How to Evolve Your Brand Marketing During COVID-19

Episode 84

May 19, 2020

COVID-19 has created a huge disruption in marketing, one we haven’t seen since the recession in 2008, says Ryan Carlson, Head of Market Development for Healthjump. He shares insights on how to evolve your brand marketing when your customer base is facing a new reality.

How to Evolve Your Brand Marketing During COVID-19 Transcript:

Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White. 

Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring, a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White and joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how are you doing, mate? 

Carman Pirie: I am doing well, sir. I’m doing well. It’s always good to be chatting with you. 

Jeff White: Indeed. Indeed. Yeah. I’m looking forward to chatting with our guest today. Joining us from the Twin Cities, Minneapolis-St. Paul, I believe, and yeah, we’re going to be talking about digital transformation and all kinds of interesting things. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Yeah. Look, without further ado, why don’t we just introduce our guest, so we don’t keep our listeners in suspense, and jump right into it. 

Jeff White: I was told that that was a thing we should have more, is more suspense.

Carman Pirie: More suspense. Dial up the suspense in the podcast consultants. Should we hire a podcast consultant? 

Jeff White: I don’t know. I have about nine of them on LinkedIn every three days. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Yeah. Expressing the fact that they have probably 55 years of podcast experience. 

Jeff White: Amazing how long some of them have been around. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Yeah. 

Jeff White: Predates podcasting. So, joining us today is Ryan Carlson. Ryan has a long and storied history in digital transformation and manufacturing and is currently the Head of Market Development at Healthjump. Welcome to The Kula Ring, Ryan. 

Ryan Carlson: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. 

Carman Pirie: Ryan, I think you may be, and I say this, just as I say it Jeff’s going to tell me that it’s not true, but I’m thinking you may be the first guest to join us from the Twin Cities, actually. 

Ryan Carlson: Well, thank you. You betcha. 

Carman Pirie: So, you’re like representing an entire city, region, and frankly, you’re representing the entire United States of America on this Canadian-based podcast, so there’s a lot of weight on your shoulders, really. 

Jeff White: And I will actually correct you, because Jas Kaur was our first guest. Remember? She invited us to come and experience the Twin Cities, and I was actually in Minneapolis last year and quite liked it. 

Carman Pirie: See, I knew you were going to complete… You always have a better memory than I do, and I knew you were going to make me look bad. 

Jeff White: I’m not trying to make you look bad. 

Carman Pirie: Or at least sound bad.

Jeff White: No, I’m just trying to keep you on the level. 

Carman Pirie: All right. Understood. Well, Ryan, thank you for representing the Twin Cities for the second time on The Kula Ring. 

Ryan Carlson: Well, very good. I’m happy to be the goodwill ambassador of the Midwest. 

Carman Pirie: Nice. Ryan, look, it’s great to have you on the show, and I want to spend at least a portion of our time digging into an earlier conversation that we started offline, where we’re really framing up the world of marketing in the times of COVID-19 and post-COVID as saying it’s a time when people really need to revisit the balance and dynamic between brand and performance marketing. And I’d like to understand more about what you’re talking about there and the point that you’re trying to communicate, simply because I really haven’t heard a lot of people beating this drum. So, it sounded interesting to me, so let’s hear that drum a bit and go from there. 

Ryan Carlson: It’s a bit of the jungle drums, like a Jumanji, so I’ve gotta have a rhino coming out from the next room as we do this. Brand marketing. So, long and sordid past, I’ve actually been a champion for performance marketing for over a decade now, really looking at let’s tie marketing to results. You know? This isn’t the department of events and brochures, and of making things look pretty, and putting logos on stuff. And the thing is, I’ve been having a lot of conversations with CMOs, and VPs of marketing, and other directors, and I’ll be honest, COVID-19 is sending us a huge disruption. We haven’t seen something like this since the 2008 period, in which that took everyone by surprise, like, “Oh my gosh, how could this possibly happen? We’re not in a growth phase?” 

So, we’ve experienced 12 years of this recovery period, and in the golden age of manufacturing, a lot of people were seeing record orders. We understood the social hive mind of our customer base. Everyone was looking for where there’s more money, because there’s always more money to be made. And so, as a brand, we wanted to be who we’ve always been, as any brand is known in the market, and so it’s just, “Let’s just do more of that, but we’re just more successful.”

But right now, all of the messages that we would say, so when I say we need to look at brand marketing versus performance marketing, is that they are so interlinked when you get down to when you set up performance marketing. [I] remember when we built our first automation platform and started doing our direct marketing and content marketing, it all started with that initial research and the sentiment of our users and our buyers. And most of us built out personas. Or in our marketing automation platform, we’ve got the personas, or we do progressive scoring and we start allocating, like what persona do they fit in based off the content that they’re consuming to help our sales channel convert faster. Everything’s changed.

Why I’m saying we need to go and revisit brand marketing is it’s not so much do we need to redo our logo or rebrand, it’s we gotta go back to that marketing playbook, open it up, blow some dust off of it, and say, “Are the personas that we’ve been marketing to still accurate?” Because not a single customer has been changed, or buyer has gone unchanged as a result of this global pandemic and the crisis that it’s put on supply chain, on manufacturing, on even commercial. Period, right? 

Carman Pirie: So, are you really saying here, it’s not that the personas have necessarily changed entirely. It’s potentially the same members of the buying committee. 

Ryan Carlson: Yep. 

Carman Pirie: But you’re saying that the characteristics of that persona, the marketing triggers that may lead them to explore solutions to the things that they consider important, the objections that they may have in a sales process, you’re suggesting that that’s what’s changed. Am I hearing you correctly? 

Ryan Carlson: That’s right. It’s like a good detective movie, where they go, “Oh, what’s the motive?” Right? What motivates people is different. Are you just trying to be in survival mode? People are surviving or thriving in many cases, right? And this is where I’m saying we need to go back to that 2000-year-old principle of rhetoric, which is going to be looking at the audience, the context, and the purpose, right? This is super basic stuff. The audiences aren’t changing. I agree with you. Our personas, like who they represent, those groups of people are not different. We might have new ones, though, depending on what industry we’re in, right? This is the classic answer. It depends. 

So, if you’re in health or medical, there’s probably new groups of buyers. Janitorial probably is like a whole new emerging buyer group if you sell cleaning supplies. But the context in which they’re in—so, this is the part when we’re thinking about the persona and are they at the busy office or we’re trying to catch them while they’re in the car, or at the airport terminal, going between important meetings? No. They’re now at home and they don’t have all of the same… The context is so radically different, even for just the foreseeable future. Now, if you want to go back to history and look at every time there’s been a pandemic or a large-spread epidemic, this is going to come back. We’re going to see resurgences anywhere from two to five times, so let’s not get too comfortable with saying, “Hey, congratulations, the first wave is done.” Hopefully, it’s less each time, which would be great. 

So, that aside, things are going to be different for the next five years. Period. People are going to be looking over their shoulder, businesses are gonna be operating differently. We’re gonna be more conservative in a lot of the things that we’re doing. There’s gonna be other businesses that are going to be seeing this as a huge opportunity, which that buyer persona, the context is changing in that you might have someone who is now so hyper relevant, they’re flush with cash, because they had that windfall moment, because for whatever reason, their products and or services are super relevant, hyper relevant, and so this is the butterfly effect. And we need to be aware of the now, the next, and the future, because audience context and purpose… The purpose is still going to be, “Well, what is the goal of that person? That persona? What are they trying to do?” And if we’re going to be building up value propositions, and sales messaging, and content, it needs to align with where they are then, right? 

And then we can go back to performance marketing, go back to our analytics. Instead of the qualitative, we can go to the quantitative and validate some of the things that we’ve been thinking about. Looking at the search terms, at the activity, the content that people are revisiting. 

Carman Pirie: I think there’s… I want to kind of jump further into this notion of growth versus survival, because at least a strong part of your argument hinges upon that. So, to say that especially those that find themselves in survival mode, the context has changed a lot from what the economy was. Don’t necessarily disagree with you, but what I find interesting, and it’s happening on both sides of the border. I think sometimes in Canada it just seems a little bit more amplified as we look south to our American neighbors, but I’m not so sure it is in some ways, the thing I’m about to say. I think there’s just a strong sense, I think among a number of people, as though… Okay, we’ve got this hit, we’ve taken this hit, it’s nearing completion, start to get the offices back opened up or whatever, and almost like it’s just going to resume to a growth economy in a month or two. Almost like this has been just almost a minor blip, if you will. 

And then there’s the other side of the argument, which is I think what you’re articulating, to say that’s folly. That’s not the case. It’s not a minor blip. This isn’t over in a couple of months and it’s going to fundamentally change how people buy what you sell and make. I guess, how do you square your thinking when you kind of turn on the evening news, or take a browse through Twitter, however you ingest your news these days, and see basically people screaming to reopen the economy and get back to normal tomorrow? 

Ryan Carlson: Well, as someone who has been trained as a historian as well, all I can do is say this happened before and it’s gonna happen again. The exact same reactions, whether we’re looking at 1918, or we’re looking at the swine flu, even the societal reaction, it’s the same. There’s the ostrich in the sand, everything’s gonna be fine, we’re gonna go back to it, and then you’re gonna have on the opposite side, you’re gonna have reactionaries, where the sky is falling, so we either have an ostrich with their head in the ground or chicken little, right? And so, the goal is to try and find the happy medium. Now, as someone who looks at markets and wants to plan, there’s the reacting… I’ll say do you want my reaction, or do you want my response? Because my reaction is gonna be far more emotional, it’s gonna be my immediate gut level, like, “Here’s what’s coming…” Brain to mouth, with very little filter. 

And my response is where I’ve had a chance to think through it, and I think more businesses need to be thinking about equal measure. It’s not just how are you reacting to the situation, but how are you going to respond? And in a world in which there is so much uncertainty, we now start having to think about Schrodinger’s recovery period. We’re both recovering at an astronomical rate, and we’re not, all at the same time, and we won’t know until we get there. But that means that we’re at least factoring into our playbook what happens when Builder Bob, or whatever our persona is… Go through the exercise. This might even be looking at something like using the business model canvas, or value proposition design canvas, like dust off some of those tools that we may have used in the past, early on in our journey, to start thinking through and map.

Let’s just go on two extremes. Head in the sand versus chicken little, right? How does this change their business, their revenue stream, their cost structures, the resources they had on hand? We can make a lot of assumptions about their resources due to shedding extra people. We can look at different industries and go, “All right, who’s going first? All right, well, marketing, they were off in the first lifeboat. They’re gone. They’re no longer on the ship.” Well, there’s some marketing, but not all of them. And then recruitment, talent acquisition, they’re in the next boat. All right, good luck. Trying to reduce ballast or reduce the amount of weight on the ship, right? 

So, who’s shedding what weight, and what does that skeleton crew look like? And it’s going to be different for every industry. Every single industry. Are you keeping the doers, or are those the ones that are getting furloughed and they’re waiting to return to work? So, just knowing that, you can make some assumptions about what their recovery will look like. And it’s going to be different in every industry. In 2008, we learned a lot of things. 2008, no one had any cash on hand, took everyone by surprise. They were highly leveraged financially. Paid out a lot of dividends. Paid down a lot of debt to get in a very good financial picture. And marketing was very quickly cut at a lot of organizations, and those that didn’t recovered much faster in that period. And I don’t want to say it’s because they had the humans. I think because when you are in marketing and you are going through that challenge—because I was still in marketing. I actually had my job through 2008 and weathered it quite well, but we thought about how do we plan for the eventual recovery, or what does this mean and how do we change? So, rather than being worried about how to get the next job, we’re thinking about how to get the next customer, or what are our customers going through and what’s relevant to them, and when do we get to put the foot back on the accelerator and ramp back up? 

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Carman Pirie: I have sensed a bit of an interest in, and maybe it’s this urge to return to what people consider normal, but we heard a lot, of course, in the first number of weeks of this pandemic, every bit of business communication started with, “In these crazy uncertain times, blah-blah-blah.” And I think-

Jeff White: I’m still getting those.

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Oh no, it’s still happening. I think on the recipient end, though, what I’m hearing from people is almost like, “Okay, quit talking to me about it. We all know what the damn reality is.” 

Ryan Carlson: Yep. Yep. 

Carman Pirie: And I still have a job to do right now, and I’m doing it from my kitchen table, and can we get on with it now? Which, I mean obviously would sound incredibly cold if you had a loved one in the ICU with COVID-19, but for the vast majority of people that’s not the case, and there’s a lot of fatigue, I have found, that’s set in. And in some ways, it’s been interesting to me that for a lot of the conversation around how sales needs to change in these times, and maybe not sell as hard, and things of that nature, I’ve also heard from some other salespeople that have said, “You know what? I’ve been able to get meetings that I’ve never been able to get before, and I’m not trying to play coy here. I’m very clear that I’m trying to sell them something and I would like to meet with them about that,” and that people are actually oddly resonating with it more and wanting to connect. 

Now, that flies in the face of some of the stats I’ve seen from HubSpot and others, suggesting that sales emails are getting responded to less in this time, et cetera. But not all sales connects happen via email, either, I suppose, so the HubSpot data’s gonna be pretty skewed. But it is interesting to me, that notion of we have to be contextually aware, and there’s no question to your point that context is fundamentally different now than it was three months ago, but there’s also that other push, if you will. Does that make sense at all? 

Ryan Carlson: Yeah, there’s the other push. There’s either: you’re completely in support of, “Hey, we’re doing our best. Everyone be safe.” You know, you’re saying the exact same thing that everyone else is, right? So, congratulations, you’re no longer differentiating. And you’re really not helping your SEO or SEM any either by talking about that stuff too much. Or you’re on the other end of like, “Yeah, there’s no virus. We’re gonna be opening up in no time.” And politics aside, it’s just… I really believe that it is in that wishful thinking category, and when it comes to mistruths, people believe either a lie or just a statement, you believe something because you’re either afraid of it being true or because you want it to be true. And I think that on both… Actually, it’s probably just on the one polar side, you really want… You either want this to just… I don’t know. 

You want some certainty. We are all in a world in which there is no certainty. My wife is a therapist, and she was sharing early on, she says, “You realize that trauma is what occurs when your fight or flight response is kicking in and you can’t choose either.” And you have people who are being triggered by who knows what, because they have a fight or flight response and they’re sheltering in place and cannot go anywhere. They physically cannot move through this or move away from it. And there’s nothing to fight. And so, it’s creating this angst, this desire to do something, and so, our fight or flight responses, the lizard brain that we all have and try to market to sometimes, right? That lizard brain that’s looking for contrast, that’s looking for understanding, is confused, and it’s lashing out, and it’s doing weird things. It’s being unpredictable. And the mixed messages aren’t helping, either. 

So, that was kind of a tangent, but the thing is we are-

Carman Pirie: Man, all I could think of is just how difficult it must be to win an argument against a spouse who’s a therapist. I’m just like… I don’t know how you even get there. That’s… Good luck with that. 

Jeff White: Yeah, there’s all kinds… against you. 

Ryan Carlson: No, I’m a better spouse and a better dad as a result. 

Jeff White: Send us her number after, okay? 

Ryan Carlson: Yeah, sure. 

Jeff White: I could probably talk to somebody. 

Ryan Carlson: That sounds like an automatic negative thought! 

Carman Pirie: I want to say, you mentioned there’s the two sides of the coin. On the one hand, the people who are like, “This changes everything.” On the other hand, people who are like, “I don’t know, let’s get back to normal. Fire up the wagons.” And then you have others, like the ad that’s been making the rounds, Mint Mobile, I don’t know if you’ve seen a bit of a social media spot or what have you.

Ryan Carlson: No. 

Carman Pirie: YouTube video. I think it’s up to two million or more views now and it’s just been out for a few days. But it’s Ryan Reynolds is taking the viewer through the TV ad that they were gonna create pre-COVID, and it’s like it’s two seconds long, with great visual effects, but of course that all got canceled and then it goes into just a PowerPoint presentation to communicate with you the features and benefits, unique selling proposition of Mint Mobile. It gets very business focused very quickly, and it actually sells you on the product. But it does so in a way that’s contextually aware, to your point, and it doesn’t… It doesn’t fall on either side of “this changes everything” or “head in the sand,” “let’s get back to business, to normal” or what have you. It doesn’t fall on either side of that. It seems like one piece of marketing I’ve seen lately, admittedly more on the consumer side versus a manufacturing marketer, that seemed to just kind of understand where people were at mentally with this and make that transition. 

Jeff White: Yeah. It treads that line really, really nicely. And it doesn’t hurt that he has impeccable comedic timing, either, in his delivery of how he does it, but yeah, it does seem to kind of meet people where they are, as you would say. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah, and it doesn’t… It doesn’t do anything in terms of trying to… There’s no… People, “Oh, you have to be more empathetic and helpful in this.” It doesn’t actually do that, does it? But it succeeds. 

Ryan Carlson: What it’s doing is it’s providing empathy, but without pandering. 

Jeff White: Yeah. 

Ryan Carlson: Empathy without pandering to either one of the ends, and that’s just good marketing, and that’s why this idea of brand marketing is who is the brand? If you want to think about brand positioning, positioning is not anything more than how you need to be perceived to be successful. Full stop. That’s it. How you need to be perceived in order to be successful. And now, then they say, “To who?” Yeah, that’s exactly right. Right? There’s more than just one group that you need to be successful. Internal, external, buyers, users, potential buyers, employees, but it’s perceived, and perception is truth in the world of marketing. Right? This is why we’ve got gaffes, and PR fiascos, and things that are completely unrelated to the product of the quality. The product of the quality. The quality of the product is what can sink a company that does something, has nothing to do with the product, and it’s just all about the perception, or being completely tone deaf, or the lack of empathy. 

And so, that’s where I see that bridge, right? Good-

Carman Pirie: When I first went to work at the House of Commons as a political chief of staff to a member of Parliament, I believe it was day two of our training when we were told perception is reality, truth is negotiable. And so, it was true in politics then, and it’s true in marketing I think always. 

Ryan Carlson: It is the world of conveying ideas. 

Carman Pirie: Well, Ryan, this has been a fascinating conversation. A meandering one at that. I don’t know that we’ve resolved any grand debates between brand versus performance marketing, but I think you’ve certainly helped put a lot of the current marketing reality… and just really have shone an interesting light onto our current context for our listeners, and I thank you for doing that. 

Ryan Carlson: Well, thank you. This has been great, and I agree, this has been a bit of a turducken of conversation with topics inside other topics, so-

Carman Pirie: It is amazing how much turduckens get brought up on The Kula Ring.

Ryan Carlson: You know, I hear that. I hear that. 

Carman Pirie: It’s never nearly the crowd pleaser that one would think.

Jeff White: No, we often mistakenly use it with vegans, and they just don’t like the idea at all. 

Carman Pirie: Exactly right. Ryan, all the best, and thank you for joining us and representing the Twin Cities so well today. 

Ryan Carlson: You betcha, on behalf of everyone here in the Midwest. 

Jeff White: Thanks a lot, Ryan. 

Ryan Carlson: Thank you. 

Carman Pirie: Take care. 

Ryan Carlson: Take care. Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Kula Ring, with Carman Pirie and Jeff White. Don’t miss a single manufacturing marketing insight. Subscribe now at That’s

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Ryan Carlson

Head of Market Development

Ryan Carlson is the Head of Market Development at Healthjump. Throughout his career, Ryan has led global marketing efforts, digital transformation initiatives, and managed corporate marketing teams. Ryan has experience working across a range of manufacturing environments, from water filtration and commercial services to medical equipment development.

The Kula Ring is a podcast for manufacturing marketers who care about evolving their strategy to gain a competitive edge.

Listen to conversations with North America’s top manufacturing marketing executives and get actionable advice for success in a rapidly transforming industry.

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Kula Partners is an agency that specializes in maximizing revenue potential for B2B manufacturers.

Our clients sell within complex, technical environments and we help them take a more targeted, account-focused approach to drive revenue growth within niche markets.


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