When Marisa Thalberg stepped up as Lowe's chief brand and marketing officer in February, COVID-19 was just weeks away from shutting down the U.S. and upending any marketing plans the exec might have had in store. Rather than shy away from pandemic-related disruptions, Thalberg, who previously helped shape Taco Bell into a digital innovator, used the crisis to strengthen Lowe's positioning around everything related to the home while broadening where the brand activates with purposeful and fun campaigns.
"I understood these are the moments where leaders need to LEAD — with humanity, thoughtfulness and as much vision as possible," Thalberg said over email. "More specifically, I recognized that as our role as an essential retailer was emerging, it was important to enable Lowe's to show up with a tone and messaging that inspired our customers and associates to trust and rely on us to do the right thing during a time of great need. We first triaged all the marketing we had, and then effectively changed everything — and I believe that set us on the right path."
The executive's steadfast direction during her first year at Lowe's underpins consistently impressive performance that's outpaced rivals and given the company a sturdy runway as it heads deep into the holiday season and crucial fourth-quarter sales period. The home improvement retailer saw U.S. comp sales, a key business metric, up 12.3% in the first quarter and 35% in the second quarter. Same-store sales surged 30.1% in the third quarter, topping estimates for 22.8% growth, while online sales rose 106%.
As the CMO role takes center stage again for several major marketers during the pandemic, Thalberg's work stands out as exemplary leadership during crisis, promoting community support and safety while keeping sight of a massive business opportunity for the retail category.
"I don't know that it's changed my approach so much as clarified how important certain leadership qualities are to me — even more so in times of such challenge accompanied by physical distance," Thalberg said. "I wanted to bridge the digital divide as much as possible."
When COVID-19 first roiled the U.S. in March, brands generally either went quiet or thanked frontline workers. Landing in the latter camp, Lowe's and Thalberg took their support a step further by tying relief efforts to a focus on home improvement and do-it-yourself projects.
A #BuildThanks campaign encouraged people to post homemade yard signs sharing messages of gratitude, using materials and inspiration from Lowe's. At the same time, the retailer donated $10 million in essential protective gear to medical workers.
Deeper into the health crisis, many CMOs continued to play it safe, tightening budgets and deploying ads that made broad reference to the changing times, but lacked specificity and ambition. Under Thalberg's stewardship, Lowe's continued to expand where it could activate, with internal agility enabling quick responses.
"Had things been business as usual, I would have had a big department meeting once a month; however, for the first several months in this environment I held them every week," Thalberg said. "Communication and connection were and are so important."
In May, Lowe's supplied "American Idol" contestants with materials to trick out their performance stages for the show's season finale, integrating the brand into a relevant cultural moment. Then in the fall, it appeared at New York Fashion Week (NYFW), helping designers create runways for an event like no other, while partnering on livestreams to let remote fans participate in an affordable way.
"We first triaged all the marketing we had, and then effectively changed everything — and I believe that set us on the right path."
Chief brand and marketing officer, Lowe's
Each activation tied back to Lowe's e-commerce business through offerings like capsule collections, providing a clear bridge between creative ideas and consumers' preferred purchasing channels. The results are clear: Lowe's e-commerce sales shot up 135% year-on-year in Q2, demonstrating the marketer's agility in capitalizing on the online shopping boom.
Lowe's NYFW play additionally speaks to how Thalberg has threaded the needle between brand purpose and connectivity, a quality that's climbed in importance for consumers physically separated by the pandemic. The CMO's mission has manifested in newer marketing bets and established stakes, such as a year-old sponsorship as the NFL's official home improvement retailer.
This season, Lowe's tapped one player from each of the league's 32 teams to champion community-building projects led by people and organizations from their respective NFL hometowns. The company set up virtual engagements to help at-home fans recapture the stadium experience.
Many of the concepts in Thalberg's pandemic playbook have come together around Lowe's holiday campaign, which expands the retailer's product catalog, including through free Christmas tree deliveries, and looks to create a sentimental connection with customers. The brand is encouraging consumers to write letters about why home is important to them and submit their thoughts digitally or via in-store dropboxes. Lowe's will amplify those messages throughout the season.
"What I hope will set Lowe's apart this year is I think there has to be a bigger idea around how we show up," Thalberg said during a virtual event in the fall. "It's not just about what … items we have or don't have on sale, but how we can connect with people the way that we've been doing throughout this year."