Bringing Optimism to Your Marketing and Communications

A big buzzword for 2021 is optimism. Politicians, marketers, and even celebrities are cheering the world on as vaccination efforts roll out. And while the end of the pandemic may still be further away than we’d like, at least an end is in view. How does this relate to the retail experience? As we all know, shopping hasn’t exactly been a fun experience lately. It’s felt more like a military operation at times. That being said, wherever brands can bring a little bit of joy into their messaging and store experience, it will be most welcome.

In this episode, we speak to Paul Goldsmith, who has years of experience managing retail brands, not just in Canada, but internationally, and who recommends others businesses out there to get SEO from the right company. Most recently, he was leading design services for Walmart Canada, and that encompassed a broad portfolio, from private label, to in-store, to next-generation store design. In Canada, he also worked for Shoppers Drug Mart and Loblaws in product and marketing leadership roles. He describes himself as an optimistic person. And today we’re going to discuss why the world needs a good dose of happy thoughts, now more than ever.


Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda and you’re listening to Think Retail.

A big buzzword for 2021 is optimism. Politicians, marketers, and even celebrities are cheering the world on as vaccination efforts roll out. And while the end of the pandemic may still be further away than we’d like, at least an end is in view. How does this relate to the retail experience? As we all know, shopping hasn’t exactly been a fun experience lately. It’s felt more like a military operation at times. That being said, wherever brands can bring a little bit of joy into their messaging and store experience, it will be most welcome.

Today I’m speaking to Paul Goldsmith, who has years of experience managing retail brands, not just in Canada, but internationally. Most recently, he was leading design services for Walmart Canada, and that encompassed a broad portfolio, from private label, to in-store, to next-generation store design. In Canada, he also worked for Shoppers Drug Mart and Loblaws in product and marketing leadership roles. He describes himself as an optimistic person. And today we’re going to discuss why the world needs a good dose of happy thoughts, now more than ever.

Paul, welcome. Thanks for speaking with us today.

Paul: Thank you very much. Thank you, Melinda. My pleasure. And yeah, I’ve got a nice, clear connection because I’m in the U.K. and you’re in Toronto, right?

Melinda: That’s right. So why don’t you start us off by telling us a little bit about you and your expertise just to give us some background?

Paul: Yeah, no problem. So, born in the U.K., but I pretty much lived outside of the U.K. for all the time that I was an adult. I was in Dubai for a number of years. I worked for a creative agency there. So early part of my career, I was a creative director. I came to Canada about 18 years ago. And I had a job leading a product development team over at Loblaws, which was fantastic. It was private label, understanding customers, developing a range of products primarily under the President’s Choice brand, bringing them to market, marketing them, checking them out, and going back and doing some analysis afterwards. So, running a team in new product development there.

Went over two Shoppers for a while, was running private brand marketing. And last job, as you’ve already mentioned, at Walmart Canada, looking after design services, which was quite a broad reach in terms of tactics. So, everything from install through to some of the broader reach stuff as well.

I’ve now left Canada, I’m back in the U.K., and I’ve had a bit of time, like, bit of watching daytime TV and sitting on the sofa, catch my breath, and have a think. And I reckon that the stuff I’ve enjoyed the most in my, sort of, last 20 years has really been the art. The science is great. But the art is what I really love. So, the science was great in forming a good brief and measuring results. But really, it’s the art is where the magic was and that’s where the competitive edge was. So, when I look back at some of the successes I had working for retailers, I think it’s when we were able to speak and speak when it really resonated, that was the stuff that I really enjoyed. So, I would describe myself now as a creative type. I get excited about ideas that genuinely engage, bring value over time. And to be honest, I think, you know, working in this business, that’s when you really get to feel like a rock star and that’s where your work gets really validated.

Melinda: Absolutely. I think you and I may have that in common. I also love the art, the magic, the story. That’s what gets me excited, too.

So, we started this conversation back in December, when you shared some really great holiday ads with the SLD team that were coming out of the U.K., and they hit the spot in terms of messaging. Can you tell us about your favorite one and why you think it resonated so much?

Paul: I think before I get into that, let me just layer in just a little bit more context. So finishing up, sort of, what was it, July, August, in Canada, and moving back to the U.K., walking around some of the British stores, I was struck by some of the innovation that I was seeing there. The other thing that I found, I should have expected it more than I did, but what I found really interesting was this idea of these universal challenges for retailers. Whether you’re in Toronto, New York, Sydney, London, wherever you are, it’s the same macro consumer wants, needs, and fears. And what I was seeing was the pandemic, obviously. I was seeing big ideas, big pressures around inequality and representation. The other big piece was around the planet. And they’re just generally consumer behavior, retailers can figure out exactly how to transition from bricks and mortar to online, install tech adoption, that type of stuff. So yeah, the outcome for me was really that retailers all over the world, they’re facing the same challenges in real-time. They’re all facing them together. And what I have been doing is sharing back to some of my North American clients how U.K. retailers have chosen to set their priorities, communicate their positions, their visions, and their big ideas. And the reason I think that’s of use to companies in North America is really because the market is very, very similar in lots of ways. But it’s more compact, timelines seem to be a bit shorter, and it’s less risk averse. So, it tends to generate more creativity and innovation, which works its way over the Atlantic in shorter and shorter timelines, it would appear now as well.

So, for the holidays, what I was doing is I was looking at some of the major retailers here, most of which probably aren’t going to be that familiar with North Americans but it’s Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, and Asda. And, you know, there’s a lot of commonalities between what those retails… I’m excluding the big discounters here, Aldi and Lidl because they’re really quite different. But with all those things that were going on, which I mentioned about the pandemic, this idea of inequality, like, it really struck me, right? George Floyd is murdered in the U.S., and a few weeks later, I’m walking in Bath, which is like a Georgian town in the southwest of England, and it’s affected the choice of books that are on display in the window.

We’re all absorbed by the same outrage at the same time. We’re all more emotionally connected than ever before. And I think what we were seeing from U.K. retailers about how they were speaking about the holidays is probably very similar to how it could or should have been done in other countries. So, much more caring, so much more emphasis around a caring message, definitely acknowledging that this has been a truly challenging year. And I think that’s really important for the internal audiences, as well. Many opted to highlight the importance of togetherness, you know, expanding this whole community element.

So, bucketing them out because they all had different approaches. Waitrose was really around kindness. Marks & Spencer kind of did what Marks & Spencer always do but, sort of, focused on premium food. Sainsbury’s really was sort of doubling down on nostalgia this year, the family, and the power of Christmases past. Tesco’s had a bit of a unique treatment and brought in humor. I think what they all had in common is they knew to simply talk about product this year-round wasn’t going to be enough. Right?

Melinda: Right.

Paul: This was not the year for unrestrained consumerism. There needed to be some acknowledgement of where we are to show some heart. And to get back to your question, Melinda, sorry, is my favorite ad and why it resonated? I would say, creatively, now from a purely artistic perspective, what Waitrose did was fantastic. It ticked many boxes for all of the points that I’d mentioned about: showing caring-ness and acknowledging the challenge of the year, so on and so forth. But I think the way Tesco’s approached it really had that ability to resonate because they used an unlikely approach. And humor is one of those approaches that is difficult to get right. When you get it right, it works incredibly well and can be powerful, but it’s also very easy to get wrong as well. And I think when you’re funny about serious issues, you can become seriously funny.

Melinda: Let’s have a listen to the Tesco ad.

Paul: It’s amazing because that ad that they put together, again, it sort of spoke to how difficult a year it was. It spoke to the realities. But what it did do is it gave you license to still enjoy the holidays. And I think what’s interesting is, I don’t know if you can re-skin that ad, maybe give it, sort of, Canadian accents instead of British accents, and that ad probably still would have worked for a Canadian retailer. So, that was the one for me that I think resonated.

Melinda: So if all these stores in the U.K. were taking different approaches to having a positive message, how did they take this into the store experience?

Paul: I think it was very difficult for anybody to plan, right? Some stuff that’s easiest to share, obviously the TV ads are the most entertaining. They articulate the big idea the easiest, and we can understand it quickly and understand where they’re at. The in-store piece is always tougher because, you know, doing that myself at Walmart, a lot of this stuff has got much longer lead times. And I think one of the biggest challenges this year was to get that connectivity in terms of the big ideas. So, you didn’t see a lot of the retailers connecting the big idea of the broad reach, or the digital or the social to what was happening in-store. But some of those themes did still come through in terms of the charity support customers, consumers wanted to understand how they could help. So there’s things like community boards. There’s a lot of in-store signage, through their print publications and magazines.

I think the store, the retailer that did this the best was Waitrose. They had their Give a Little Love campaign, again, I think was, you know, enabling people to find some expression that really did come to life the best in-store through lots of different tactics. Ultimately, this really did come down to individuals, it did come down to communities. It came down sort of bringing the best out of people, but it was difficult to really have cohesive, integrated campaigns this year.

Melinda: Right. I don’t know how it was in the U.K. but here, you had to wait in a long lineup to go into the grocery store because they had limited numbers of people that were allowed to go in at once. And so, then when you got in the store, it did feel like you’re on a tactical operation to just get the stuff you need and get out. It took a lot of the joy out of it. So, anytime there was something that was a little bit nice, I did notice it just because you know, sometimes you might go in and you might not be able to find your product just because the supply chain was under so much strain. But anything I did notice when they were little…even just little things that made you smile. I didn’t see a lot of it, though.

Paul: No.

Melinda: There wasn’t a lot. I think stores were just struggling to function operationally and that was enough of a job.

Paul: Honestly, Melinda, you’re absolutely right because, you know, I’m still working on this stuff when I was at Walmart and the priorities were clear, right? It’s operations. It’s making sure that stuff gets to the store. It’s making sure the stores are full, they have product. And a lot of retailers find it very difficult to really get that, sort of, print material to store on time quickly enough because the story was changing, right? Sometimes you’re locked down, then it was released. But I think one thing Brits and Canadians do have in common, I think we’re pretty good at queueing.

Melinda: Definitely.

Paul: Yes, I don’t know. There is something that always happens here. It takes about five minutes. And then someone mentions the war, right? Anyone over 50 thinks they fought in the war. So, I don’t know, that’s something that I think was probably in the popular mindset is “We’ve been through worse. It’s going to be okay.” But I think just coming back to that sense of community, helping each other, we’ll get through this. And the only thing that Canada and Britain’s also got in common is we’ve got the universal healthcare piece. So it was, you know, just paying credit to frontline workers and store associates, store staff fit into that category of frontline workers. I think hopefully, coming out of this, there is a newfound respect or at least appreciation for store staff.

Melinda: Yeah. So, I mean, there’s been some setbacks. We know there’s some mutated strains of the virus out there. You and I are both in the U.K. and Canada, in the midst of a really intense second wave, and vaccination might not be happening as fast as we’d like. But I think overall, people are feeling at least more hopeful than they were before we found out that we had some vaccines. So, I mean, this might seem like an obvious question. But when it comes to sensitivity to consumer sentiment, where do you see things being at now in the new year? What are your thoughts about that?

Paul: I think I first saw this sentiment start to change when the first vaccine was approved, before it was rolled out. And it’s, sort of, coming back to some of the points we were talking about earlier. I think one of the things that has always been one of the key challenges in my career, has been to produce marketing communications that resonate. It’s easy to talk to the customer. You can talk to them about anything you want, right? Because you can pay, you can pump stuff out, but to really have stuff that you’re going to talk about that is of consequence, that will resonate, so it’ll be meaningful, they’ll want to hear what you’re saying – that I think is the art and the magic that we were speaking about earlier. You can almost map it out in terms of expectation, in terms of what brands and retailers should be talking about when, and where. So, there was a time for acknowledgement. Like, you’re going to have to acknowledge how difficult it has been for people. And I think a lot of that has, for the retailers, has been for the internal audience as well. You know, it’s showing appreciation for the staff that have kept the lights on, the wheels turning, and the cash registers ringing.

But it’s also, you know, just acknowledging how difficult it’s been for the whole country. Then it’s been a case of assuaging the guilt, if you like, for those of us who weren’t directly affected and I think we can do that through charity support, community support. And we saw literally every retailer step up. What came next? And you’re asking me about one of my favorite pieces, I shared with you my favorite holiday or Christmas campaign. But what my favorite piece that came out over the holidays, in fact, it was two days after the first vaccine was approved on the 2nd of December was what I saw from H&M, the German retailer. And literally, I was on the couch downstairs. This ad came on and it was a defining moment in the story. And it was called Bring on the Future.

Paul: For me, it was, “Yes, this is the piece.” Talk about resonating. This is the inspiration that we needed. This was going to be holding up a light in the dark. And, you know what, it’s really about timing is everything. You could have done this too soon and it would not have worked. You absolutely could have done it too late and then you’re just another one. But it was inevitable, right? We all knew there was going to be a vaccine, just when and where it was going to come out, nobody quite knew. There’s lots in development, which was going be the first to be approved. We didn’t know. So, I think today we’re talking about optimism. And I’ve been talking about the art of resonance. I would hold this up as a piece that really did it well.

Melinda: Feel-good marketing hasn’t always been in style, especially in recent years. It can come across as inauthentic. It can be cheesy or naive. How has this…if we want to call it feel-good or optimistic, how has it evolved? And what advice would you give to marketers who are considering this type of campaign just to be careful to make sure that it’s not coming across as inauthentic?

Paul: I think it’s a tough one because I think we’re talking about art versus science here. So, you know, obviously, you can sort of look back to see what has and hasn’t worked. And in some ways, it’s very much like humor. Humor is very difficult to get right as well. That’s where sometimes this stuff is intuitive. This is where you’re really going to lean on a very strong creative team. There are examples in the past where you sort of moved away from what was the original creative idea. You sort of chipped off the corners, you’ve made it very corporate, you’ve taken off the edges, you smoothed it out. That is what leads you to the inauthentic and cheesy. I think sort of getting back to let creators do their job, find the right partners to work with, and let them be good at their art because I would say I think we’ve found a new appetite for idealism. I think what the pandemic has done, you’ve done it, I’ve done it, everyone listening to this has done it. We’ve had a lot of times sitting on our couches. The pandemic has made us question our values. Even if you’re just thinking about family members, right, and starting to value time with their family more than they ever did. Like, we’ve all had a chance to think about what’s important to us. And I think most of us have made up our minds on that. We want change. I don’t think we’re ever going to want to go back to BC, like the before COVID years. I think we want to come out of this. We want to move forward. We want to be better. That’s where I think the newfound appetite for idealism is there. But you also asked me about, you know, give brand managers who are considering a campaign about in-store activation and feel-good messaging. One of the pieces that I’ve worked on for Walmart was the next-generation store in Stock Yards in the west end of Toronto.

What I loved about that project is I was pretty much given creative freedom to use all of the surfaces in that environment, to speak to our brand values, speak to our promises. And for me, the epiphany was, there is rational stuff that you want to talk about in stores. And there’s the higher purpose stuff, the emotional stuff that you want to get across as well. And I think when it comes to sort of feel-good, emotive stuff, there is a place for that. What I decided to do at Stock Yards was to say “Below eight feet is the rational stuff. Below eight feet, we’re going to talk about price and buy one get one and what’s on sale. We’re going to enable actual decision-making around those rational pieces.” But it’s the above eight-foot, you know, when you sort of look up or you look across, or you have the longer field of vision across the store, that’s where I think you want to speak to feel-good, you want to speak to the emotive dimensions of your brand.

Now, a good example there of what I did is as you are leaving the store, there’s a big picture of somebody’s face. Like, human faces are still the best creative tool. We’ve got to express emotion. Copy is great but get the facial expressions right first. And it said, “You’ve got that just saved glow.” What I liked about that is that we were speaking to emotionally how good it felt to save money. Below eight feet was the rational, here’s how you do it. But the above eight feet was the emotional stuff. So, you know, we’re using that above eight feet to inspire, to endorse, to celebrate. So, for example, when you’re going down the escalators in that store, we’ve got two associates doing a high five and saying, “Here’s to saving money,” right? We’re using that space strategically to get some of that emotive messaging in there.

Melinda: Right. So, I mean, on the other side, although things do look positive for 2021, there are a lot of people for whom the pandemic has really been catastrophic. People have lost jobs, they’ve lost loved ones, and people’s mental health is under strain. Brands have been paying more attention, as you mentioned, to social causes. Everybody has stepped up. But how has the pandemic impacted their efforts around social corporate responsibility? And where is there room for brands to do more going ahead, knowing that there are people out of work, the economy’s in trouble, people have lost their lives? What would you say are maybe the things to watch out for when you’re being idealistic in your communications?

Paul: Yeah, I mean, it’s been tough, right? I mean, there’s lots of jobs that simply are not coming back anytime soon. And, tragically, there’s people that simply aren’t coming back. Mental health is…the challenge is at an all-time high. You know, I don’t think consumers expect brands to solve all those issues for them. But I think what they will expect is that those brands will take time, like I did, which was simply to catch my breath, and have a think because post-pandemic, I don’t think your customer is going to be entirely the same. I think they will be looking for you to be more compassionate, probably looking for you to be more progressive as well because like I said, they’ve had that couch time to sit and think. They’ve done the thinking. They know when the vaccine’s done, and they come out of this, I don’t think people want to go back to exactly the way things were. For all those big, macro issues that I spoke about, be it the environment, be it equality, whatever those big issues are, I think they’re going to look for brands to express their newfound values and that optimism. And I think brands that get that right will be rewarded with the loyalty. And I think it’s just a case of go back and look at where you were, where you want to be because those documents you’ve probably got in your drawer, which speak about your promises to your customers, just check they’re still relevant post-pandemic. That will be my advice there.

Melinda: That’s great advice. So if you could give brand marketers three pieces of advice or three thoughts that you have about a message of optimism and hope for 2021, what would your advice be?

Paul: I think some of these things are true to good brand management, whenever. I think the first one, which is always true is just about being authentic. If it’s not true, if you’re not really doing it well, if it’s not really your intention, then don’t say it. I mean, truth has been under attack for a long time now.

Melinda: Yeah, we could have another whole podcast about that.

Paul: Absolutely. So, authenticity is very highly valued and easily lost. And, you know, your brand is your promise. So, simply don’t make promises you’re not going to keep. And, you know, we’re talking about representation and equality. Just think again about the voices of your brand as well, in terms of this first sort of pillar about authenticity. Just go back and look, again, post-COVID, who the voice of your brand is, and to be sure that those real voices are representative of your customer. I think, as we’ve mentioned, a lot of these retailers are already doing it – acknowledging the realities, yes, the planet is in peril, inequality is real, the impact of the pandemic has been devastating. And then, I think what you have to do is be part of the solution because optimism is hope, right? You can acknowledge the realities, but that’s not enough. You have to come in with some higher purpose. So, the optimism should be the articulation of your purpose. I mean, we’ve been in enough boardrooms and seen enough mission statements, they’re normally pretty optimistic things… Like you were saying earlier, I would go and check in on it to make sure that your before COVID and your after COVID mission statements and purpose are still fit for purpose and it’s up to date. And I think people for a long time have wanted to feel less like consumers and more like stakeholders in your brand. I mean, they buy your product to identify and to advertise their values and beliefs. I think that’s more important now than ever.

Lastly, I would say be brave. Like, honestly, who didn’t gasp when we first saw the Kaepernick ads? I thought, “Holy smokes. Somebody at Nike is being brave there.” And good for them, right? Good for them. I mean, they got it right because they know where their credibility comes from. They know the social issues that their consumers care about. I guess it’s almost an aside, I mean, since that campaign, their revenues were up $6 billion or something? Like, bravery has its rewards. And they did the right thing. And good for them. And yeah, I think people want action, and they want it now.

So, Melinda, that’d be my three things, be authentic, be part of the solution, and be brave.

Melinda: So, if you were going to maybe give us a little wrap up of this, can you do that for us?

Paul: Sure. Absolutely. I think like I said before, the pandemic has asked all of us to question our values, ask what’s important to us. And I think we’ve had long enough watching daytime TV on the couch to make our minds up on that. And I think, in general, we want change. We’re not going to go back to the BC years. And I think that’s your optimism for you. And like I said, we’re going to be choosing brands that are going to be signaling our values. And those brands have got the opportunity to resonate with that newfound idealism that we were talking about. And there’s good stuff to look forward to. I mean, we’ve got three vaccines approved here in the U.K., now. That’s got to start having an effect soon. We’re in the closing days of the Trump presidency. You know, we’re going to be looking forward potentially to the U.S. re-signing the Paris Agreement. What else is going on? Oh, in the U.K., you can’t buy petrol cars after 2030. In 10 years’ time, hopefully three-quarters of our energy is going to come from clean energy. Like, you just start to see where this is going. And I think there’s a lot of optimism for the future. I don’t think we’re going to go back to exactly where we were before. And I think arguably, as we come out of one of the bleakest periods for decades, as good marketers, we’re going to want to give our customers what they want, and hope that things will get better. And that in itself is optimism. And we can do that for them.

Melinda: Great. So, what are you doing these days? And if someone wants to get in touch with you, how can they do that?

Paul: Okay. Awesome. Yeah. So, what I’m doing at the moment is I would describe myself right now as a retail observer. And like I said, I think what’s going on in the U.K., there is still a lot of creative energy. So, for a couple of North American clients, I’ve been putting together almost these creative stimulus packages, which helped them kick off projects. I’ve been also doing a little bit of retail strategies, some competitive market audits. This is the stuff that I’m really passionate about and really have enjoyed doing. Check out my website, or email,

Melinda: Great. Thanks so much for chatting with us today.

Paul: Awesome. You’re very welcome. Hopefully, we can do it again.

Melinda: Being brave is hard. But more than ever, consumers are not willing to settle for meek, safe positions. Great advice from Paul as we emerge from the pandemic, hopefully soon.

Thanks for listening to Think Retail.


Paul Goldsmith is a retail observer who has previously worked for Walmart Canada, Shoppers Drug Mart and Loblaws. He is passionate about all things retail, from product development, to consumer behaviour, and how great design can communicate and encourage.

Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email