The pandemic will be remembered as one of the most disruptive and demanding moments of our times. However, the shutdown of physical stores and businesses is opening new opportunities for digital services, mobile apps and multichannel marketplaces to deliver value and build trust as people search for certainty. It's also benefiting a new kind of marketer, one who combines the courage to embrace the rapid pace of change and digital transformation with the empathy to infuse everything — from ad creatives to targeting — with humanity.


If it feels like a departure from the marketing playbook, that's because it is. "COVID-19 has changed business forever,” John Copeland, Vice President of Customer and Marketing Insights at Adobe, said on the company blog. Commenting on the seismic shift in consumer habits and a massive surge in e-commerce, John adds context to the surprising findings in Adobe's May 2020 Digital Economy Index. The report, which analyzes 1 trillion visits to retail sites and other retailer data, reveals that e-commerce sales in May in the U.S. alone reached $82.5 billion, up 77.8% year-over-year. It's this meteoric growth that has catapulted the entire e-commerce industry more than four years into the future in just under four months.

And global events are driving more than explosive growth. According to Amaryllis Liampoti, Partner & Growth Director at BCG Digital Ventures, the innovation, incubation and investment arm of The Boston Consulting Group, new demographics eager to explore mobile apps and other digital destinations are coming through a plethora of channels. "Right now, understanding the behavior of these new customers in as much detail as possible is imperative to success," Amaryllis tells me in an interview. Success also hinges on the ability of marketers to "remap the customer journey" to determine when, where and how to add value.



Flows and funnels will never be the same. "There is no new normal," Amaryllis says. In fact, she suggests we drop "normal" from our vocabulary altogether. And she's right. The pandemic has altered the market landscape, accelerating digital transformation and obliterating the old-school linear path from consideration to conversion. To keep up with the pace of change, she says, marketers "have to get to a constant and dynamic way of absorbing and understanding — even anticipating — what customers want and need."

It's time for marketers to retire many of the static segments, models and personas they used to guide campaigns and reach targets pre-pandemic. The future marketer will need to adapt, evolve and pivot marketing and messaging based on a living and learning profile of the consumer and their unique passions and preferences.

This adaptive approach calls for marketers to connect the dots in multiple data sources "to create more fluid and dynamic segments," Amaryllis explains. The work of collecting, organizing and analyzing this data is well beyond the capacity of marketers to do alone. Achieving "fluid and dynamic customer segmentation and targeting at scale" requires a new kind of partnership between marketers and machine learning. A modern marketer armed with a data-fueled technology stack and deploying human empathy and insight can turbo-charge campaign effectiveness, with optimization automated in real time as consumers' preferences shift.

The benefits extend beyond marketing to empower companies to pursue new growth strategies and value propositions in a world where consumers crave experience and value convenience. "The opportunities are in understanding the patterns and identifying the pain points," Amaryllis explains. Companies that have the data-informed capabilities and processes to understand where customers struggle and respond with approaches that remove that friction are winners two times over: they develop products (and brands) that audiences love, and they drive new revenue streams.


It's not a one-off project, according to The Digital Imperative for CMOs, a new report from BCG Digital Ventures that lays out a five-point plan marketers can follow to "future-proof their business" and ensure ongoing relevance. "It's crucial to track and analyze in real time the new, emerging customer journeys and adapt both your product and your communication strategy to meet current needs," the report says. "This needs to happen on an agile basis so that it can be adapted again and again as necessary." Data-powered personalization technology enables brands and businesses to do exactly this, the report concludes. Product decisions and marketing strategies also need to be understood through "the lens of comprehensive data analysis."

Leveraging data also equips companies to show leadership and empathy at a moment when consumers are counting on brands to get them through tough times. It's not just good advice — it's good business, according to a new report from data intelligence firm Morning Consult. Drawing from a survey of 2,200 adult Americans on March 28-29, the research suggests the actions companies take today to help customers can ultimately drive positive brand attitudes and influence consumer purchase preferences when the skies clear.

"Companies have a clear opportunity to be there for customers when the chips are down and, in doing so, build their foundation for substantial long-term brand equity gains," the report says. Before companies can show they care, they must understand the dramatic shift in consumer needs at a time of crisis. This calls for "acknowledging the social, financial and other realities of this pandemic, empathizing with people's concerns and offering practical solutions." The report also highlights good reasons why marketers should "not disengage" from the moment, but rather ensure that their marketing and communications reflect the new reality.


Your brand story is unfolding across all customer touchpoints. Even billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban has gone on record saying that the way companies act during this crisis will “define their brands for decades.“ In a March 2020 update to its Trust Barometer, global communications firm Edelman found actions are indeed the “tie that binds“ people to the brands they love. A massive 71% of consumers across 12 markets agreed that “if they perceive a brand is putting profit over people, they will lose trust in that brand forever.“

Dialing down ad spend to conserve cash is also not an option. A new report from data intelligence firm Morning Consult highlights good reasons why marketers should “not disengage“ from the moment, but rather ensure that their marketing and communications reflect the new reality. “Companies have a clear opportunity to be there for customers when the chips are down and, in doing so, build their foundation for substantial long-term brand equity gains,“ the report says. Audiences expect that companies will acknowledge “the social, financial and other realities of this pandemic, empathizing with people's concerns and offering practical solutions.“ They also want companies to take a leadership role and help them get through the tough times ahead.

Global events and our universal desire for authentic and genuinely helpful messaging turn up the pressure on marketers to show empathy and provide guidance, according to Kantar, an evidence-based insights and consulting company. Brands no longer have the option to look the other way, observes Kantar’s Chief Knowledge Officer J. Walker Smith. He calls this a “do moment“ and urges companies to take the necessary steps to lead and contribute to the greater public and societal good.


The numbers (and history) speak for themselves. Case in point: a McGraw-Hill research study looking at 600 companies from 1980 to 1985 found companies that consistently advertise even during recessions perform better in the long run. Those businesses that maintained or increased their level of ad expenditures during the 1981 and 1982 recession chalked up sales that were a whopping 256% higher than those that stopped advertising.


But marketers also need to adapt to the times and infuse communications with humanity. This call for a holistic strategy refresh, not just a “we're here for you“ subject line or Pollyanna messaging (that may be more laughable than it is helpful). While marketers may have amassed copious customer information based on past behavior, the future marketer must also factor in consumers’ current situation and expectations to best serve them and, ultimately, keep them coming back.


Unfortunately, that new reality is harsh. Around the globe, consumers are emotionally drained and financially strained. The pandemic’s perfect storm of market and mental conditions spotlight companies that step up to help consumers plan and protect their financial wellbeing.

It's a blueprint that Credit Sesame, a consumer financial health management platform, is following to help consumers who have been affected by the COVID-19 fallout. The majority of Credit Sesame customers, along with more than half of Americans, live paycheck to paycheck, struggling to balance the competing goals of paying bills and saving money. To serve this customer base, Credit Sesame started out providing consumers access to free credit scores and information to democratize access to credit and financial wellness.

Today, the advanced machine learning and AI required to help customers improve and manage their credit also equips Credit Sesame to create a new category within personal finance. In March, Credit Sesame extended its offer with Sesame Cash, a new digital banking service that integrates cash and credit. In June, Credit Sesame raised the stakes, acquiring STACK to boost Credit Sesame's international presence and fulfill its broader ambitions to become a banking platform.

"What we're doing by bringing these solutions together is making a direct connection between your day-to-day banking and your credit score to show you how they're related," Miro Pavletic, General Manager and Head of Global Banking, Credit Sesame, told Business Insider. Credit Sesame is also driving customer connection with a new content platform that offers consumers assistance when and where it matters most. SesameThrive provides a "onestop resource for consumers’ entire financial journey to help them minimize the impact of Covid-19 while steering them on a path to financial stability and recovery as soon as possible," Adrian Nazari, Credit Sesame CEO, said in a statement. "We don’t want to just help them survive this difficult time — we want to help them thrive on the other side of it."

The SesameThrive product also exemplifies how Credit Sesame sides with customers, doing what it can to help them establish a better path to financial wellness. It's not about advertising to audiences; it's about communicating with a customer-first mindset, Adrian tells me in an interview. "The combination of personal finance advice with content that supports our members through this challenging time drives connection and builds trust."

Credit Sesame also deploys its expertise and computing power to analyze consumers' finances and their repayment ability against their credit to provide its customer base of 15 million with personalized recommendations. Marketing across all channels, including email, highlights what members should be considering and how they can protect their finances. It's helpful messaging that steers members on a positive path to financial wellness. Credit Sesame reports, "more than half of customers see credit score improvements within six months, with one in five achieving a boost of 50 points or more."


Human-centered marketing, personalized recommendations, relevant messaging: Credit Sesame is developing a toolbox of capabilities to deepen customer relationships by helping members stay on top of their cash, credit, and debt. Adrian is also drawing from a decade of customer insights to draft what he calls the "next chapter" in the marketing playbook. "Advanced machine learning and AI, which have helped millions of members improve and manage their credit, now step up to offer personalized guidance to help customers prepare for financial recovery," Adrian explains.

In this scenario, the combination of marketers and machine learning elevates the company's ability to "show we know where customers are coming from and we can help them get where they want to go next," Adrian says. These insights also power new models adapted for our new reality. "The lifetime value model has been disrupted, and it's never going to be the same," he explains. The company is moving forward by looking back at its customers’ pasts.

To understand the impact of the current crisis on key metrics and measurement, Credit Sesame is sifting through the last decade of data to pinpoint patterns that show how customers reacted to other financial hardships. (Credit Sesame launched in 2010, directly following the last financial crisis.) "Examining those customer journeys, which were also impacted by global events, allows us to channel marketing efforts." The challenge ahead of them, he adds, will be to apply those learnings on a larger scale.


Highly granular data and insights inform a marketing strategy to serve consumers in a rapidly changing world. But companies can also leverage analytics to benefit entire business ecosystems, building capabilities that are the envy of their industries. It's what Marco Iansiti, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, calls the "keystone advantage" and companies that wield it orchestrate partners and resources to become powerhouses. A prime example is MercadoLibre, the largest e-commerce marketplace in Latin America.

Combine the market share of Amazon, the payment flexibility of PayPal and the credit portfolio of Visa and you have MercadoLibre. Founded 20 years ago in Buenos Aires, the company has a sprawling logistics operation, online payment services and a network of 12 million-plus vendors with 267 million live listings. "We're working to democratize e-commerce and payments in Latin America," Juan Lavista, Director of Marketing and Insights for Latin America at MercadoLibre, tells me in an interview. "The aim is to become a one-stop shop."

The company gets high marks on its efforts, which are helping grow e-commerce in the region. Shopping online and in-app currently accounts for just 5% of the region’s retail sales. But this is set to surge to 25% in a decade, according to analysts at HSBC bank. The growth is fueled by an influx of first-time shoppers who prefer the safety of browsing and buying online and in-app to the risk of contact at the checkout. During May alone, according to data from app market intelligence provider Apptopia, downloads of shopping apps in the region grew 43% compared to the previous year. MercadoLibre "absolutely dominated the competition," counting more mobile app sessions than its next two competitors combined between June 2019 and May 2020.

Insights into the shopper journey and their preferences position MercadoLibre to be "one of the big winners." But MercadoLibre has ambitions that go beyond being a successful player on its own, Juan explains. Its advertising business unit is architecting a data-informed platform — leveraging its first party data — to benefit its growing business ecosystem of brands, merchants and media agencies. "We're on the path to contribute valuable insights to help companies on our platform develop business, build brand and delight consumers with their offers."


In unpredictable and experimental times, there isn't a playbook to follow, so MercadoLibre is rewriting the rules. "We're focused on listening to what our shoppers are telling us and what brands, media agencies and merchants are asking for," Juan says. "Focusing on meeting their collective needs, and using data to develop the right tools and automate processes, allows us to be an enabler for their business and ensure e-commerce thrives in the region."

At one level, Juan says, it's about detailed analysis to "ensure product offerings and brand messaging is a fit for the current context." At the other end of the spectrum, it's about deep collaboration to "understand audiences and segment them in ways that allow brands to communicate with them in ways that matter most." MercadoLibre is also partnering in the region with Kantar, to help buyers "understand brand lift and how the purchasing mindset impacts it." And, Juan adds, the last meta-learning from Kantar revealed that MercadoLibre Advertising is 66% more effective in generating unaided awareness compared to other digital media players.

Moving forward, the goal is to "change the way we discuss performance marketing — it’s more than just clicks, it’s about sales," Juan explains. The future is about using real-time data to inform "very powerful and targeted segmentation" in a way that resonates with consumers, respects their privacy and reinforces brand equity. "We're at the tip of the iceberg and just getting a glimpse of what's possible," he adds. From here on, there's a new paradigm and a new reality.

Unforeseeable events in the macro-environment have propelled a generation's worth of consumer behavior changes in just a few months. Brands are now tasked with delivering on new users' expectations, matching marketing to global events and our universal desire for authentic and genuinely helpful messaging. As we immerse ourselves in the next chapter of marketing, only one thing is guaranteed: More change. The future marketer will succeed by embracing automation to adapt, finding respectful and relevant ways of speaking to consumers that will provide genuine value. Machine learning is the key to launching a new era of marketing, born out of crisis, that moves beyond the transactional to become authentically human-centric.