving their brand and sales objectives within the world of Sport & Entertainment.
#2: Some trends that we are watching heading into a current and even hopefully a Post COVID world would be the rise of the athlete or personality voice. COVID-19 has accelerated that opportunity for athletes and celebrities to showcase how their personal BRAND can be of use to organizations trying to provide content and engaged messages to its consumers or fans. We anticipate that we’ll be assisting athletes and celebrities (media, entertainment or otherwise) build their personal brands through social health analysis of their networks, content development and strategic management in terms of relationship and business opportunities. Another trend would be the evolution of sponsorship assets when fans can’t be in the stands. No property wants to have empty seats – it’s bad for their brand, so it will be interesting to see how properties will solve for that potential harm while also trying to drive revenue for their organization by turning them into assets! There are many opportunities here and we are currently in ongoing conversations with various properties on how those assets might come to life in the venue and via broadcast.
#1: Like many businesses, OverActive Media was forced to adapt over the last several months. Fortunately, the esports model has remained resilient. As an organization, our 2020 plans were to move closer to where traditional sports already exist. We had only recently introduced physical activations, major live events, increased community engagement, and retail experiences at the beginning of the year. When everything changed, we were able to quickly pivot back to our roots and remain (for now) where esports began - online. We worked with our league partners, players, and our teams to push the boundaries of our assets finding new enhanced opportunities for our partners. In the future I expect us to continue to innovate and adapt our assets for brands, and when the time comes, be able to also deliver a new world of physical esports experiences to our consumer.
#2: With challenge comes opportunity. Post COVID, I will be watching closely to see how brands generate new opportunities through innovation and asset diversification. To start, I expect brands to look across their entire portfolio of investments and ensure they have a balanced mix. Is there enough balance of traditional rights and digital rights, and are they spread across their consumers interests, or over-indexed against one in particular? COVID unfortunately forced some brands to realize this the hard way, but I do expect brands to diversify their investments because of this learning in the future. The other area which you are already seeing brands shift towards is innovation through digital sponsorship. This is of course not new, but I do expect brands to accelerate their investment and lean-in on digital sponsorship packages requiring rights holders to get even more creative. I also expect we will see more brands look to pivot their physical rights into creating unique digital only experiences. In both instances, the advantages for brands are a very clear measurement, increased data and consumer insight, ease of execution, customization, and in some instances more value through their investment.
#1: From the onset of the pandemic, the health and safety of our employees and customers has always been paramount. We worked with our various partners to either postpone or cancel in-person events, abiding by government & health guidelines. Since then, we have remained committed to our partners and collaborated with them to pivot to meaningful and authentic digital experiences.
We have utilized existing assets or created new opportunities for our customers while they remain at home. Some of these include free streaming of documentary films with our Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival partner; free downloads of select Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning novels for all Canadians via audible.ca; and discounted offers for exercise/running gear for those keeping fit at home.
Scotiabank has always been active in supporting the communities in which we operate in. As such, in association with our running event sponsorships, we are helping our partners drive fundraising efforts through our Scotiabank Charity Challenge platform for hundreds of local community charities across Canada. We recognize that many charities are in need as they have had to cancel their fundraising events. Traditionally the Challenge raises approximately $8 million annually for over 500 community charities. And lastly, we worked with our partners to transform the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto into a large-scale kitchen to provide meals for healthcare workers and those in-need in the community.
#2: In a post-COVID-19 world, I feel that the digital space will remain the primary platform for delivery of 'events'. I know after four months of physical distancing and the current beautiful summer weather, the last thing anyone will want to do is to be in front of their computer screens, especially after long daily video calls during the work week. However, until in-person events take place again, this is the most effective medium with a wide reach with data-capture opportunities for future marketing campaigns. Some trends could be:
Enhanced in-home experiences while streaming content – properties & sponsors can provide added content with behind-the-scenes footage, interviews/special content with athletes, celebrities, people of influence; combination of slick pre-produced content with live content; and provide branded merchandise to viewers' homes.
Those who pivoted to a digital experience – whether haphazardly or accelerated their plans – will need to figure out how to continue with the digital experience in parallel to any in-person experience – what’s the strategy?
Technology will continue to play an important role from an experiential standpoint via mobile devices, whether at home or on-site, with augmented reality, gamification, selecting different points-of-view for sports events
Growth of eSports – new opportunity to reach target segment involving in-game purchases and brand placements, athlete/celebrity ambassador avatars
Virtual events will continue – do on your own but be a part of a larger event e.g. virtual running or walking events while still receiving the recognition for an official finishing time and associated merchandise, fundraising for causes.
Drive-ins for films & concerts, utilizing technology for concession ordering for in-car delivery and repurposing large spaces so that attendees can enjoy the event from the safety of their own vehicles.
It's not to say in-person live events won't return - they will, albeit on a smaller scale at first, and not in the immediate future. Organizers will need to work though delivering the best possible experience while abiding by health regulations and adjusting physical spaces to accommodate for social distancing. Contactless technology will have a large role to play onsite - automatic doors everywhere, payment systems, hand sanitizer stations, etc. Attendance via appointment-only/timed-ticketing within a limited timeframe to experience. It'll be interesting to see which organizations and events will withstand the current situation. And the question is, even if the live events return, will the people attend … and when they will be ready to do so?
#1: As with many organizations across Canada Molson Coors has been directly affected by COVID-19. We had a number of Consumer Experiences that had either been put on pause or were completely modified given everything going on. As a partner of the COC we had been working months on a fully integrated program that was getting ready to be launched in early May – that program has now been shifted to 2021 to reflect the Olympics being moved. Overall, we remained in very close contact with all our Partners and have worked though countless scenarios and are continuously evolving our programs to reflect the current environment to ensure they are a proper fit for our consumers. We have not gone completely “dark” as seen by our recent Molson Summer Campaign that had us reaching out to consumers and brewers to make the most Canadian case of beer ever (www.TheCanadianCase.ca). Once our sports properties are back up and running – we will be ready!
The importance of Digital – Given that the Sporting world will not be back to “normal” for the foreseeable future I feel now more than any time in the past Brands need to rely on Digital to bring their campaigns and activations to life. Properties that are not able to provide Brands a unique and ownable digital option will see less engagement and ultimately funds allocated to other partners who can provide what the Brands need post-COVID
Honesty between Partners and Brands need to be stronger than ever. Both sides are being greatly affected – both within and outside the Partnership – and assets/activations that worked before may no longer be possible (i.e. – Hospitality will be a huge question mark now) so honesty and a strong Partnership is going to be needed to get through these tough times.
The means to which consumers and fans engage with sports will change. 2nd or even 3rd Screens will become more of the norm for fans given the potential unavailability or even hesitation of seeing Live sports/concerts.
#1: The world is challenged right now; communities are challenged, and everyone is doing what they can to adapt – be that personally or in business. How businesses, brands and leaders act today is going to set them up for the future. The existential crisis that organizations are facing right now is to define ‘what do I stand for’ and ‘how do I add value to my consumers’, or employees’ lives. Value is now much more than a product or a service, or a job in of itself.
In working with our clients, we are leveraging as much consumer data as possible to understand consumer sentiment and generate meaningful insights around how brands must behave in this moment. We are working with our partners to rapidly change messaging, redeploy advertising and marketing expenditure to the channels and content that support their audiences today, while also setting up their brands for the future. We are helping our clients talk to consumers in the ways that they want to be talked to. If you find the balance, you prepare your business for the future in a more robust way.
Internally here at Dentsu we have adapted quickly to the changing world around us. This reflects our strong, agile and resilient community. Within a day, our entire Canadian network went into WFH mode seamlessly, and as an exec team we build a strong communication plan to ensure our teams remain closely connected and engaged with each other. We get together as an entire network every week to share updates, answer questions and showcase the amazing work that we have been doing for our clients. We have also leveraged digital channels to ensure a consistent flow of information, and a place for our teams to gather daily – be that to share parenting tips, get information on our employee benefit program changes, or to participate in guided meditation breaks. Sure, we have important business updates to share with our teammates, but we also wanted to create channels to continue to collaborate, celebrate and connect in virtual ways.
More recently, following the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Regis Korchinski-Paquet and the many other injustices in the world, we have also taken a very close look in the mirror to re-evaluate equity and inclusion in our workforce, and in the work that we produce for our clients. We quickly launched a volunteer team of 75+ employees to form our Anti-racism Action Team and have developed a clear, actionable five-pillar plan to fight systemic racism in our company, the industry and society at large. We have appointed our first ever Director of DEI, signed the BlackNorth pledge and have Agency of Record for the organization to launch this national movement. We are also currently working with the Ad Standards Council of Canada to review the regulations around racism and inclusion in Canadian advertising.
#2: More than ever we need to listen, understand, and help brands make an impact in the most meaningful way. Beyond the obvious trends around the rise of eCommerce, at-home video consumption, and direct-to-consumer business models, In the new world, what brands DO will matter far more than what brands SAY. We know that things will get better; however, they’re going to be different and we have to accept and embrace that. In the past, all too often time brands come out with messages and they tell consumers what they stand for in long, emotional videos - they do it by telling a story. But more than any other trend, we believe that when brands do things to help consumers, to make them laugh, or help them realize something, or at the end of the day make their life easier being more useful, they will develop a much greater relationship with that brand, then just watching a video or just hearing what they have to say. Brands that have been present have listened to public sentiment and adjusted their messaging quickly to be relevant and resonate with consumers.