Podcast: Communication lessons from Andrew Cuomo – and retail challenges in times of crisis

Esteve Almirall

Photo: MTA/New York

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What can we learn from Andrew Cuomo’s communication style during the Covid-19 crisis? What are the main communication tricks to keep your audience engaged? What is the future of retail and marketing? How will brands change in a post-Covid world?

In this podcast, Esade Associate Professor Esteve Almirall and Michelle Greenwald, communication analyst and Adjunct Associate Professor at NYU Stern, analyse the keys to the New York governor’s communication success and go on to discuss communication tricks to increase engagement, the impact of technology in retail, and the future of brands and marketing in a post-Covid world.

Michelle Greenwald podcast


Esteve Almirall: Good morning listeners, welcome to the Esade podcast. Today we are fortunate to have with us Michelle Greenwald. Michelle is an academic, an innovation consultant, a smart city expert, a New Yorker, and is fascinated about new things happening to the city, particularly in retail, civic proposals, and new ways to communicate and innovate. Happy to have you here and welcome to the Esade podcast.

Michelle Greenwald: Thank you, Esteve. I'm very happy to be here as well.

Esteve Almirall: Now you’re working online from home and you have your students around the world. Among many other things, besides being an academic you are also a communication analyst, and you are in a privileged position, in a city like New York, with so much happening. We are witnessing new ways of communicating, new styles – particularly political styles. And we have a rising figure: Cuomo. What do you think are the key elements of Cuomo in terms of communicating? Can you explain this success?

Michelle Greenwald: Andrew Cuomo is the governor of New York State. To be honest, I never paid that much attention to him prior to coronavirus. But now everybody is addicted to watching him at 11:30 am each day. He's been extraordinary, and I would say one of the best political communicators I've ever seen. He does a lot of things in a very positive manner. I will say he is somewhat at fault – he and Mayor de Blasio, the mayor of New York City – for not shutting down New York sooner. This is an exponential disease and the longer you wait, the harder it is to control and the more people become infected. So, I don't think he's 100% perfect, but I do think he's been phenomenal since the shutdown.

Andrew Cuomo understands statistics, logistics, epidemiology and he comes across as an executive in charge who is trying to do everything possible

Every day he provides figures and statistics in a very matter of fact – but human – way. He has awesome PowerPoint slides. They're simple. They're not super high tech. But they're exactly the kind of slides that I like, and he presents them really well. Instead of reading from a paper that some staffer prepared for him that he really doesn’t understand, he totally understands the material. He understands statistics, logistics, epidemiology – many different aspects of running a business – and he comes across as an executive in charge who is trying to do everything possible.

He shares facts and the people of New York state can judge for themselves how well we're doing. Sometimes there is a term that maybe we're not familiar with in the statistics, but then he explains it. He provides us information, but in a way that's very easy to digest. And he speaks slowly enough, but at a pace that is extremely engaging, and he intersperses personal anecdotes about how he's coping with his family and adds philosophical analogies.

He shares statistics with everybody and people are tuning in from all over the country and watching him. Every day he talks about the number of new cases, the number of hospitalisations, the number of people on ventilators, the number of deaths. Starting about two weeks ago, we began antibody testing. The United States has been woefully behind. Our fearless leader will say we're better than any other country, but the truth is we are not on a per capita basis – which is really what matters.

We have not been doing antibody testing to see who is walking around with the virus. Every expert you talk to says that testing is absolutely essential. Two weeks ago, New York State started doing antibody testing and they're providing weekly updates on the number of people who have antibodies and have been exposed. He provides these figures for the entire state, as well as by New York region, by New York City borough, by ethnicity, by gender, and by age.

Cuomo interweaves statistics with admonitions about what we should be doing right now

We've come to see that over 21.2% of people in New York – and I think in the last report it was almost 25% of people in Manhattan – have had the coronavirus or have antibodies to it. He also has figures in terms of African Americans and Hispanics (who have been hit the hardest) and whites (the least hit).

What he's trying to do now (he announced this initiative last week) is to ask all the hospitals about the new cases. This is because the curve has not come down as fast as we would have liked. It's definitely come down – the deaths are about a third of what they were at the peak – but they've been levelling off at this level. They are trying to understand who are these people coming in, what are their ages, their gender, what area they are from, what ethnicity, what types of transportation they take, what is their occupation, and whether they are frontline employees, etc.

Another interesting statistic is subway ridership. New York is very dependent on the subway underground train system. This is one reason we were hit so badly. It's very densely populated, and it's hard to get around if you don't go on the subway. Since coronavirus, subway ridership is down 92%. There's a lot of disease down there, and it is essential that we fix the subway system before people will go back to work.

Esteve Almirall: You have a column in Forbes, and in each column you analyse the communication of Cuomo and its impact in the US and the world in general. One of the characterisations that you make is his capacity to engage people remotely, which is complicated. What can we learn from Cuomo in how to engage all audiences with a remote link like this one?

Cuomo paints the grim reality, but he does it in a way that's human and constructive

Michelle Greenwald: Well, he comes across as talking to people. Many politicians read from pieces of paper in front of them, or they read directly off the slide. Cuomo knows the material. The slides are there as memory cues, which is how I use slides. But overall, he comes across as talking to us. It's a personal style, but it's also a factual style. He interweaves statistics with admonitions about what we should be doing right now. This was the first really beautiful weekend this year, and the parks were packed. And if we're not behaving properly, you know he'll call a spade a spade.

He's also not afraid to explain the situation. Many states (30 states in the United States) have started to open up, and many of them still have rising cases. We have the Centre for Disease Control, which has issued directives and guidelines that no state should open unless they've had 14 consecutive days of decline. We have states opening up that are still on the rise. It's a double-edged sword and the economy is clearly terrible. Thirty million people so far have filed for unemployment benefit in the United States. The levels are unprecedented, and governors want to bring people back to work, but many people are afraid. It's a very difficult balance. 

But Cuomo helps you understand his rationale. He takes you through his thought process. He doesn't claim to be perfect. He comes across as collaborative, he talks about what the problems are, how he's trying to solve them, who he's working with. He comes across as factual and very transparent. It's very much in contrast to what the federal government is communicating. Just in the past few days, two weeks ago, they lowered the death projection to 50-60,000 people. Already today, we're almost at 68,000 people. And there's some people are saying that by the end of May, we'll have 100,000 deaths in the United States. And then by August, who knows.

We’ve become an incredibly visual society, but we can't read a lot of words

He paints the grim reality, but he does it in a way that's human and constructive. He also talks about what we can learn and how we can be better when we open. Even though it's grim, at least you feel like you're getting consistent facts that you as a consumer can measure yourself, and you’re understanding how he's coming at these decisions and what the future looks like, as much as we can see, because it's very hard to see more than a few weeks into the future. I feel it's a combination of fact base, honesty, humanity, and a constructive positive look at what we can learn and do better.

Esteve Almirall: One of the things most rated in the Cuomo speeches and one of the things that you highlight in your column in Forbes, are the slides. Cuomo’s slides are not particularly techie, or nice, or spectacular. But everybody loves Cuomo’s slides. Why is that?

Michelle Greenwald: I think they're very simple and they just make one point at a time. My marketing consulting business is called Marketing Visualised. I patented the name before Instagram came along. We’ve become an incredibly visual society, but we can't read a lot of words. When I started teaching my very first course, which was over 20 years ago, I had a lot of words, and I used material from the textbook. I found out it wasn't me, I had to use my own material. Anytime I can say something with a graph, an image, or a visual, I say it that way – rather than having a lot of words on the slide. So, I feel they illustrate the point very clearly. The slides are up there long enough to digest and that's really what he wants. He's substantiating with evidence what he's talking about in a way that's simple and easy to absorb.

In online teaching, asking questions from material at different points of a presentation forces students to pay attention

Esteve Almirall: Now we are all teaching online. You also have students all around the world. We are trying to engage these students, communicate with them, transmit information, but particularly engage them in the conversation. What is your advice for those of us who are teaching online?

Michelle Greenwald: One thing that I had never done, but I started doing after it was suggested to me by the chairman of the marketing department at Columbia Business School was to do a little test at the end. I do three questions from material at different points in my presentation to make sure that they are paying attention. Because when you're in person, you can tell if somebody is on their mobile phone, you can tell if they're engaged, making eye contact, etc. But when it's online, they can just check in, but then go into another room and you would never know. This is something that I've instituted that I feel forces them to pay attention. Unfortunately, people adapt to whatever you do. As lenient as you are, they will kind of take advantage. A little test is something that I think is a good thing. 

I am also not one to cold call, but I do think cold calling is a good idea – because otherwise the same people contribute over and over again. Also, I wrote an article in Forbes about transitioning from in-class teaching to online teaching and also to online presentations and meetings. I worked with someone who is a consultant, and who for a living observes people making presentations to give them advice. I found that something I was doing (she told me everybody else is having the same experience) is presenting less in each class. I find that when I am in person in front of students, I feel like I'm an entertainer, because I'm trying to keep their attention very hard, to keep them from looking at their cell phones, which is a massive temptation these days.

It's impossible to concentrate on the material and be looking at all the students at the same time

I feel that online, I'm more of an explainer. I'm more of a tutor, I feel a little bit more like I'm sitting next to them. And I'm checking in very often to say, “Did you get that?” Because I can't really see their faces. In my classes – in one of them I have 71 students – it's impossible to concentrate on the material and be looking at all the students at the same time. So, I don't do that. I mainly look at the hand raising. 

Supposedly, it is common that people are covering less material and so you just have to prioritise. If you have a whole semester to present, then you're presenting a little bit less. The quizzes are also taking five minutes of the course, then you have to reduce your material and decide what's most important. And again, I feel like I'm explaining things a little more thoroughly because I can't tell if they're totally getting it. Those are my two observations.

Esteve Almirall: Fantastic. Thank you so much. We appreciate it. Maybe our listeners don't know but Michelle is a well-known marketing guru, particularly in the area of retail where she has been working for many years advising C-suite boards all over the world. Now we have a post-corona scenario and you are in the centre. New York has always been in the centre of retail. How do you see this post-corona retail scenario?

Michelle Greenwald: I think it's a complete disaster for retail and a disaster for real estate in general. In Europe, you have not seen the impact of Amazon to the extent we have in the United States. Never before in my life prior to coronavirus have I seen so many vacant stores everywhere. Now stores are going out of business and nobody wants to take their place because you can't get the loans and you have no idea when coronavirus is going to end.

The Covid-19 crisis is a complete disaster for retail and a disaster for real estate in general

People are euphemistically saying we could have a vaccine in January. But it's highly unlikely, it would be record time. It needs to scale and prove that it's not going to harm people. I think that we're going to be changing our behaviour. I think many people have realised being home is not so bad. I never would have imagined that I would have enjoyed being home as much as I am. But through Zoom calls – you mentioned my students all over the world – I had one team meeting with students where one person was in quarantine (day 12) by herself in a hotel room in Hong Kong; another was with her family in Hong Kong; another was in Morocco, and another was in Lebanon.

I'm finding that I'm having a lot of human connections. These discussions online have been going well. For me in a very strange way coronavirus has been social because we have happy hours sometimes with friends and family, and we have longer conversations than I normally would have. I was someone who was always running around New York City and leaving early in the morning. And now I find that I’m surprisingly content at home. We're cooking so much more and enjoying our own food. We're getting information in different ways, we're shopping online to degrees we've never done before, we are looking at Netflix and Hulu and streaming services more than ever before. I think we're changing our lifestyle. Some of the old life will come back, but much of it will not.

Many retail businesses are going out of business

Many retail businesses are going out of business. J.Crew, which was a popular clothing retailer just filed for bankruptcy today. Michelle Obama wore J.Crew to the inauguration, and so did her daughter. It's that kind of a brand. It's not super high end but was very popular.

Our leading department store Macy's just announced they're opening a very small number of their stores – they've been hurting terribly. Many of these businesses will only be allowed 25% of capacity when they open. How is it viable to stay in business over a long period of time? We just don't know. 

I was reading something today on how we adjusted after 9/11, how New York is not the same place, how travel is not the same. We've all gotten used to all of these check-ins at the airport and flying in very different ways. I think this is going to be happening all over with coronavirus.

Many people, something like 80% of Americans, are okay with the pace at which the economy has been opening, which is kind of unexpected. There are some people protesting, but it's really a minority, and most people are afraid to go out. You honestly don't know if you're taking your life in your hands by going to the grocery store. There's just so much fear. I went for a walk in Brooklyn's biggest park yesterday and I'm wondering if that was a mistake – everybody was out. I really think that a lot of behaviour is going to change.

Over 80% of Americans, are okay with the pace at which the economy has been opening, which is kind of unexpected

In terms of work and real estate, many companies are finding that maybe their employees are not that productive – but they're able to do work at home. Bringing them back could mean liability issues. I think it's going to be a very slow reopening. In Manhattan, in particular, most of the homeless people have gone to live in the subway and so there's massive contamination down there. Mayor Cuomo announced last week that they are doing something they've never done before: they're shutting the subway down from 1am to 5am every day to sterilise every car. They have to gain the confidence of consumers because subway riders in New York are crammed face to face into subways, and it's just terrible for spreading coronavirus. Unless people are going to cycle from Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx into Manhattan, I'm not sure whether they'll be comfortable going to work. Also because of the economy people are not spending money. Most businesses are looking at how they can cut costs, and real estate is one of them. I’m obviously not too optimistic.  

And then it's interesting because people are using technology online more than ever. I was reading an interesting article last week about luxury goods marketing, which is such an incredibly personalised service, touching the goods, looking at the quality, and so on. Now augmented reality is the "go to" default for helping people check out even high-end merchandise. Those are my top lines, but I'd be happy to answer more questions.

People are using technology online more than ever

Esteve Almirall: Thank you so much. One of the things that you mentioned is the impact of online stores such as Amazon, which reminds us of the impact of Walmart many years ago. You have been working a lot on how physical retails can fight this impact. You have said many things about how to engage customers in the retail shop and so on. Do you think that all these things are still valid? Is there a way to fight against this online migration?

Michelle Greenwald: Okay, a number of interesting points. There's a clothing company called Everlane, which is kind of the darling of direct to consumer retail brands. It was listed in Fast Company's 100 most highly rated companies and 15 most innovative companies. I heard the CEO speak and he said that no direct-to-consumer brand can make money in the long term without going to retail. 

Warby Parker, the online opticians, which also was on the cover of Fast Company's 50 most innovative companies a few years ago, has very aggressively gone retail. Casper, which is a mattress company where you buy online very high-quality mattresses in a box, was also praised as being wonderful. Their market share is now declining, but they have offered retail in certain cities, and they're doing better where they have a retail presence, and where people can check out the product.

Most businesses are looking at how they can cut costs, and real estate is one of them

From what I'm reading and hearing, the most disruptive business model has been direct-to-consumer. Many of these direct consumer brands are getting so much attention, but many are hurting in one way or another. They need retail. But again, I think people are not going to go into retail. The really huge trends in retail were experiential and this used a lot of technology, but very few brands can do it well. Nike is masterful at this. There's a lot of "make your own sneakers" customisations. There's a basketball court where you can play and videotape yourself and send it virally. There's also a lot of omnichannel.

The two big trends to save retail are experiential and omnichannel. Many companies are not looking at retail anymore for a return on investment. They are budgeting it to their awareness budget because it can help their overall sales across all channels. Also, omnichannel is like “buy online, pick up in store," "buy in store, have it sent home," any which way you want, any time of day.

I did an article in Forbes a couple of weeks ago about the brands that are increasing their advertising spending. Right now, there are some brands that are benefitting. One of them is called Carvana. You can buy a car and pick it up from a vending machine. You order online, you pay for it online, you go to the car vending machine, you scan the card that you paid with, the car comes down, and you drive it off, no human contact, and you have five days to return it. They're calling it the safer way to buy a car. That's their tagline.

The most disruptive business model has been direct-to-consumer

Other claims that have popped up are touchless and contactless delivery, in which people don't want to have to touch anything. There's even concern about having your groceries or food delivered because coronavirus can live on surfaces. I mean, you can completely drive yourself crazy.

But I heard an idea that's being pursued, where if a delivery person dropped something at your door instead of you having to sign, they'll just leave it by your door, then you come out and they take a picture of you to show that you got the package. There are some very interesting ways that people are trying to avoid the fear of contact.

Esteve Almirall: Let's talk for a second about marketing. Marketing has been more or less in the same line for many years. The five P's (product, price, promotion, place, and people) have been a cornerstone in marketing. Then native digital companies came in and everything was about personalisation: personal pricing, personal advertising, personal everything. It looked like marketing was changing completely. And now we have Covid-19. How do you see the future of marketing?

Michelle Greenwald: I think it's going to be very digital, very social media oriented with key influencers being important. We also have GDPR (general data privacy regulations) and that's preventing brands from just sending messages online to anybody they want. People have to opt in. So that's putting restraints on online marketing. I think television will still be important. Outdoor billboards will be less important. Corporate sponsorships of sports teams might be less important because it may be harder if people are not going to games.

There are some very interesting ways that people are trying to avoid the fear of contact

What I see brands doing is trying to create a community, trying to help people in times of need, being there for them, and not selling too much. This has been a trend that I've seen a lot, where brands are recasting themselves as life coaches and supporters. And they're providing all kinds of content that doesn’t have a direct relation to the product attributes. 

I think personalisation is going to be massive. Recently, but before Covid, I went with one of my clients to Singapore, and we benchmarked innovation and digital innovation with a number of start-ups. We met with one company that was talking about something called "programmatic creative."

There's been something called programmatic media buying for a very long time and where the computer (through AI and algorithms) learns what keywords to use and who to serve ads to, and where you get the best response, and that type of thing. But this is now looking at advertising content. There are services around – I saw one in Singapore one day and I thought, "Wow, that is so cool." And the next day, another company presented the same thing. And then when I came back to New York, I was presented the same thing by another company.

Brands are recasting themselves as life coaches and supporters, and are providing all kinds of content that doesn’t have a direct relation to the product attributes

I'm finding that with new technology, the world is becoming democratised. New ideas can come from anywhere and some of the same ideas are coming from everywhere. But in this particular case of the programmatic creative, the computer is looking for what words to use for whom and how to create ads. 

One of the examples I saw was: if a company creates one ad with copy text, then the AI company will make 16 variants of that same advertisement and see which target responds to which version. Believe it or not, this was something that Donald Trump did.

One of the reasons he got elected was he had a very sophisticated person named Brad Parscale, who analysed everybody's interests on Facebook and Twitter and whatever. He hired Cambridge Analytica – the company that went bankrupt because they were giving out Facebook information without proper authorisation. But basically, by knowing people’s demographics, including their interests, and where they are, they could tell the different points of response. Donald Trump supposedly had 100,000 different pieces of creative advertising content. They just changed the backgrounds because they knew if you were in favour of gun control, they knew if you were anti-abortion, and they would just change the creative content for each person.

Donald Trump supposedly had 100,000 different pieces of creative advertising content

This is what I'm seeing now. AI generated creative content that measures every person's response and then creates modular customised advertisements on the fly that will appeal to that person. Netflix has something like 7,300 "target personas," they know everybody's media preferences. And as a result, when they develop TV shows, they don't do pilots the way regular TV shows do to test viability. They can tell what people are going to like based on how they respond in their watching preferences. AI is having a very big impact on creative messaging and also on new product development.

Esteve Almirall: Thank you. One last question. In marketing, you often say that there is no way to sell anything to anybody, that the only thing that you can do is find people that want to buy from you. And that is maybe an exaggeration, maybe not. But it highlights that product and customer preference is the king. Do you think these customer preferences will be the same or will they change in the post-Covid scenario?

Michelle Greenwald: I think you're absolutely right that product is king. I read a very good book about how Google works and they said that when they launch a new product, they don't spend much on advertising because if it is good, then viral word of mouth will happen. I’m very friendly with Smart Design, I wrote an article and interviewed them last autumn about changes in new product development. They said you can't fool consumers anymore. Years ago, I was in charge of new products at Pepsi. And you could buy trial, you could spend a fortune on advertising and give samples to everybody, but you can't buy repeat purchase. And in the end, that's what matters.

Netflix has something like 7,300 'target personas,' they know everybody's media preferences

I agree with you that product matters. The problem is generating awareness. I believe that large well-known brands are going to do better than small brands. I think it's going to be harder for start-ups to get awareness.

I'm trying to think about what we're going to lose because of retail not being as prevalent. I think there's a certain amount of discovery at retail. It's hard for small brands to get on the shelf, but you can still stand in front of the baking aisle and look at all different types of coconut and organic things. Something like 70% of grocery items are bought on impulse purchase. I've seen some statistics from 2019 that show the percent of product categories bought online. For books and music and electronics, it's over 30% in the US, for grocery, it's about 5%. So even if grocery doubles, there's still going to be a lot of grocery that's still bought in stores.

I've seen Starbucks opening up in Wuhan and everything is sold from a window

There's a certain amount of discovery. If you feel like going shopping, you see items in the store that you might not necessarily see online. Another thing I've also been tracking is technology at retail, and this is interesting, I'm updating my book Catalyzing innovation, which I hope to see in the iTunes Store later this week. Zara in the United States, for example, have made their entire catalogue available – you can download their new season catalogue, as well as everything that's on sale, while standing outside the store. There is a giant QR code and you can just click on it and then you have it on your phone.

There are many interesting things you can do with technology. I've seen Starbucks opening up in Wuhan and everything is sold from a window. I saw another article about Wuhan that says that restaurants may start serving – already have – in parking lots and streets are going to close down. In restaurants people have to be separated, so they'll eat outside because it seems less contagious than eating inside. We may be in a more open environment in terms of being outside. One of the problems is temperature. In Barcelona, you don't have to worry about it because you could be outside almost all year, but here that's not practical. But still, we can take advantage when the weather is good.

Esteve Almirall: Absolutely, sure. Thank you so much, Michelle. It has been so refreshing to talk with you and hear what’s new in communication, marketing, and in New York. For our readers, remember, if you want to know more, check out her book Catalyzing innovation. You can find it on the Apple store. Thank you so much again.

Michelle Greenwald: Thank you, Esteve, bye-bye.

If you want to know more, you can contact Michelle Greenwald.

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