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Marketing Post-COVID: Melanie Huet, EVP/Chief Marketing Officer, Serta Simmons Bedding

Brian Erickson:
Thanks for joining the Cardwell Beach Marketing Podcast. My name is Brian Erickson, Chief Strategy Officer and partner at Cardwell Beach. In this series, we’re interviewing senior marketers across industries, to develop perspective of what marketing will look like in a post-COVID-19 world. Today’s guest is Melanie Huet, Chief Marketing Officer at Serta Simmons Bedding, where she oversees marketing strategy for the two leading brands in national mattresses, Serta and Beautyrest, among other brands. Melanie, thank you so much for joining us today.

Melanie Huet:
Thanks for having me.

Brian Erickson:
In terms of weathering the storm here, and hopefully, we’re kind of out of this initial first phase soon, but so many of us are spending much more time at home now than we probably ever have before in our lifetimes. Certainly, our mattresses are playing a bigger role in our lives now too, for that same reason. To kick things off, how has your marketing and messaging strategy adapted to this new reality in the short term?

Melanie Huet:
We took a look at the marketplace, and realized we needed to make sure that our marketing and more importantly, our consumer messages were relevant to our audience. And so, the first thing we did is turned everything off to give ourselves a pause, assess the marketplace, and realize that there were two things that needed to happen. One is that we needed to do something to help out, since we were in the midst of a crisis, so we made a sizable donation. And then the second thing was just to make sure that our messages were going to be well-received. They need to have a sense of empathy for the situation we were in, so we went ahead and modified some of our messages to be more empathetic to the fact that people are sheltering in place.

Brian Erickson:
In reference to a few of the charitable efforts that you’re coordinating during this time, one of them in specific stood out, where you’re making relief beds to help the hospital and homeless shelter overflow. Were these spontaneous efforts in terms of a response to the crisis, or did the company have a long-standing plan to kind of convert your manufacturing process during emergencies?

Melanie Huet:
It’s an interesting answer, because it was spontaneous, but we also have a history of this. So little-known fact, Simmons in World War II, we actually produced over 2,700 different items for the military during war time, including things like bazookas, mortar shells, gliders, because of the engineering expertise in the company. And so, we do have a history of it, we did not make any military equipment this time through, but when coronavirus hit, we did spontaneously work with Scott Smalling from Relief Bed International to create, in just a couple of days, what is called the Relief Bed, and the Relief Bed was used for hospital overflow and homeless shelter overflow. So we donated 10,000 of those in partnership with Relief Bed, and if anyone else wants to help out, you can actually make a donation on reliefbed.com yourself.

Brian Erickson:
That is really fantastic. Being in New York City myself, I definitely see the impact there, and really appreciate the great work you guys are doing there.

Melanie Huet:
That was a very high need place. So the reason we picked New York City, is it’s at the epicenter of the pandemic, the highest need. So it must be a really difficult time for you living there.

Brian Erickson:
Yeah, we’ve, on a personal note, been very fortunate, had no contact with folks for a while, so we’re doing well over here, but appreciate that. As you’re making these sort of spontaneous brand decisions, I imagine that you’re kind of looking back to the core brand values that Simmons has had in place for a long period of time, and how do you use that framework to guide this sort of triaged marketing response?

Melanie Huet:
We did look at our house of brands, and we have clear brand positionings and brand tone and brand feel for all the brands, and the reason we picked Serta to lead the effort, is Serta’s all about comfort. Right now, we’re in a space where people really need comfort, and when you think about someone who’s ill and has been unable to get into a hospital due to the overflow situation, comfort is the number one thing you need. You need comfort, safety, and caring, and so that meant that the Serta brand was a perfect one to match up.

Brian Erickson:
That makes a lot of sense. Talk a little bit about a long, rich series of brand history, and SSB has faced some competition from challenger brands like Casper, Purple, with direct consumer sales. 2018 Serta merged with Tuft & Needle, a direct-to-consumer brand as well. How has this changed your marketing strategy, especially during a pandemic when traditional mattress stores are not available to many consumers?

Melanie Huet:
Well, it certainly accelerated our efforts. Our number one strategic priority was to enable omnichannel shopping. And with the pandemic, we realized that we had to go even faster on that initiative, so we have focused even more resources against that. And when we think about omnichannel shopping, that obviously does mean selling direct-to-consumer on our websites, but it’s much bigger than that, which is enabling sales across all of our retailers.

So one of the biggest shifts that we’ve seen from our own sales and our partners, like Mattress Firm, some of the large retailers in the marketplace, is that a lot of sales went online during this time, and we expect coming out of the pandemic that we’re going to continue to see this behavior change. So we’d already experienced the first wave of it when Casper and Purple came into the world, and now that we’re with Tuft & Needle and we’ve merged together and we’ve expanded our capabilities, and then coronavirus hit, now we’re seeing that there’s a second renewed wave of people being willing to purchase online.

Brian Erickson:
Do you think that that sort of change is going to be pervasive to marketing and online purchases as a whole, post-COVID-19? Do you think it’s a threshold that we’ve crossed that we kind of can’t go back from?

Melanie Huet:
I do, and if you’d asked me this question, even just eight weeks ago, I would’ve said, I think we’ve reached the peak of how many people are willing to purchase something like a mattress, which is really important to try out before you buy it. I would have said we’re pretty close to the amount of people that are willing to buy without touching, feeling, or laying down on the product. That was really about 25% in sales. Now that coronavirus has hit and we forced new behaviors and people have adapted and changed, I actually think that that’s going to continue to go up. One of the things that we’re working on, is how do we create virtual experiences that are relatable and help our consumers shop products, knowing that maybe going in-store isn’t the first thing that they’re going to want to do right now.

Brian Erickson:
I guess your tactical mix is likely shifting on a promotion level as well, not just that you’re selling more online, but the way that you’re promoting and getting the word out to consumers, has shifted substantially from your original 2020 plan, I would guess.

Melanie Huet:
Yes, and that’s been fascinating. It’s been fascinating to just watch the headlines roll in every day, and see how people’s behaviors are shifting. Obviously, there was a huge flow of traffic to Netflix, and Amazon Prime, and all the different places where you can watch live streaming shows. We also saw a huge increase in social media usage. So one of the things that we’ve done, is we’ve absolutely changed our tactical mix. We’ve backed off some of the broad reach mechanisms like TV, and we’ve invested more deeply into the place where the eyeballs are, like social media. And on the Simmons brand, we actually relaunched the Simmons brand at the end of last year. 150-year-old brand, we dusted it off and have relaunched it as a Gen Z, hassle-free crash pad, and we’re going to fully relaunch this brand exclusively on TikTok.

Brian Erickson:
Wow. That is fantastic. Can you talk about that a little bit more? That’s not something you get to do every day.

Melanie Huet:
That’s right. That one’s been really fun. What we tapped into was an insight that nobody’s really going after that first mattress purchase, that you’ve got a lot of young people that need a product. They are functioning within a certain amount of spend that they want to allocate towards a mattress, which is a little bit smaller, which is fine. So they have this need for something that’s good and reliable, and right now, it’s a slew of private label products. So no brand had come in and offered a branded experience and really honed in to target this consumer. So that’s what Simmons is doing in a really fun way, and I can’t give you all the details right now, but we may have signed up with one of the very top TikTok influencers. So lots more to come this year as the Simmons brand unveils its relaunch.

Brian Erickson:
Well, that sounds very exciting, and I’ll definitely be checking that out as that launches. It’s quite a short timeframe that you’ve been with Simmons, right? I mean, you just came up on one full year as the crisis hit, and now you’re at close to a year and a half, and you’re taking a brand that has a long and spirited heritage there, and totally doing a 180. That’s pretty cool.

Melanie Huet:
It’s been fun. It’s a great team. Everybody is willing to move quickly and on their toes, and we do it as a team. So there’s a lot of support across the organization, up, down and sideways, every direction you go. It’s been really, probably one of the most rewarding assignments I’ve had in my career.

Brian Erickson:
That’s fantastic. Well, talking about careers, as we near 20% unemployment, unfortunately, many marketers are going to find themselves as free agents right now. How would you give advice to somebody who is in the job market and maybe wasn’t expecting to be in… How can marketers position themselves and their skill sets for this moment, if they find themselves looking for a job?

Melanie Huet:
That’s a great question. One of the things is you really need to network, and I think that’s always important when you’re looking for a role, especially if you become more senior in your career. So networking is a great way to get your foot in the door, but if you take it a step past that, when I evaluate what’s going on right now, you really need to demonstrate that you can onboard, and be effective in a complete work from home environment, and that’s not the typical onboarding process for most companies.

And so, there’s a lot of nervousness right now by employers of, “Okay, if I am going to go ahead and hire, how do I know that this person can actually find a way to integrate into an organization of people that they haven’t met face-to-face, and add value in a relatively short timeframe?” So some of those things would look like just reassuring through the process that you have a plan for this, that you are going to be able to be effective early on. What does that look like? How are you going to get to know your peers? And I think just being proactive about stating that you understand there are some barriers, and you have a plan to overcome them, would take you a long way in the process of differentiating versus others.

Brian Erickson:
Yeah, and it’s interesting, you talk about showing impact, and generating results, and whatnot. How does a quantitative aspect of a skillset become more important than the market like this?

Melanie Huet:
The marketing groups had already been favoring marketers that have digital experience, and now it’s just really straight up a requirement, because if you think about how all the consumer behaviors are shifting, marketeers need to not only know how to run a business and launch innovation, which has always been part of the job scope, but now this understanding of what’s going on in digital and how to integrate with that, is imperative and critical. So that would be the other thing, is if you don’t have that experience, now’s a great time to get it, and there’s lots of ways to get it, even if you can’t get it on the job. You can read books, almost all the conferences now are online. So from a perspective of them being accessible, it’s much more accessible to get virtual training. There’s lots of tutorials and other things you can watch. The acquiring of the information’s not that hard, as long as someone invests some time in it.

Brian Erickson:
Yep. It’s never a bad time to invest in your skillset and to level up, and especially at a time like this, where the whole market is shifting. In terms of the physical retail experience, obviously, that sector has been hit very, very hard by all of this, and SSB has prepared for this and had the ability to pivot, maybe like other folks might not have. If you could give one piece of advice to mid-market SMB retail marketers right now, what would you say?

Melanie Huet:
Actually, I would tell them two things, even though you said just one, but the first one is you need to create a safe environment for your shopper and your guests, so that they want to come back into the store or interact with you. So thinking through how you create that safety, and that looks different for everybody, but that’s really important if you want to re-attract your consumer. And then the second thing I would say, is we’re seeing a very large shift in what people are purchasing. So they are shifting to brands in a lot of industries over private label, again, around the safety and trust aspects, and then we’re also experiencing a pretty large shift in price points. A lot of this looks like price points shifting down. So when you assess the mix, I think it’s really important to take a look and understand what’s going to be the product set that’s going to bring people in the door, whether that’s online or in your store physically, and making sure that you have the right representation of those key products.

Brian Erickson:
So it’s interesting, Melanie, that you say that there, I was just reading a study by the AMA, I believe the American Marketing Association around brand campaigns being cut down substantially during this time, and I get, obviously, there are budget constraints and there’s a lot of revenue being lost, but what are your thoughts on that sort of thing, right, as people are turning to brands as a source of trust?

Melanie Huet:
You’re right, there are a lot of difficult things to work through, given the P&L and financial constraints. So there’s a lot of pressure on marketers to cut back, but it’s important to do anything you can to keep that message out there in front of consumers, because they really are open to it, they really are looking to brands to lead the way, and therefore, I think leaning into programs around social responsibility, or things you can do to help, are really motivating messages right now. In fact, 80% of consumers feel better about a brand when they step up during a time like this, and offer what is truly help. Behind that, it’s a big opportunity, considering a lot of people are pulling back on advertising, for your voice and your message to be stronger, have a higher share of voice and be more resonant. So it’s a delicate balance, but my advice would be do as much as you can with this, as much as it’s available to you, and try to make those dollars work harder than ever.

Brian Erickson:
Definitely going to be sharpening the pencil and making sure to stay focused on generating profitable revenue there. So it’s definitely an interesting time. I believe you are SSB’s first C-level marketer, is that correct?

Melanie Huet:
Yes.

Brian Erickson:
That was a good move on their part, having somebody run the ship and make sure the communications are running smoothly during this crazy time.

Melanie Huet:
Yeah, I hope so. I mean, like I said, I’m having a great time at the company, and I believe one of the things that’s really helped at SSB, is installing a full-time CMO, has connected the marketing strategy with the innovation strategy, and that’s done a lot for us, in terms of having a much stronger innovation pipeline, supported with advertising that’s directly linked. And when you don’t have somebody in the role, you just don’t have that one person constantly working to make those connections, and that’s really ultimately the value that the CMO brings in this particular job, and I assume in many other companies as well.

Brian Erickson:
For sure. You have to have somebody thinking about it 24/7 even when they’re sleeping, right?

Melanie Huet:
Yeah. Except we would say you should just sleep, because we’re a sleep company and it’s important to get your rest, but I think you’re right.

Brian Erickson:
Well, Melanie, I hope you’re staying rested there and I hope you enjoy some downtime after all of this is over. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today.

Melanie Huet:
You too. Thank you, Brian. It was a pleasure.

Brian Erickson:
Well, make sure to look Melanie up on LinkedIn and other social platforms there. She’s got a lot of great content and other interviews. Appreciate it again, Melanie. This is Brian Erickson with Cardwell Beach. Thanks again for listening, and make sure to check back for more senior marketers sharing their perspective on what marketing will look like in a post COVID-19 world.

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