IBM and Coronavirus stories

IBM CMO Michelle Peluso: Turning mayhem into marketing momentum

Watch a replay of Michelle Peluso's livestream

In times of great upheaval and uncertainty, messaging matters.

“Marketers have always needed to adapt quickly, reacting to new data and a changing marketplace,” said Michelle Peluso, IBM’s Senior Vice President of Digital Sales and Chief Marketing Officer, during a Think Leadership Livestream on April 28. “Now we’re faced with new challenges that require fast and structured strategic thinking. There are so many ways you can take what we have at this moment and innovate.”

Peluso oversees all global marketing and brand initiatives along with operational responsibility for digital sales as well as IBM’s commercial segment. She brings deep customer-centric marketing and digital leadership experience, as IBM accelerates its transformation to an AI- and cloud-driven company.

In a career filled with meeting great marketing challenges, Peluso has found the current situation demands using every tool, technology and strategy IBM can make available to clients. “Supporting your brand is more important than ever,” Peluso said.

She has elaborated on her insights and advice for CMOs and marketers in a new report published by the IBM Institute for Business Value.

In sharing her ideas and experiences during the livestream, Peluso addressed questions from the audience and those she has received from her industry peers in recent weeks:

What are the priorities for marketers right now?

There’s nothing more important than going back to the basics, and I see three essentials. The first is Purpose. Marketers are great at understanding what customers need and want, so we must see the world through their eyes, a world that is changing rapidly, and respond in meaningful ways.

The second thing is Agility. With so many changes overnight—a company, its functions, its teams, the world—we must prioritize what matters most and then pivot in a cross-functional way. We need integrated squads of creatives and data scientists, analysts and product marketers. We must move fast and far. We can’t do that if we’re separated by silos.

The third is Empathy. I’ve already seen incredible displays of this everywhere. We are all more vulnerable now, and the mutual support we get from teams is inspiring and uplifting. Empathy will bear fruit for years and years to come, but it is especially critical now. 

How do we support internal teams?

Start by making sure that everyone is safe, healthy and productive. Consider their physical and mental health as well as their emotional health. For instance, this is an incredible opportunity to crowdsource ideas from employees and seek out clever new ways to innovate to support our communities.

Having the chance to help others can be a huge antidote for employees who may be struggling with isolation. Trusted feedback loops, pulse surveys, Slack channels—all of these can help us hear what our employees truly need at this moment.

Beyond that, we must reimagine how work will get done in the future. It will not be the same as how work was done in the past. So, this involves embedding Agile principles into the way teams work: iterative cycles, continuous improvement, regular optimizations, feedbacks and retrospectives in real time. Essentially, just do away with those things that don't add value.

How can we best support our customers?

CMOs have always been customer-obsessed, but that has never mattered more than in the current environment. We can’t rely on traditional models of data and past behavior. Paying close attention to economic signals, even simple things like Google Trends, helps us get oriented. We've also got to understand what’s happening to our customers and communities around the world at large.

Hyundai, for instance, has introduced a great program to cover customer car payments for up to six months. And eBay has a new accelerator program called "Up and Running," which helps small retailers with struggling brick-and-mortar shops move their stores online.

Sometimes, too, these ideas can simply be fun and warm. Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium has let its penguins wander around freely after closing its doors due to the coronavirus outbreak. It’s broadcasting their wandering, and it’s delightful.

Local fitness companies are offering free classes on Instagram Live. Brands can also be part of the solution to this problem. LVMH is donating hand sanitizer to hospitals, and 3M is repurposing its manufacturing capacity, putting people back to work to make respirators and ventilators to fight coronavirus. All of this comes down to positioning the brand for the moment. 

Will this crisis have CMOs rethink their digital engagement experiences?

Definitely. We must go front and center with our customer’s web experience. We’ve seen hundreds of millions of orders move from offline to online, overnight. For all of us, this means a rapid acceleration to truly digitizing our companies, from the inside of our company out.

Sure, it’s great that we have websites and mobile apps, but now we have to think more deeply about issues, like how we digitize our supply chain so consumers can have real-time information?

What about the future of physical marketing events? What will be the long-term changes there?

I don't think we know. Physical events are going to be a small part of our budgets for the foreseeable future, certainly for 2020. And we’re all trying to innovate around these huge online events. We’re learning and have seen some early signs of success.

We at IBM have conducted several virtual events in April, 3,000 to 5,000 people at a time. But I think it's a little bit too early to tell where this will all ultimately lead. Potentially, physical events will be smaller. Or perhaps they’ll be hybrids of physical and virtual experiences, which may contain a live chat session or the ability to take a conversation offline in a collaboration platform like Slack.

My best guesstimate is that marketers will go back to relying on physical events. In the end, there's nothing more important than building that direct relationship in a meaningful way with clients and prospects.

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