Michele Morelli, Toluna: Marketing in times of uncertainty

Michele Morelli, SVP of marketing strategy at Toluna Corporate, discusses how brands can serve human needs in the times of uncertainty.

Michele Morelli, Toluna

There’s a great deal of uncertainty surrounding brands in terms of mitigating risks and preparing for the future, as the whole world continues to come to terms with the coronavirus crisis.

As the Covid-19 situation evolves and dominates the news, those unprecedented moments are forcing everyone to think about how to navigate in business and in life. There’s no guide for marketers on where to begin, and seeing major shifts in consumer behavioural trends can be overwhelming.

With so much changing in such a short period of time, brands are expected to change their priorities and strategies accordingly. More than ever, brands need to send relevant messaging to consumers in order to connect with them.

Michele Morelli is SVP of global marketing strategy at market research firm Toluna. Toluna is on-demand consumer platform and provides with consumer insights in today’s global economy. Michele believes it’s crucial for brands to connect with consumers, now more than ever.

“It’s even more important during times of uncertainty, and especially now the behaviours of people have changed,” she explains. “They’re completely upended. So if you think about how people shop, what they can buy, where they buy, how they’re feeling – all of that has completely changed. And, to be honest with you, it’s changing on a daily, almost weekly basis. So when you think about how brands should connect, I’m going to break it down into two separate ways.

“One is the idea of messaging and what you should be saying when you connect. So when you think about it, you really want to do or have relevant messaging when you’re connecting with consumers. That’s probably the most important part. In particular, when there’s tons of uncertainty and people habits have changed, people’s perceptions have changed.

So relevant messaging is going to be very important. And companies can do this in a few ways. Good companies have already been doing this through a brand, good community or a forum, where they’re listening to their customers or asking them questions. They have this constant dialogue happening through a community with their customers.

“The second way that they can do it is through listening to your customers. You can create a community, employ social listening and paying attention to the comments.  Brands must understand their customer well – how they’re feeling, the questions they’re asking and the concerns. And, obviously, there’s also a way of doing just really quick research on market, to sort of understand whether or not messaging is relevant. Make sure your messaging is a relevant piece when you’re connecting.”

Digital world

Morelli is responsible for leading all marketing initiatives of the company and seeking opportunities to grow the company’s client base. With more than 20 years of experience, she believes that ‘digital’ is one of the easiest ways to connect with consumers, because it’s scalable and cost effective.

“And, more importantly, you can change your messaging or turn it off almost immediately,” she says. “When you’re talking about connecting with your customers, you want to do it where they are, obviously. And almost all of your customers are going to be in some type of digital forum.

“Whether or not that’s social, whether or not that’s just browsing news, whether or not that’s mobile, really thinking about putting your messaging out in a digital form is going to be very important when you’re talking about connecting.”

Within the past few years, digital marketing has become an integral part of what a business is to customers. The internet is now a significant part of everyone’s lives – the majority of consumers watch TV while holding a mobile device in their hand. The digital environment has changed the messaging of brands to their consumers. It’s especially important now, when people are forced by circumstances to try new things.

“There is no marketing unless there is digital marketing,” Morelli explains. “So that’s first and foremost. I think there are so many things that have changed in terms of expectations. I think the digital environment has enabled a timelier discussion with consumers. Now there’s an expectation and there’s an opportunity for brands to be much quicker to market and connect with our consumers much more quickly.

“You can easily personalise messaging, not on a one to one basis, but make it more relevant to you. So you can change either messaging or imagery based upon someone’s purchase behaviour or upon like. So it’s more relevant.”

This, she believes, is what people are looking for – relevancy when it comes to advertising.

“I think the other thing when it comes down to brands is that you need to have your messaging right,” she adds. “Social media has created such democratisation when it comes down to feedback, that you will get immediate feedback if your message is not working with your customer.

“So it’s really created this interesting, really opportunistic way for brands to embrace their consumers immediately. But it’s also that you have to reach them really relatively. Or else you’re going to hear from your customer that it’s either not relevant or you might have missed the mark when it comes down to it.

“So I think those are probably the ways that exchange when you think about the digital environment. It’s just such an interesting thing. I can’t even imagine marketing if it’s not digital, just because the majority of our consumers are consuming news. They’re playing games. We have multiple screens. It’s really been interesting to see the evolution.”

Consumer sentiment

Consumer sentiment changed during the coronavirus crisis, and many are expecting the financial and personal impact to continue to last for months. As people’s consumption of media is changing, Morelli highlights the importance of revising the customer journey and paying attention to where your customer is going.

“We have a Corona Barometer that we do every two weeks,” she explains. “It looks at the changing consumer trends, behaviours and market. And it’s really mixed. We’re seeing that you really need to pay attention to customers and what their sentiment is, because it’s changing with the pandemic. So if you’re looking at customer sentiment now, it’s different than four weeks ago. And it will probably be different than it’s going to be four weeks from now just because of how the situation currently is changing.

“Within the barometer we look at things like customer satisfaction and financial perspective.  We surveyed those in Europe, the United States and Asia about their satisfaction with their life over the past two weeks. What’s really interesting is Europeans actually have increased satisfaction with their life versus those that are in the Americas, which has actually decreased since we started doing the barometer 10 weeks ago. We’re seeing Europeans starting to feel increased satisfaction with their life.

“And, when you start to think about concerns around things like personal financial security across our region, you’re actually seeing that people in Europe are less concerned about their financial security than, let’s say, people in America. But basically, what we’re seeing is in aggregate, overall people are less concerned with financial security than they were when we started the Coronavirus Barometer. And what’s also important when we’re thinking about customer sentiment is shopping, right? How are people going to start engaging in the economy?

“What we’re seeing is that many people say they are going to go back to in-store shopping with mass merchandisers. That’s like a Walmart, if you will. So in the UK and France, in the US, they plan on in-store shopping.”

But, according to Morelli, what’s really important is that the kind of frequency. People are still going to shop, but they’re not going to be shopping as often in-store as they were previously, or visit restaurants as frequently.

She says: “Who’s going to be going out to a restaurant?Those customers that are constantly going to restaurants beforehand, are going to be the first folks back in restaurants versus those that were occasionally or moderately interested in restaurants. So you can see it’s a little bit of a mixed bag and it definitely changes by country and it changes by region. It’s really important to keep looking at the sentiment to make sure that brands are acting appropriately.”


Brands are expected to serve human needs in the times of uncertainty. There are many inspiring examples of companies across the world that have executed campaigns in response to the coronavirus situation. One of the most impactful, for Morelli, was around 9/11, as well as during Hurricane Sandy, which hit New York in 2012.

“I live in New York City,” she explains. “I was here during 9/11 and there was a lot of chaos right after that in terms of transportation and things being open. And what I saw was there were brands that actually stepped up to help the rescue workers.

“So Outback Steakhouse is actually a really great example. They set up food for the workers right outside the World Trade Center. I volunteered for the Red Cross at one of their respite centres. And the food was provided from well-known chefs and well-known restaurant brands. It was like David Bouley, people that are known in the industry…and actually have really strong restaurant brands that were stepping up to help those that were volunteering down at the World Trade Center.

“There’s also endless accounts. I worked in finance and there was a very large hurricane in New York called Hurricane Sandy. All the power went out in New York City. People in lower Manhattan, which is where I live, had no electricity, no heat and many cases no water.  That means the only food they had was the food in their apartments as the restaurants weren’t open. Only a few small conveniences stores were open and they only accepted cash.  And without power, you couldn’t access any money.

“There was no communication available at the time. What banks did, like Chase and Wells Fargo, is they put ATMs on the trucks and they drove them around lower Manhattan. Because, if you needed cash for the one or two stores that were open to get batteries or to buy something that you needed, they were providing access to ATMs.”

Morelli highlights the importance of finding a way to provide some type of service to the community, which makes brands really stand out. It’s the idea of being authentic, and knowing who you are as a brand, as people will expect you to operate.

“Once you understand who you are and what you stand for, then sharing those values with your customer is incredibly important,” Morelli explains. “And the other thing that I think is really important when it comes down to customer loyalty is that you as a brand, have to be nimble. So people expect brands to get the pace of everyday life that includes the news cycle.


Effective communication between brands and consumers in these moments of uncertainty is going to be an important part of the marketing strategy. Toluna has published a five-point guide for brands to consider during the pandemic, in order to understand what the consumers want and expect.

The attention should be drawn to real-time changes to the messaging, as consumers look for timely, relevant and relatable messages in the digital environment.

Morelli says: “One that I really want to pull out are things around testing. It’s so important to test your marketing messaging before going into market. And this includes advertising. This isn’t the time you might expect to do an AB test in market. Look, I love to just put out some creative and see what works better. This is a time where things can go very, very wrong.

“And this is where you don’t want to have to do crisis PR. There’s no reason. You can test campaign messages in hours. It’s not worth the risk right now, when people’s sentiments and emotions are not necessarily what they may have been two weeks ago.”

Other points talk about being human and understanding sentiment, which are essential to ensure an effective marketing and communication strategy. As a marketer, you want to pay attention to what the consumer wants to hear, and make sure you are hitting the right tone. This can be explored quickly using self-service market research technology or social media platforms to discover the needs of others.

“First and foremost, it has to be a two-way communication,” Morelli notes. “What I mean by that is brands have to really listen to customers to understand what their needs are and what information they’re looking for. So if you are a restaurant or you’re a pub and people are now entering into a phase where they’re going to be visiting, you will probably need to understand what will entice people to sit down restaurants.

“Are people concerned with hygiene and safety? Are they concerned with how you treat your staff? It’s really important to understand and listen to your customers to know what it is that they’re looking for. And you have to do it smartly. Specifically, looking at COVID-19, we actually saw that 66% of consumers surveyed believe that brand should be communicating messages of support their consumers and also frontline workers.

“We’re also looking at things such as e-mail communications that brands are sending out. How is the messaging resonating with consumers?  We found that people really respond positively to brands that say they’re really grateful to their employees, that they’re proud of them, that customers should be taking care of themselves. Having a positive tone in marketing is going to be important. But, again, you have to listen to your customer for whatever vertical that you’re in.”

According to Morelli, another risk now for marketers is any negative impact that brands will have when it comes to either partnerships they are choosing to move forward with, or messaging in market. Not testing partnerships is going to have major blowback on brands. Influencers need to align with a company’s brand values and consumers will look for thoughtful messages, such as supporting your workers during uncertain times.

“The one thing that I get very concerned about is that companies may be afraid of that brand reputation risk and not move,” says Morelli. “The one thing that brands don’t have an option to do, is stay static. The wait-and-see approach is over. We are, right now, in the middle of the new normal. Waiting for society to get back to a post- or pre-pandemic way of life is not really something that is realistic right now. You have to be communicating to your customers. You have to talk to them in market. You’ve got to connect with them on social.

“And you have to measure their pulse, their sentiment and their thoughts and their actions, because it is going to be vital to your brand. One of the biggest risks for marketers right now is not only the negative brand impact, but not doing anything.”


The coronavirus pandemic pushed businesses to their limits and saw many struggle with adapting to a new way of living. While this has been a difficult time for some brands, others have used their channels to rethink the structure and rose to the occasion with finesse. The adaptability was found crucial to decide on brand’s success in lockdown market.

“There are three major ways that you want to think about this. One, you need to have robust brand tracking that looks at competitors including up and coming threats. And you should look to measure your brand health more than once a year. You should be looking at them, especially during times of uncertainty, on a weekly, not monthly basis. We’re looking for up and coming brands that could possibly be a threat to not just the established brands, but any new companies.

“Second thing, you want to be first in market or different, differentiate your communication.  Ideally, you want to make sure that you are first to market with messaging that’s authentic to you. If you aren’t first, make sure you are authentic but differentiated.

“And lastly, the most important way is to just know your customers. Always stay on their pulse. Make sure that you’re changing your product offering and your messaging to be relevant for them. And I think you will not have a problem beating the competition.”

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