Like a lot of brands, fried chicken chain Mary Brown’s found its marketing plans totally upended as the COVID crisis took hold.
The 170-location national chain was just about to launch a massive new campaign to plant its flag in the recently escalated chicken sandwich wars. “We were going into our largest launch that we’d spent month and months, and a lot of money on,” said Jeff Barlow, Mary Brown’s vice-president of marketing. “We literally had to rip our marketing strategy in half and throw it away.”
The company quickly had to shift its focus to what Barlow calls “utility marketing”—reminding customers stores were open, and the steps being taken to increase sanitation and ensure they were safe. They also started “Mini Mary Moments,” food drops for front-line workers across all of their markets—a smart but not uncommon move from food brands.
But after that, Mary Browns did something very different: for all of April, it would pay the national newspaper chain Postmedia to remove its pay wall and make all of its content free to site visitors.
“The insight was that beyond groceries people want news and information more than anything else these days,” said Barlow. “I approached Postmedia and asked them if they drop the pay wall.”
For the first two weeks of April, the paywall will be down for all of Postmedia’s broadsheet titles—the Vancouver Province, Edmonton Journal, Calgary Herald, and Montreal Gazette. Then, beginning starting April 16, the wall will come down for the Postmedia tabloids, including the Sun chain of papers.
Visitors to those sites typically receive messaging about how many free articles they can access before hitting the pay wall. That messaging has been replaced to explain visitors can read as much as they want, compliments of Mary Brown’s.
Like several major media publishers, Postmedia had already dropped its pay wall for COVID related content. The Mary Brown’s deal means that all content will be free, enabling readers to access articles about what to make for dinner, or lighter content that will hopefully bring smiles to faces in trying times, said Barlow.
The inspiration behind the idea came in part from Barlow’s own experience, spending most of his career in media—first with the former CanWest and later with Rogers—before joining Mary Brown’s last year.
Those traditional media companies have undergone significant change in recent years, he said.
“But the one thing that hasn’t changed, in my opinion, is quality journalism. And I think the Postmedia network still has some of the greatest writers in Canada, and some of the greatest content providers, so it was a very easy decision. Especially now when people want information, more than anything else other than the essentials.”
Pricing was tricky to figure out, and would have been different in normal circumstances, said Barlow. “During a pandemic and the things that we’re going through that no one’s ever gone through in their lifetime, the rules change, and I think they recognize the need for Canadians to have as much news as possible.”
“The Postmedia/Mary Brown’s program is a unique integrated program born in unusual times,” said Jutta Gruenewald, Postmedia’s senior vice-president of national revenue and client partnerships, in response to a question about pricing.
“This is not a standard offering from Postmedia, and therefore the value/cost equation is one that is unique to this project. We continue to develop new, engaging ways for marketers to meet their objectives and we are pleased with the results of this partnership thus far.”
The deal comes at a time when many media outlets are seeing a dramatic increase in traffic, without a corresponding increase in ad revenue. In part, that is a result of many marketers quickly pulling back spend during such unprecedented economic uncertainty, but also because many marketers have “blacklisted” the COVID content people are flocking to.