How Ford, Hershey’s and Popeyes Quickly Pivoted as the Pandemic Hit

Some brands are relying heavily on in-house creative teams

popeyes, hershey's and ford logos
Three brands, three pivots when the coronavirus hit. Hershey's, Ford, Popeyes

Key insights:

About a month ago, when it became clear that things were truly shifting in a way we could never have predicted, brands around the world had a lot of work to do—and almost no time to do it.

While some brands leaned heavily on in-house teams to quickly change course, others huddled with agency partners—and still others did both at once. But no matter how, brands were working overtime in those frantic first few days: reanalyzing each piece of content, assessing messaging in light of the sudden change in the global emotional temperature, and going back to the drawing board when necessary.

Here’s how that played out at three different brands.

At Hershey’s headquarters in Pennsylvania, the in-house creative team made a list of every piece of social content for around a dozen brands to determine whether it was still appropriate in the new climate. The team color-coded creative work based on whether the content was cleared to run, needed to be cut or required further discussion.

In Michigan, Ford’s in-house team had to come to terms with the fact that the messaging it had planned for that week was no longer relevant. Alongside agency partners, the brand created an entirely new campaign from the ground up over the course of three days.

And down in Miami, Popeyes went back to the basics. Working with its new agency of record, Gut, the company refocused its messaging on the simplest, but most vital line in the midst of city and statewide shutdowns across the country: “We’re open.”

‘Marketers are agile’

In a survey of nearly 200 of its members, the Association of National Advertisers found that 92% had made changes to their brand messaging since mid-March due to COVID-19—and that nearly half of those changes had been “substantial.”

“Even in the most dire of environments, brands are figuring out how to get things done,” said Bill Duggan, ANA’s group evp and author of the survey. “Marketers are agile.”

In addition, over half of respondents ranked in-house agencies as their most valuable resource. The trend toward in-house agencies is something ANA’s been following, and this survey seems to confirm their prevalence and value, according to Duggan.

But even with the rise of in-housing, Duggan said brands still rely on agencies in addition to their own creative teams. “The smarter agencies recognize that reality and figure ways to work with in-house agencies as partners.”

Rewriting next week’s playbook on the fly

As the situation across the country worsened, Ford decided to pull its creative around March 12. “We really realized our messaging that we had planned for the upcoming week was just not going to be relevant,” said Ford’s U.S. marketing director Matt VanDyke. “We wanted to change quickly.”

Working with agency partners like Wieden + Kennedy and WPP, the team was able to use existing assets and archives to “collaborate digitally to create—and really quickly get to market with—new, updated content.”

By the following Monday, just a couple days after the initial decision to shift messaging in light of the crisis, the team had content ready to go live. The brand launched its “Built to Lend a Hand” campaign, debuting six spots over the last month.

Ensuring sensitive messaging

The Hershey Company also made some fast adjustments, working largely with the company’s relatively new in-house agency, C-Sweet. Created about two years ago by Hershey CMO Jill Baskin, the team started with just four people. Now the team’s grown to 10, and C-Sweet handles digital and social content for a dozen Hershey’s candy brands.

In bringing much of that work in-house, Baskin was hoping to be able to move more quickly and save money. That decision has paid off tenfold during this crisis, she said. Not only was Hershey able to efficiently shift messaging by sifting through all of its upcoming content, but the team knew each other so well that even the transition to working remotely was more seamless than Baskin could’ve imagined.

One campaign that had been set to launch right as the pandemic really gained steam in the U.S. was based around the idea of sharing Hershey bars “in real life,” demonstrated by influencers who often share a lot more virtually than they do in person. “It just didn’t seem appropriate,” said Baskin. The brand also planned to lean heavily on sports-related advertising during March Madness as an NCAA sponsor, which was pulled after the cancellation of the tournament.

The ability to quickly make those changes had a lot to do with the power of Hershey’s in-house team. “To be in house helps you to be flexible with dollars,” she said. While it’s tough to plan for crises, having a team within the company ready to pivot immediately allows the kind of response time necessary when things happen unexpectedly—all without a major change in spending.

When the simplest message is the strongest message

While many brands have leaned on their in-house teams to shift gears quickly, Popeyes doesn’t have an in-house agency. So despite major changes in the way business is conducted over the last several weeks, the fast-food chain’s marketers and its agency partners—like its new agency of record Gut Miami—have kept a pretty consistent workflow, according to Bruno Cardinali, the fried chicken chain’s head of marketing for North America. And that’s largely because they already worked as one team, he said.

“We have a very small team of partners. We’ve created a good culture across all the teams,” Cardinali said. Instead of meeting in person each week, the marketers meet virtually, but they were already relying heavily on WhatsApp groups to coordinate their work.

Rather than a shifting players, the major change has been in the simplification of Popeyes’ messaging. “It’s really like going back to the very, very basic stages of advertising,” Cardinali explained. “Tell people what you serve, how you serve, where you serve, what time you serve.” Because in the midst of all this uncertainty, there was a lot of confusion surrounding who’s even still doing business—especially at first. As a result, Popeyes debuted its “Fried Chicken ‘n Chill” campaign.

Popeyes has been focusing more on its ecommerce business, ensuring that people are aware of its online ordering system, and know about its new cleaning procedures as well as contactless delivery and pickup options.

@klundster Kathryn Lundstrom is Adweek's breaking news reporter based in Austin.