What Did You Learn? Episode 7
The coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter movements shone a spotlight on a wide spectrum of brand responses: Some nailed it, while others dropped the ball. Marketing expert Katie Martell talked with Ahava about which organizations showed real allyship — including Microsoft and Rent the Runway — and how exactly they succeeded.
Watch this episode of What Did You Learn to hear more about Katie’s marketing learnings and observations during the coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement — as well as what she hopes will last for years to come.
Ahava: Hi, I’m Ahava Leibtag. Welcome back to What Did You Learn? Today, you are going to have the best time because I’m here with my good friend and colleague Katie Martell, who is an unapologetic marketing truth teller, writer, consultant, speaker. She’s the bomb. So without further ado, welcome.
Katie: Thank you. All of the things and thanks for setting the bar like here. I mean, could you start it here so we could surprise people.
Ahava: You’re on this show. You start at the top. Okay, so let’s start with some, like, rapid fire fun just for everybody to get to know you because you are so fun.
Katie: Have you gotten a new hobby? I have. And it was born and bred from a random Instagram find where you know you see something and you go do that, I started to make for myself, for friends, and for family. It is disco ball planter serving you disco realness with some green thumb action. Isn’t this fabulous?
Ahava: I’m getting one, right?
Katie: Send me the address. It’s gonna be, it’s, I mean, you can see the hot glue. It’s not, it’s not great. But you know what, when the light shines the right way, the whole room is sparkly and you have a happy little plant.
Ahava: No one else has had a hobby quite like that, so you win, you win the hobby crown.
Katie: Not a contest, it brings me joy to make these and it lights up the faces that I want to give them to. Which is the point.
Ahava: Yes. Okay. And have you learned any TikToks?
Katie: No. TikTok is a national security threat, screw that, no way. Delete it. Delete it now.
Ahava: Have you baked anything?
Katie: I’m not the baker. My beautiful wife is the baker. I have enjoyed quite a bit of her baking, so, no, thank God. You want, you do not want me to bake. I’m more of a cook. I’m more of what’s in the pantry, make it up to go. Measuring, you know. Oh, yeah. Baking is a science. It takes adherence to rules. You and I both know I’m no good at that.
Ahava: What do you wish you had known before this started? As a marketing professional, as someone who says it like it is, who really sort of like revealing the hard truths of what companies need to come to grips with in order to be future-thinking, what do you wish you had known?
Katie: I wish I was better suited personally, and I think this goes for all marketers, for the need to suddenly be agile. For the sudden need to stop, pump the brakes and suddenly pivot. And I think that actually takes preparation. It sounds counterintuitive, but it takes preparation to be agile. It’s a muscle that you have to work out so that when something happens and it doesn’t have to be a pandemic, although that’s what we all are dealing with, could be a change in the market, it could be a change in customer behavior, could be a new competitor. We have to be almost really ready for whatever comes next.
I don’t think a lot of companies were. The ones that were that had exercised that muscle to be able to pivot, did some really beautiful creative win-win things early on in the pandemic. They were able to respond to what customers need right away.
I do, um, look at what Microsoft did. I know it’s a giant company, and so they have more resources than the average B2B firm. But look at how quickly they pivoted from, for example, the retail store, which, by the way, the stores are now no longer going in to, they’re going to cancel all the stores now. But before that decision was made, they took all of the retail employees. They took them and pivoted them to online trainers for the Microsoft teams virtual product. And they, right away, I mean, it wasn’t a huge business model shift, but what it did was apply resources from one area of the business to a place where customers really needed that kind of leadership, that kind of on the ground training. And they did in a way that was really, really, really fast and a host of other way things Microsoft did. But I loved that example for the fact that it was a pivot, and it was one that was done quickly.
Ahava: Yeah, no it’s interesting, you know, we work with hospitals mostly, and they have call centers that they had to go virtual with. You know, the operators or whatever you call them now had to move into their own homes and still run the call centers. And one of the things that I think is so fascinating about what you’re saying is I think a lot of people are saying to themselves if I knew that I could move that quickly that I could change that quickly, I would do that in the future. But I wonder if that’s really going to stay, so we’ll get to that question.
But I want to say another thing about what you said, and I love to get your perspective on this because I’ve seen you’re talking about this on Instagram and Twitter. My theory, and for anybody whoever writes a marketing history textbook about this time, my theory is that because companies didn’t know how to respond to corona when it first started and they learned on the job, they responded much better to Black Lives Matter. The language was more intentional. The distribution of content was more intentional.
Katie: What the pandemic showed, just like to your point what Black Lives Matter showed, in terms of the company’s response to it, was that there are, there is a spectrum between lip service and legitimate support. And I found as a marketer and a consumer and a woman and a gay woman and all these different things that parts of my identity that are affected by this new groundswell for companies to have a say on social issues, I find it was important to be clear about where companies fall.
So, it’s not black and white. Although all the statements on Black Lives Matter were black text, you know, black background, white text, the issue is actually very nuanced. And it matters because when companies are just giving lip service, doing nothing of real substance for the movement, usually that comes in the form of just saying you or changes or anything. That actually has a dangerous impact.
When companies are doing it on the flip side and they’re giving meaningful support, it could be donations, but often it’s a lot more ingrained in the company, with hiring practices with different areas of just fixing that racial inequality very intentional ways, I have some examples. When companies do that, and they’re on that side of the spectrum, the legitimate support side, man is that an exciting future for the industry of marketing, and so to answer your question, we need to look at what companies are doing along a spectrum, and it’s okay to be skeptical of some while we celebrate the work of others.
Ahava: So, I love that spectrum idea, of lip service and what was the other word that you used?
Katie: Legitimate support. Lip service, legitimate. The problem is, when it’s just checked off to say all right, we issued a statement, and the company itself has a demonstrated history of not living up to those values, not answering what the movement calls for.
With the pandemic, the pandemic called for real support for things like frontline workers, for customers that were affected. It called for actual action to help the pandemic. Black Lives Matter: The movement called for companies to address the systematic racism that existed in their own firms. Many organizations didn’t start with that level of understanding. They started just by thinking: “This isn’t our problem. We’re not part of the problem and therefore we’re not part of the solution. So, our statement of solidarity should be enough, right?”
That was what those statements were, and many were strongly worded and they felt right. But they were just statements of solidarity. Real leadership, real integrity in the Black Lives Matter movement for where a company can have a role in this, it required responding to what the movement is asking.
So, one example of real allyship that I saw coming out of the corporate response of Black Lives Matter was from Rent the Runway. If you’re not familiar with them, it’s a service that allows you to rent designer dresses and other clothing items and then return it, so you don’t have to go buy the Oscar de la Renta gown, you can rent it for the party or wedding you’re attending. It’s a great business model.
But being squarely in the world of fashion, I was really impressed at the response from Jennifer Hyman, who’s the CEO and co-founder. And this is why it was real allyship. She said, and she has a statement that you can read on LinkedIn, about what the company would be doing. Literal actions they’d be taking in response to their role in systemic racism and their role in fixing it. The first was an acknowledgement of that the industry they were in, fashion, acknowledging the role that fashion plays in systemic racism. As she put it, “fashion has co-opted the style, inspiration and ideas of black culture without ensuring black people are economically compensated for this.” She just went right out and admitted the industry has problems.
Then she took responsibility for her own brand’s action. She said: “The fashion industry must do better, and we at Rent the Runway are responsible for being part of this change.” That’s beautiful responsibility and accountability in words.
Then she made her stance on the matter clear. And this is, I think, where a lot of companies just ended their response was we support and they didn’t talk about actions. But it’s still important to mention where you stand on the issues. So, they said, “We believe that supporting black business, black designers and black talent is both in the fashion industry’s moral and financial best interest.” Put her stance out there on the line. Why should you care? Where do we fall in this issue?
But here’s the part where it really differentiated from a lot of other statements. She provided clear and measurable actions that demonstrated her ownership. So, what the company is doing is allocating a $1,000,000 for black designers not only in cash but through wholesale platform co-manufacturing initiatives, design resources, data, mentorship, everything to help black designers have access and get things like investment capital to launch their own brands. That is real, meaningful support for the people who have been excluded due to systemic racism and a whole host of other things. But it demonstrated what I thought real leadership and real allyship looked like from the CEO of a brand.
Ahava: I’ll tell you something else too that I find really fascinating about that example. What she did was align herself with the fashion industry very squarely, and I think that that shows a level of leadership that I’m willing to step out on a limb on behalf of a community we feel we’re a part of and lead the way in that community, and that also takes a lot of bravery and a lot of guts. All these things that have come together the pandemic, Black Lives, Matters, your unique point of view about how companies matter. Social justice issues.
What’s the number one thing in the last 700 days that you really feel like you’ve learned? And I know it’s complicated. I know there are a lot of them, but one thing that really stands out at you as like the crux of the disco ball, part of what you learned.
Katie: The pandemic really, shone a spotlight on how fearful, anxious and overwhelmed our buyers are, and I’m talking B2B. Every industry was affected by COVID in some way, and it is an opportunity for a brand to stand up and say we have guidance. We may not know all the answers, but that’s not what it’s about. Thought leadership and trust is built on this promise that you make to be dedicated to finding out, dedicated to the art of guiding your buyers through the uncertainty. And that takes a muscle again, this kind of, uh, process that you’ve built internally to be able to generate insights throughout the business and then give them to the world like a disco ball. Right? Get those insights back out to the audience.
And so, what I learned in this pandemic was the importance of you may not have all the answers. Nobody knows when it’s going to end really day by day, with figuring out how to navigate it, but it’s the importance of being willing to just continue to share what you’re learning and to go find how it’s affecting your customers and how they’re getting through it and then share that back with the rest of your prospect and customer base. Those are the brands that are going to make it through because they’re telling customers you can trust me to guide you through anything.
If you break trust with buyers because you’re unwilling to take a stand or you’ve taken a stand that’s completely inappropriate, it takes way longer to build that trust back up. It’s a lot easier and actually less risk adverse to have something to say that is truthful, that meet value is aligned with your buyers but shows the world where you stand on an issue. It’s, that is actually a long-term play, though it feels risky in the short-term.
Ahava: Absolutely. OK, last question. What do you think is the takeaway that, you know, five years from now when you and I are sitting at a conference, no mask, having some cocktails.
Katie: Yes, I can’t wait.
Ahava: What’s the one thing that you’re going to say, “You know what Ahava? This stuck with us as an industry, this stuck with me as a person.”
Katie: I think what we’re seeing, and I look at leadership in the terms of business leadership, governmental leadership, etcetera. What we’re seeing is a lack of clarity and a lack of explicit guidance in regards to the coronavirus. It’s why we see some states with confusing messages around whether or not to wear a mask. Again. Your buyers are stressed out, managing an uncertain time, they need you to be clear on what the next steps are for them to not only navigate this time but come out after on top.
But I think that’s you’re bringing up another point that’s worth touching on. And it is in times of crisis and uncertainty, our affinity to misinformation, conspiracy theories actually grows. We’re so desperate for certainty, as human beings, that we actively seek out opinions that kind of fit the cognitive biases, or confirmation bias that kind of fit our thinking, or at least validate what we believe to be true.
Ahava: If you want to be a brand that people trust, you are going to have to be extremely clear in the way that you speak, but also very authentic and empathetic about the fact that people are going through something so incredibly challenging. So, yeah, I agree with you.
Katie has mad knowledge, Katie, where can people find you?
Katie: You can just Google me, Katie Martell, but I would like to shamelessly plug a newsletter that I send about once a week. It’s katie-martell.com. You can find out how to sign up.
Today’s edition had everything from what it was like to MC a virtual gala event for Adobe, to an article about the upcoming you know, fight we’re going to have over vaccines and who gets, them, and the anti-vaxxers, and as well as some marketing tips. So, my newsletter is a little bit of everything, but I really, it’s been a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much.
Ahava: I’ll see you again soon.
Watch Previous Episodes
Get caught up on our “What Did You Learn” series! Catch the most recent episodes below.
- Episode 1 feat. Amanda Todorovich of Cleveland Clinic
- Episode 2 feat. Ann Handley of MarketingProfs
- Episode 3 feat. Aaron Johnson of Penn Medicine
- Episode 4 feat. Gini Dietrich of Spin Sucks
- Episode 5 feat. Lauren Smith of UT Health
- Episode 6 feat. Marketing Consultant Chris Boyer
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