Lowe’s has a history of showing up for communities in times of adversity. His Brigade budget helps communities in need b provide necessary supplies to those affected by natural disasters such as the California fire brigade. And, when the epidemic began in the United States and the country was locked-down, Marisa Thalberg, Lowe’s newly appointed Managing Director, Chief Brand and Marketing Officer, relying on Lowe’s legacy of being there for the community. Fostering this important theme, Thalberg guided the company to a new marketing strategy that emphasized brand-driven stories along with traditional marketing tricks.
Under Thalberg’s direction, Lowe’s demonstrations evoked deep emotions and established a broader, more diverse audience. Their #BuildThanks program honored key employees by encouraging shoppers to do thank -you notes with their New York Fashion Week program aimed at the female population by showcasing some the products have already been sold by Lowe’s. This approach worked. According to Placer.ai reports, Lowe’s acquires more land than Home Depot by 2020, increased foot traffic by 21% compared to Home Depot’s 12% growth and reduced Home Depot’s traffic to 20% from 29% in 2019.
For their significant efforts, Thalberg was named Manager of the Year by Marketing Dive and Lowe’s ranked # 3 in the Ad Age’s Marketer of the Year List. Implementing this kind of change is not easy, especially in a work-from-home environment, so I had the pleasure of speaking with Thalberg for a section on Discussions with CommerceNext to learn more.
You can read the interview below or watch on YouTube. This interview has been edited and edited for clarity.
Veronika Sonsev: When you joined Lowe’s last year, where did you see so much opportunity from a marketing perspective?
Marisa Thalberg: As a new leader, I’ve talked to people to get a lot of mixing of ideas about the research that’s been done, the business foundation and the consumer ideas. I had only been working for three weeks and was in the process of putting everything together when Covid started to hit. At the time, I was making assumptions that I was starting to fall into a vision and a plan, but I just didn’t have the precious time to fully pursue those things.
While there were some basic principles that needed to be in place for businesses to operate within Lowe’s, we also had to move quickly to change the way we interacted and exhibited when the world was so unhappy. But it was also a very unique opportunity for the genre. With global housing, the relationship between people and their homes has suddenly increased and the role and responsibility we have in that has also increased.
Sonsev: How has the disease changed your Lowe’s marketing strategy?
Thalberg: As a large retailer, the role of the market is to drive awareness, excitement and eventually travel to our stores and Lowes.com — the core foundation has remained unchanged. But how we do it needs to change quickly. There was a sensitive feeling in the early days of the disease of not wanting to look bad about taking people to stores while the world was locked down.
We didn’t know exactly what to save and what not to but we also wanted to make it clear that we are an important retailer for a reason. For example, if you’ve ever had a broken hot water pool, you need to know that we were there and available to serve you.
From a marketing perspective, I had to move away from what I had already evaluated and my own feelings about how a brand like ours should display in a time of crisis. I did my best to consolidate the legacy of the name, a company whose best moments appear in times of crisis through our Bucket Brigades and our partners.
From a buyers ’point of view, we all pulled back on store promotions and sales and just started connecting with customers on the changing nature of the home. That pulled into one of our first dedicated living rooms that turned into offices and garages that turned into home gymnasiums. It’s a quick new reality to me and puts Lowe’s into that cultural change piece in a more thoughtful and positive way. Those quick moves were made with sure legs that allowed us to continue from there.
Sonsev: Your competition last year hurt emotions, especially #BuildThanks, Backyard Weddings with Bobby Berk and your holiday effort. That emotional connection seemed new to Lowe’s. Is this change a result of the disease or is your initial goal to give the brand a better sense of connection with customers?
Thalberg: I think we’re talking. As the zeitgeist quickly changed and as people’s wants, desires and behaviors changed, we found ways to slip that in the right way for Lowe’s. I think we are well aware of what that is and we will continue to do so, but only good examples are available.
With that said, if you’re marketing a brand with a business this large, you need to make sure all the different parts of the marketing calendar are working. As you build your many contests, you’re also shooting up your advertising campaigns and thinking about the different audiences and messages we want to cross. Big ads were only one part of what we did.
Lowe’s also has two different types of covers. We have a general audience, which we call DIY customers, and our professional customer. While we are the underdog and consumer market, one of our many goals is to increase our share of that audience. When it all fell apart in March and April, we just wanted to help implement the experienced sales staff. With a business like Lowe’s, it’s important to think about these two really different types of audiences and do it right on both of them. Although their needs can be very different, the venture market should feel like they understand under the Lowe’s brand.
Sonsev: What role do knowledgeable customers play in understanding your customers and ensuring your marketing is getting the right message to them?
Thalberg: When it comes to consumer insights, my early experiences changed my mind. I moved away from one of the usual packaging materials, where there’s still a emphasis on customer feedback, to expensive items, where there was the belief that the customer wasn’t telling me what I was thinking. This experience built in me a desire to move between everything.
And I really believe in consumer insights and I love finding foods that help me understand where people’s minds and hearts are and where we might expect them to go. But I also think that as a result of marketing, customers can’t tell you what to do. It depends on the marketers to rely on knowledge and use them successfully, but they also have the vision, knowledge and creativity.
Sonsev: You’ve done some new things this year, especially with your collaboration at New York Week where you helped designers design their designs. That competition helped open people’s eyes to some of Lowe’s finished products to help improve the home.
Thalberg: I wanted to open people’s eyes to the opportunities that your home can offer at Lowe’s – we’re not just for building and establishing products. The New York Fashion Week project started when I was talking to a partner who had a big responsibility for the production of New York Fashion Week. She sobbed, “How do we pull this into regular shows?” And I started thinking, “Where does the current familiar look fit into the zeitgeist when people are focused on their homes?” Many people are now thinking about their own information through the glass of their home and where they want to spend their time and money. I thought it was very appropriate for now to connect the idea of home decor.
We worked with Jason Wu, Rebecca Minkoff and Christian Siriano so that they could produce something really valuable. They used everything from our board for walkways to our gardens for Jason’s Tulum imagination. And the editors collect collections on our website and their favorites. An example is where a partner can be a expressive body and allows two parties to do something together that they cannot do alone.
Sonsev: I want to talk about numbers for a minute because one of the unique features of your history is that you’ve been based on numbers throughout your career. How did it only affect your business plan?
Thalberg: For about a decade or so, I really saw it as a number one, a number one, and I loved and accepted that. But, the part that used to sit down a little fun in me made me feel like the show was all about numbers.
By the end of my stint at The Estee Lauder Company, the world had changed dramatically. I saw that it might be a little later than the others and so I really needed to be taught mathematics and then figure out how to integrate mathematical methods into some kind of common foundation. That’s how I became a number one, but in fact I was the first marketer to adapt to the ways the world changed.
But, I’m not the only advocate for digital. I look at the number of road opportunities and plan the best ways to reach the customers we want to reach today.
Sonsev: We talked a lot about what you did last year. I’d love to find a copy of what’s next and where you see marketing opportunities next year.
Thalberg: I am going to share with you a very important thing that we have started to announce. This year happens to be a real milestone year for Lowe’s because it’s our 100th birthday. Very few companies reach the turning point, which is an achievement. But we didn’t want our birthday to be a personal celebration or an important moment. We wanted it to be a time to open up the issue to follow in a more meaningful and direct way, back to this country, where Lowe was born as a small business a hundred years ago.
We are expressing our most determined effort, maybe we will help improve hundreds of corners of the country, hundreds of our homes this year. And we don’t just pick them up. We are inviting people from all over the country to choose their little corner, their neighborhood, whether it’s a center, a park or anywhere in their country that has a real need and let us know or why. And, later this summer in the fall, we’ll be doing a hundred city project projects. It’s interesting. And to me, that’s how you celebrate a birthday. We will always go back and remind ourselves of what we are all about and prepare ourselves to continue to do this for another hundred years.
Thalberg is a good marketing model for understanding your customer and connecting their needs with the zeitgeist culture that significantly affects a business for the better. He was fearless and quickly led Lowe’s team to try new things never before, and in doing so, he challenged us all to see our business with new eyes, skills and courage.