Show 161 – Stronger for longer: How marketing can thrive through downturns

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In the fifth of our Marketing Futures episodes that we’re producing in partnership with SAP, we look at the challenges facing marketers during an economic downturn and how they need to adapt their marketing strategies accordingly. How can marketing leaders continue to be effective whilst managing with smaller budgets? Find out why authenticity, personalization, engaging content creation and truly understanding your customers are the tools you’ll need to survive and thrive.

Our guests were:

  • Doug Zarkin, CMO at Pearle Vision
  • Connor Wells, Head of Marketing & Brand at Heath Skincare
  • Kyle Schroeder, VP, Global Partnerships at Movable Ink

Full show notes to follow soon

Episode 5 of the Marketing Futures series of the c-suite podcast, recorded in partnership with SAP. This episode explored the latest trends and issues in retail and marketing.

It’s hard to avoid one word – crisis – from climate to currency, from energy to cost of living.

Host Graham Barrett was joined by a panel of guests:

They explored questions including:

  1. What does this mean for brand strategy and customer engagement?
  2. How can marketing leaders continue to be effective whilst managing smaller budgets?

Marketing during tough economic times:

Movable Ink published an e-book for marketers on how to navigate the times that we’re in. It’s a reality for marketers and for individuals as they work with and engage with their favourite brands. A key theme that came out of the research was the idea that each person does experience economic issues differently. Kyle says: ‘Really at the heart of personalization is the ability to tailor messages and customize the way you speak to your audience, to the realities of the experience that they’re having. And so, while brands are being tasked with doing more with less, driving greater ROI than they have been in the past, you have customers that some of whom are reconsidering buying decisions, thinking about loyalty a little bit differently than they may have before.’

How do you still do customer-centric marketing in a world where there is a lot of uncertainty? Kyle thinks the goal for most brands is to help provide some stability or certainty in the engagement with that brand because so much is uncertain for that individual customer. And by doing so you build that trust and loyalty which helps the goal to establishing that lifelong customer relationship every brand is looking for.  

Doug explains the natural tendency when you have an economic crisis or your underperforming sales forecast is to go nuclear and to forget the fact that at the end of the day, your consumer is not a series of data points on an Excel chart, but they’re human beings. This is where the idea of thinking human grounds marketers in the belief system that the how is equally as important to the what. This means not shoving deals and discounts in a consumer’s face that may allow you to make the quarter. But instead, what that’s going to really do is alienate your consumer down the road. For Pearl Vision, it’s quite simple because the complexity of their market really is in the simplicity, it’s a medical service that results in a fashion function element, which is that perfect pair of prescription eyewear.

For consumer targets like kids where 80% of what a child learns is through their eyes, they’re letting parents know that in the scope of their life they remembered the importance of ensuring that their children are seeing clearly.

Doug explains If you want to seek to compete and create a long-term lifelong value proposition with a consumer, you must take a moment to pause to think before you do, to listen to lead. They could go out with a buy one, get one free message like they used to do 25 years ago which may enable them to make sales numbers for today. But all that does is kick the can down the road because a year from now they’re going to have to come up against it. They’d rather pause, be a little bit smarter and authentic, to remind consumers of the need that exists and hopefully prompt them to take the action we want when we want them to take it.

Connor was at Loreal before his current role at Heath Skincare which means he is using a much smaller marketing budget than he was used to before. He agrees with Doug’s point of using the thinking human approach. He is also a firm believer in the ethos that they have at Heath that consumers are buying much more emotionally now. One of the fundamental differences, which makes it easier to work with slightly smaller budgets, is that they don’t necessarily have to operate like a big giant. There is a huge, profound focus now on agility, particularly with marketing. One minute you’re looking at ways to take on board more third-party data. Then you see the decentralization of data and you must start getting first-party yourself and it moves at such a pace.

One of the biggest changes between larger and smaller brands is that there’s that natural level of politics. Connor says within a marketing budget, it’s much easier to pull 10% out of a larger TV spend, than 50% of it purely because, when you’re a much bigger company, you fall into a trap of doing what you’ve done last year but altering it slightly.

Building communities

Pearle Vision launched a US Hispanic effort in a meaningful way – it was really driven based on a neat state 40% of US Hispanic children, versus 25% of the general market have an undiagnosed vision issue. Doug explains he is frightened by this statistic as 60% of vision acuity issues in the Hispanic community go undiagnosed. And it’s because the Hispanic population is genetically predisposed to having visual acuity issues. Ironically, even though there are about 20 million searches in Spanish on Google for eye care or eyewear-related items, there wasn’t a single brand that was really rising to the top consistently. So, in 2018, they began to dip their toe in the water and got a little bit deeper in the deep end in 2019, prepared to launch it in a major way in 2020.

What they have done this year is a full-funnel effort to embrace the US Hispanic community, including but not limited to identifying on every one of their eye care centre websites, locations that have bilingual associates. While most folks are bilingual, they want to make sure that for especially the older US Hispanic consumer, they may be more comfortable communicating in Spanish. And so, they have gone to that degree to ensure that they’re not only recognizing by presenting them a message of care when they need it, but also ensuring that when they are motivated to take the action, they know that they have the comfort of being able to speak in the language of their preference at one of our eye care centres that can provide the service.


Movable Ink are a software company providing technology that allows marketers to do content personalization. At Movable Ink you can still have a human-centric approach that brings empathy and an understanding of those customers into your marketing programs. They think about it from a content standpoint and that really the sweet spot where this all comes together is the ability to scale what you’re doing. It’s one thing to build a single personalized campaign and send it out. It’s much harder to do that consistently, time over time to deliver that experience where then brands can come to or clients can come to trust those brands on the experiences they’re going to have. Many of the brands out there are trying to find new ways to unlock the value from their data to have that personal story, personal connection with their individual customers.

Connor agrees that personalization is crucial. He works in FMCG, in male skincare. He just finished reading the 2022 Mintel market report and said that it’s absolutely jam-packed with wellness and personalization and experience post-pandemic. He strongly believes in building the basics and a community is a fundamental basic. He recalled back to when he was at L’Oréal and they built this incredible purpose brand campaign about female empowerment, and it was authentic. Some brands don’t do it as authentically, others do. At his first job he remembers the brand being fixated on their cookie strategy where he had to come in and tell them that they don’t even have a basic functioning website to start with.

At Heath, their territory is all about daily protection for the urban man, and their marketing will differ a lot given the nature of their business. But they focus on building daily protection for the urban man through two elements. The protective element for skin within your ingredients. And then it’s also reframing skincare as a wellness moment. They have the advocacy plan that they carry out and execute. It comes down to all the copy on the brand, what CSR initiatives they’re looking at in the future.

Pearle Visionscustomer relationship management platform is critical. It is about maintaining a strong connection, whether that is reminding them that they can come in and get their eyewear adjusted monthly, much like you would take your car in for breaks and oil change. They do free cleanings. Providing them with ongoing information, whether that’s about seasonal allergies, whether that’s about dry eye. And then obviously there’s an enticement to come in for an incremental pair. Winning is either having them come back in for an annual exam, come in for an incremental care, or importantly thinking about eye care for somebody that they love and bringing them in, which is really part and parcel to their win-the-family strategy, which is about focusing on our target, but hopefully using them as an ambassador to embrace them as a one-stop solution for their entire families eyewear and eye care needs.

Ambassador strategy

Connor has always been a big believer in ambassadorship and as a slightly smaller brand at Heath they can say they don’t need one huge influencer but instead have proximity on the ground of the country they operate in. They have huge advocacy plans. With a range of influencers with millions of followers to a couple thousand. Costing less than TV ads and reaching consumers directly within their safe space. He says content is at the heart of the business and to find engaging, exciting content can be done with influencers.

Doug disagrees however with Connor’s appreciation for influencers. The reason why is that people are spending such a disproportionate amount of money below the line, $250,000 for somebody to do a 50-word tweet or a 30second video, he finds the influencer marketplace is going to be reset in 2023. There is going to be a massive amount of regulation. Explaining the story of Kim Kardashian, speaking of influencers, was fined $1.6 million because she promoted a cryptocurrency where people ‘lost their shirts’. And even though she wrote #ad, didn’t disclose that she was an investor. He thinks influencers have been taking advantage of brands for the last three or four years, ever since the FTC rules changed and you had to disclose that something was an influencer. The reason why he wishes it would go away is that brands have turned over their power to people that are paid for players. He gets it for a lot of brands, especially in fashion. It’s a necessary evil. He understands it fits somewhere in the marketing mix but he just doesn’t think it sound be such a priority.  

Connor replies to Doug’s comment by saying: ‘But there’s a big difference between influencers and an advocacy plan because the majority of what we do at Heath and the way that we adopt our advocacy plan is purely organic. I’m trying to build an authentic business model and not throw tens of thousands of pounds or dollars to these influencers. I’m not going to go to someone who doesn’t represent the brand and say, here’s £50,000, promote our products and let’s have a great Black Friday. That would be an absolute disaster for my brand.’ He has influencers which are Great Britain athletes with 2000 followers and has local barbers who have a successful following because they have great customers.

Doug understands Connor is using it for good, not for evil. In a controlled way that maintains Connors’s brand authenticity.

Kyle touches on the importance of content in his e-book in the form of creative at Movable Ink, and talks about how people don’t experience data, they experience content, just because they know someone’s data point you don’t experience that. It’s not until it turns into something, a message, creative, etc., that you really have a connection to it. So, the greater you can turn your data loyalty points, for example, to show your progress towards achievement.

Doug explained he has had experience with Kyles’s company Movable Ink before and stated what they do is empower brands to do more than just simply personalizing.  Doug explains a Great example is if you’re in a warm weather climate and it’s 75 degrees and sunny, it would be awesome to be able to send somebody a message saying, did your eyes can get a sunburn? it’s called photo keratosis. Do you have a pair of prescription sunglasses? Movable Ink technology allows you to do that. Now, like any great technology, you’ve got to use it for good, not evil. And you’ve got to find the point of diminishing returns where it’s creative versus drives you crazy. He goes on to say brands must be on their A-game to be serving up information that is more than just cookie cutter, but that really is almost intuitive.


Doug explains they are the number one healthcare service brand on Entrepreneur Magazine’s top 500 franchise brands. The preferred brand for women for years running Women’s Choice Awards for optical retail. A campaign Doug has been involved with is ‘Small Moments’ about how they got there and understanding the insight that trust is not earned through grand gestures or aggressive promotion. Instead, it’s earned through a series of small, meaningful touchpoints in the experience that you have between your product service and your consumer. They want to demonstrate what quality of care means and how that is brought to life in real and meaningful ways. They have shown this through the Eye on the Prize and ABC, which is powered by Pearl Vision and One site which is really designed to unlock the potential of young kids that don’t have access to vision acuity solutions. But most importantly it allowed them to connect with the community. That nobody cares for eyes more than Pearle because they believe that nothing should prevent you from getting the care that you need. Almost 80% of patients live within nine miles or 15 kilometres of their eye care centres. Their sense of community is real by the actions that their consumers are taking and the fact that they don’t have stores, they call them eye care centres, and they don’t have customers and they call them patients because a patient wants care, a customer wants service. A store is where you buy something. An eye care centre is where you go to be cared for and small vernacular things that have really helped us win.

Connor then explained some campaigns that he had been working on at Heath and says that the business is very campaign orientated. As the male skincare category is very seasonal so Father’s Day and Christmas are busy times for them. The first campaign Connor brought to Heath was called ‘What men want’. He explains campaigns can either consolidate your brand and build your brand identity or they can fragment it. And that’s a trap that a lot of brands fall into unless you have laser clarity on what your identity is. He states if you look at the male skincare market in the UK, we see that 72% of men buy a skincare product to feel good, not look good, very different to the female market. He took the idea to reframe skincare as a wellness moment which was a transparent and emotional way to connect with their customers.

Graham summarises key themes which were spoken: authenticity, personalization, community, and really understanding your customers.

Kyle ends with a final point that ties into what Connor and Doug have both been saying throughout the conversation. This is leveraging data, understanding your customers, and driving authentic experiences at every touchpoint.  He agrees with Doug about building trust and that was one of his points at the beginning, which is the way to navigate through a crisis like we’re in is to build consistency with the brand so that it is something your customers can come to depend on.