COVID-19 Conversations: Michelle Peluso, Chief Marketing Officer of IBM


Michelle Peluso is the SVP Digital Sales & Chief Marketing Officer of IBM, and a member of the ANA’s Global Leadership Coalition on COVID-19, in partnership with WARC and Cannes Lions. She talks to Anna Hamill, Senior Editor – Brands at WARC, about brand building during COVID-19, agile marketing teams, and creating new advertising from scratch in less than ten days.

How is IBM approaching the COVID crisis from a marketing strategy perspective? What are you doing to respond now, and what are the next steps in your scenario planning?

We’re thinking about this on multiple fronts. First, we’re thinking about our people: making sure they are safe and healthy, and rapidly evolving our Agile capabilities and tools to make this period work.

Secondly, we’re thinking a lot about our clients. We’ve had to pivot hard towards the things that matter most. We came up with a whole new set of bundled offerings to address our client’s needs. Obviously, there are occasions for marketing, and how IBM presents itself: things like supply chain resilience, engaging customers virtually, and working from home. Suddenly, a cloud (set-up) matters a lot more right now.

Third, we’re evolving our pipeline and demand creation. That usually happens for us through events and web experiences – we do 6000 events a year, on average. We’ve had to really remake our thinking and accelerate our digital transformation, making sure we’re offering delightful end-to-end digital experiences for our clients.

Fourth thing is the brand. As you’d expect, we initially took our brand off all the (channels) which didn’t make sense. But within two weeks, we were back on-air with new advertising, which we had created and built from scratch over a period of ten days while working from home – a new ad campaign to be ‘in the moment’.

Many CMOS were looking to re-invest in brand building this year. Have you had to prioritise the short-term moves? Is brand building a luxury right now, or is it something you can juggle?

One of the things we learned during 2008 financial crisis was the benefit of IBM being a 109-year old brand. While a lot of other companies were pulling back from marketing, IBM launched its renowned campaign, Smarter Planet. Smarter Planet became a way to talk about what happens after the financial crisis, and what kind of world we want to build. That was very powerful for IBM for years to come.

I think, in a time of crisis, it’s even more important to make sure that your brand has an authentic voice. It’s a really critical time. We know, statistically, that it takes a lot to build a brand’s relevance. But when your brand’s voice is quiet, you lose it fast and it takes a lot more to regain it. There’s a lot of things you have to do tactically, but I think it’s a big mistake not to think about brand – now more than ever.

Has IBM made any changes with regards to where you’re spending your media budget, based on new consumer behaviours?

Absolutely. We normally advertise in places like building elevators, and out-of-home, and so on. Some of those places don’t make as much sense right now. The flipside is an increase in media consumption on digital platforms and also in TV. So we’ve really shifted our media budget online, towards those offerings and places where we see growth – things like supply chain resiliency and new cyber security risks when everyone works from home. We’ve been very, very agile in media budget, both above the line in our brand but also for the additional channels.

We’re using the word ‘unprecedented’ over and over again, but this is obviously a situation in which so many of those old models and consumer behavioural insights don’t apply anymore. How are you getting those fresh consumer insights and acting on them quickly?

I think if you’re not an agile team, it becomes really hard. Everything we’re pulling is multidisciplinary, and the data comes from multiple sources. You really want teams who can work together.

We’ve been looking a ton at digital demand trends. Whether that’s Google Keywords, social data, data we get from the effectiveness of the campaigns we run, or even searches. We’ve seen a huge surge in quick demos and trials.

We’ve been spending a lot of our energy on Net Promoter Score – we collect over a million pieces of feedback from our clients each year. We’re really diving into that. We actually added some questions about how IBM is showing up during this moment to get even richer insights directly from our clients.

Many tech brands are thriving during this time as online services and digital tools become more important. How do you plan to capitalise on these opportunities, both in terms of what’s coming through now, and the consumer behaviours you think are going to change the nature of your category moving forward?

There’s no doubt that so much of what’s happening now gives us reason to think about the long term and how we emerge stronger. We call this the great ‘re-think’, not necessarily a ‘re-start’. It’s a great way to think in terms of: How does work get done? What work is prioritised by clients? So we’ve been really focused on those questions.

(IBM’s clients) are showing different needs. Many of them said “we have spent a lot of time and energy digitising from the outside with a good mobile app and web experience. Now we’ve got to digitise the inside.” How do we make (our clients) stronger and better? It’s not a re-start of the way things work, but it’s a re-think of how things could be so we emerge stronger together.

IBM turned around a new TV campaign in ten days during COVID-19 when everyone was working from home. What creative process changes did you make? How did you make it so quickly?

When we briefed on day one, we said, ‘listen, this is the moment where we put the brand platform ‘Smart’ to work’. We knew we weren’t going to change the brand platform, but we said ‘in the moment, how would we talk and what would we want to say?’

We spent a long time together looking at data and the creative in this very intense ‘day one’ process. It wasn’t like a traditional brief. We were there with researchers, with analysts, with Google Search experts and our offering teams and then putting together things that matter for clients now with our creatives. We really dove in deep on day one, the team came back with some creative constructs and concepts by day three, and we iterated and spent a long time going through all of them. At the same time, in parallel, we had people working on music, editorial rights, and stock images because we couldn’t go out and film.

We were on TV ten days after we began the process. We just got some early testing back, and frankly it performed better than a lot of stuff we’ve done. It really showed us that under constraint, creative thinking can emerge.

For brands that want to come through the crisis in a position to grow, what’s your view on the foundational elements they need have in place? What marketing fundamentals are you prioritising right now?

Authentic brands with agile teams, so they can iterate and move quickly, underscored by a marriage between data and creative. I think those teams can emerge strongly, understand where their company is heading and position it for the future in an authentic way. Teams really need to look at data, because the past models may not apply, and evolve quickly. If you’re in a company where you’ve been devastated (by COVID-19) and your whole marketing budget is cut, it’s not impossible, but it becomes a much harder task.

It’s a much more collaborative, agile ‘test, learn, optimise’ cycle than ever before. For teams that are still very siloed and very hierarchical, and maybe aren’t collaborative sellers or product leaders and technology leaders in the company, that’s much harder.

What did you learn as a marketer from the previous recession that you can apply this time? What are the major differences from 2008 in the way that you’re going to do things now?

I’m a huge believer that you can learn some powerful things from history. I’m a huge believer in what IBM did with its brand for Smarter Planet (after the 2008 recession). There’s a huge amount to learn from that, and we study that lesson all the time.

I think this one is different because it has been such a human crisis. With the economic crisis, there was this kind of notion like ‘okay, we go through these every once in a while, here’s what the rebound looks like’. I think this is very different. There’s a lot of uncertainty, and it’s a truly global economic, social and human crisis. Having said that, I also think through learning new things, we have more ability to work in new ways to shape new offerings. So, I think there’s a lot more at our disposal as well. The challenge feels – at least right now – more complex, more global and more uncertain but the tools and capabilities are stronger than ever before.

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