‘Don’t sugar coat or patronise’: Morrisons and Gousto on leading amid turmoil

Having confidence in a crisis and trusting your team could help brands survive tough times, suggest marketing leaders from Morrisons, Gousto and the British Heart Foundation.

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Marketers have been dealing with increasingly uncertain times, with the economic fallout from the government’s mini-budget just the latest tripwire after periods disrupted by Brexit and the Covid pandemic.

How can marketing leaders cope with planning for a market that is lurching from one crisis to another? Top marketers addressed the subject at today’s Marketing Week’s Festival of Marketing (6 October).

“It’s not dissimilar to the way you plan in certain times,” said British Heart Foundation chief marketing and fundraising officer Claire Sadler.

“Understanding your market context, understanding your customers, and what are their wants and needs. Have those needs changed because of the market context?”

Just as in more predictable times, brands also need to agree how they will measure their effectiveness at meeting those changing needs, she said.

However, there are factors that take on greater importance in times of turmoil.

I spend several hours a day with our CFO. I spend more time with the CFO and her team than I do with many of my other colleagues in the business.

Rachel Eyre, Morrisons

“One of the things that teams need in times of uncertainty, and that a leader can bring, is clarity and a certain level of calm confidence,” added Sadler.

“You might have to do things quicker and you might not have the luxury of time. You might have to sometimes compromise on the data you gather in that period of time. But sometimes done might be better than perfect, if you need to respond quicker than normal.”

For Gousto CMO Tom Wallis, a changing context means there is less certainty when predicting customer behaviour and brand revenue, as consumers face rising costs and rocketing prices.

“For me the most important thing is bringing everyone really close together, giving everybody context. When I say everyone I mean our finance teams, the marketing teams, the agencies. I’m always astounded by people still not having enough context,” said Wallis.

Gousto has adapted to the fluctuating market by seeking to agree fixed budget items as quickly as possible, allowing the company a little more flexibility to deal with variable items as they change.

Don’t sugar coat the issues

All of the panel members agreed that speaking the same language as the finance department can strengthen the case of the marketing team, especially when seeking investment to help deal with new demands.

Morrisons chief customer and marketing officer Rachel Eyre explained she always aims to deliver her cost budget up front. She described herself as a “trusted partner of the finance team”, the idea being to invest in the marketing/finance relationship well in advance of the budgeting process.

“I spend several hours a day with our CFO. I spend more time with the CFO and her team than I do with many of my other colleagues in the business” she said.

“We are then anticipating what the challenges are, what the opportunities are, when we come to have a discussion about where we are placing our bets. It’s not a without-context, transactional conversation. It’s part of a strategic plan we have been aligning on for months in advance.”

‘It is relentless’: Marketing leaders on managing perennial uncertainty

Clear communication can be more important than ever during tough economic times, especially when colleagues ask difficult questions. The panel agreed honesty and transparency remain key.

“Don’t sugar coat and don’t patronise,” said Eyre. “It’s too easy to not face into the challenge, or to want to protect people from the truth of it. Confidence breeds confidence and you have to be aware of that. But you hired grown-ups who are smart, curious, committed and engaged and treat them like that. They can handle it.”

Above all, teams should remember that even the darkest economic clouds can have a silver lining.