Forbes + CommerceNext: How Lowe’s Grew Loyalty By Amplifying Brand-Driven Marketing | CommerceNext

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Loyalty building is critical for retaining shoppers. During the pandemic, Lowe’s continually hits home runs in cultivating loyalty because they’ve gone back to their roots. One of Lowe’s oldest brand promises and strategies is supporting communities. In the face of the pandemic, there was no better time to lean into this core mandate. Marisa Thalberg, Executive Vice President, Chief Brand and Marketing Officer at Lowe’s (who started her position weeks before Covid hit the United States) knew this Lowe’s impactful history and immediately saw an opportunity to help the wider communities in which their customers reside. Driven by customer insights, Thalberg executed a series of initiatives that: authentically connected with consumers during lockdown and reaffirmed Lowe’s position as an essential brand.

Among the initiatives, Lowe’s incorporated brand-driven stories into their marketing strategy to connect with customers in a more meaningful and emotional way. Their #BuildThanks campaign focused on honoring the essential workers who have been so vital in helping fight this pandemic. Aside from using campaigns and marketing tactics to address the immediate cultural needs, Thalberg helped consumers reimagine Lowe’s’ role in their lives by demonstrating the vast possibilities its products provided, both to build one’s home and dress it up. They participated in New York Fashion Week to target their female demographic, unlike any other campaign they had completed before.

Thalberg’s creativity and leadership have transformed Lowe’s and grown their loyalty tremendously. Dig deeper into her thoughts and strategies by reading the full article and interview below.

This article was originally published in Forbes: How Lowe’s Grew Loyalty By Amplifying Brand-Driven Marketing. You can read more of Veronika’s articles here.

Lowe’s has a history of showing up for communities in times of crisis. Its Bucket Brigade helps communities in need by providing necessary supplies to those affected by natural disasters like the California wildfires. So, as the pandemic started to hit the United States and the country went into lock-down, Marisa Thalberg, Lowe’s newly appointed Executive Vice President, Chief Brand and Marketing Officer, leaned into Lowe’s heritage of being there for communities. Nurturing this core value, Thalberg guided the company into a new marketing strategy that emphasized brand-driven stories in addition to traditional marketing tactics.

Under Thalberg’s leadership, Lowe’s campaigns took a more emotional tone and targeted a broader, more diverse audience. Their #BuildThanks campaign honored essential workers by encouraging customers to make thank-you signs and their New York Fashion Week campaign targeted the female demographic by showcasing some of the finished goods sold by Lowe’s. This strategy paid off. According to reports, Lowe’s gained more ground than Home Depot in 2020, increasing foot traffic by 21% compared with Home Depot’s 12% growth and narrowing Home Depot’s traffic lead to 20% from 29% in 2019.

For their laudable efforts, Thalberg was named Executive of the Year by Marketing Dive and Lowe’s was ranked #3 on Ad Age’s Marketer of the Year List. Executing this type of change is not easy, especially in a work-from-home environment, so I was excited to chat with Thalberg for an episode of Conversations with CommerceNext to learn more.

You can read the interview below or watch it on YouTubeThis interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Veronika Sonsev: When you joined Lowe’s a year ago, where did you see the biggest opportunities from a marketing perspective?

Marisa Thalberg: As a new leader, I talked to people to get multivariate inputs in terms of the research that’s been done, the business background and consumer perspectives. I was just three weeks on the job and in the process of piecing everything together when Covid really began to hit. At that point, I had formulated some hypotheses that I was starting to distill into a vision and a plan, but I just didn’t have the luxury of time to be completely sequential in going after those things.

While there were some foundational elements that really needed to be in place for marketing to fully function within Lowe’s, we also had to move very quickly to change the way we were communicating and showing up as the world became so upended. But it also became a very unique opportunity for the brand. With the whole world home, the relationship between people and their homes was suddenly heightened and the role and responsibility we had to play in that became heightened as well.

Sonsev: How did the pandemic change your marketing strategy Lowe’s?

Thalberg: As a big retailer, the role of marketing is to drive awareness, preference and ultimately traffic to our stores and to—that fundamental responsibility remains unchanged. But how we did it had to change very quickly. There was a real sensitivity in the earliest days of the pandemic of not wanting to seem untoward about driving people to stores when the world was locking down.

We didn’t know yet exactly what was safe and what wasn’t and yet we also wanted to make it clear that we were an essential retailer for a reason. For example, if you had a broken hot water heater, you needed to know that we were there and available to serve you.

From a marketing perspective, I had to go off of what I already had assessed and my own instincts about how a brand like ours needs to show up in a moment of crisis. I did my best to channel the heritage of the brand, a company whose finest moments are showing up in times of crisis through our Bucket Brigades and our associates.

From a consumer standpoint, we pulled all the way back on promotional and traditional retail marketing and just started connecting to customers around the changing nature of home. That segued into one of our first spots recognizing that living rooms were becoming offices and garages were becoming home gyms. It was such an instant new truth to mine and to put Lowe’s into that piece of changing culture in a very thoughtful and positive way. Those early moves were done with some sure footing that enabled us to keep proceeding from there.

Sonsev: Your campaigns last year really hit an emotional chord, particularly #BuildThanks, Backyard Weddings with Bobby Berk and your holiday campaign. That emotional connection seemed new for Lowe’s. Was this shift a result of the pandemic or was your original goal to give the brand a more emotional connection with consumers?

Thalberg: I think we’re storytellers. As the zeitgeist was changing so quickly and as people’s needs, wants and behaviors were changing, we found ways to plug into that in the right way for Lowe’s. I think we’re fine-tuning what that is and we’ll continue to do so but those are really nice examples.

With that said, when you’re marketing a brand and a business this massive, you have to make sure all the different layers of the marketing calendar are working. So while you build your big campaigns, you’re also firing on your performance media and thinking about different audiences and messages that we want to get across. The big campaigns represent just one part of what we’ve been doing.

Lowe’s also has two very different types of audiences. We have our general audience, which we call the DIY consumer, and our professional consumer. While we’re the underdog with the professional consumer, one of our big goals is growing our share of that audience. When everything collapsed in March and April, we just wanted to help keep the professional consumer working. With a business like Lowe’s, it’s important to think about these two really different types of audiences and do right by them both. While their needs can be wildly different, the marketing efforts need to feel like they make sense under the Lowe’s brand.

Sonsev: What role do consumer insights play in understanding your customers and making sure your marketing the right message to them?

Thalberg: When it comes to consumer insights, my early experiences shaped my viewpoint. I went from one extreme of classic packaged goods, where there is a constant focus on consumer insights, to luxury, where there was a belief that the consumer doesn’t tell me what to think. This experience shaped in me a desire to toggle between both.

So I absolutely believe in consumer insights and I love finding the nuggets to help me understand where people’s minds and hearts may be and where might we imagine them going. But I also think that ultimately as marketers, consumers can’t tell you what to do. It’s really up to marketers to rely on insights and leverage the benefits of them, but still also have vision, intuition and creativity.

Sonsev: You’ve done some new things this year, particularly with your New York Fashion Week collaboration where you helped designers set up their runways. That campaign helped open people’s eyes to some of the finished goods that Lowe’s has to help make the home more comfortable.

Thalberg: I wanted to open people’s eyes to the possibilities of dressing your home at Lowe’s—that we’re not just for building and project-based goods. The New York Fashion Week project came about when I was talking to a colleague who had a big responsibility for producing the New York Fashion Week. She was bemoaning, “How are we going to pull this off with virtual shows?” And I just started thinking, “Where does couture fashion even fit right now in the zeitgeist when people are so focused on their homes?” A lot of people are now thinking about self-expression through the lens of their homes and where they want to spend their time and their money. I thought it really relevant for the moment to connect the idea of fashion to home.

We worked with Jason Wu, Rebecca Minkoff and Christian Siriano to enable them to produce something really special. They used everything from our lumber for the runways to our garden centers for Jason’s Tulum fantasy. Then the designers curated collections on our website with their favorite items. It’s an example of where a partnership can really be symbiotic and enable two parties to do something together that they couldn’t do on their own.

Sonsev: I want to talk about digital for a minute because one of the unique aspects of your background is that you have been grounded in digital throughout your career. How has that impacted your marketing strategy alone?

Thalberg: For at least a decade or so, I was very much seen as a digital marketer, a digital pioneer, and I loved and embraced that. But, the part that always sat a little funny inside me was I felt that the accent was all on digital.

Towards the end of my tenure at The Estee Lauder Company, the world was profoundly shifting. I saw it maybe a little sooner than some others and so it became imperative to teach myself digital and then figure out how to incorporate digital tactics into some very traditional brands. That’s how I became this big digital marker, but the reality was I was a marketer first adapting to the ways in which the world was changing.

But, I don’t just advocate for digital. I look at the totality of the channel opportunities and determine the best ways to reach the consumers we want to reach today.

Sonsev: We talked a lot about what you’ve done over the last year. I would love to get a sneak peek of what’s next and where you see some of the marketing opportunities in the coming year.

Thalberg: I’m going to share with you something really special that we’re just starting to announce. This year happens to be a real milestone year for Lowe’s as it’s our 100th birthday. Very few companies make it to a centennial mark so that in and of itself, is an accomplishment. But we did not want our birthday to be a self-congratulatory or a historic moment. We wanted it to be a moment to open the next chapter in a really meaningful way and frankly, give back to this country, out of which Lowe’s was born as a small business one hundred years ago.

We’re announcing our most ambitious initiative, maybe ever, which is that we are going to help improve one hundred corners of the country, one hundred hometowns this year. And we’re not just picking them. We’re actually inviting people from all over the country to nominate their little corner, their little neighborhood, whether it’s a community center, a park or something in their hometown that has a real need and tell us why. Then, later this summer into the fall, we’re going to do one hundred hometown projects. It’s epic. And to me, that’s how you celebrate a birthday. We’re going to really give back and remind ourselves what we’re all about and get ourselves ready to keep doing this for the next one hundred years.

Thalberg is a perfect marketer role model for understanding your customer and connecting their needs with the cultural zeitgeist to dramatically impact a business for the better. She fearlessly and quickly led the Lowe’s team to try new things that haven’t been done before, and in doing so, she challenged us all to look at our businesses with fresh eyes, creativity and courage.