Insights from an inside session
By Julia Golles, Uberall's Director of Content and Communications
I recently attended an exclusive roundtable with marketing leaders from several global brands and other industry experts. The idea behind this meetup was to get everyone in a ‘room’ together and provide a platform to discuss the sudden, fundamental impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on their business and marketing.
Considering the attendees came from very different industries, I was astonished about the clear parallels between the actions all these brands had taken after the pandemic’s outbreak and the following economic lockdown.
These insights inspired me to think further:
- What lessons can we as marketers draw from this?
- Which way is marketing headed, as we enter the “new normal”?
- Can we identify a common trajectory?
To paint a more colorful picture of our virtual meeting for you: Imagine a room full of marketing leaders connecting from their home offices in New York, Paris, Berlin and Munich – a group representing one of the largest global QSR chains, one of the world's biggest sports retailers, a worldwide beauty brand and one of the world's major automotive companies.
What all brands had in common was a physical footprint in the world: they might have a strong e-commerce business and a strong global brand image but local presence plays a crucial role for them.
The impact of the pandemic differs from industry to industry and the implications vary widely: while quick-service restaurants might have had the possibility to pivot to a takeout and delivery model, sports retailers had to close all their doors during the whole lockdown phase.
Despite these differences, it became clear throughout the exchange that there’s a similar path in how global brands have responded to the crisis – and that this path could signal what marketing in the “new normal” will look like:
1. Ensuring survival: Securing the business and jobs precedes any marketing adjustments
Unsurprisingly, none of the brands were prepared for such a hard blow: the physical world coming to a complete standstill. Whenever apocalyptic scenarios had been discussed before, people imagined it would be triggered by the breakdown of the internet and the digital sphere. It turned out to be the opposite.
Right after the coronavirus crisis hit, companies immediately prioritized taking care of their financial fundamentals. The focus was on managing cash flow, increasing the runway and retaining employees – ensuring the “survival” of the business during a crisis of uncertain duration. Only after this first reactive emergency phase did the brands start working on adjustments to their marketing strategies. And we’ll see that the severe impact on business and the need to compensate for the lockdown losses has strongly determined the way of doing marketing.
2. Prioritizing a high ROI: Brands have pivoted to tactical marketing
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, marketing activities have been much more short-term and tactical rather than strategic. Marketing leaders have acted according to the motto “let’s look at what has proven most effective in the past and respond very quickly to the new circumstances”.
The necessity to react immediately to this unexpected situation has resulted in extraordinarily short turnaround times for marketing campaigns – despite the huge limitations imposed upon marketers and agencies by the lockdown.
It was interesting to hear which tactics had worked (sometimes surprisingly) well:
- Radio commercials, for example, have had a big revival during the COVID-19 crisis.
Some of the brands have used this relatively inexpensive marketing tactic to activate consumers in the short term and drive them to their stores or their website.
- Staying connected and top of mind with the customers also led to an increased investment in their own apps for some brands.
This comparatively inexpensive but highly effective channel has always been a great way to engage with customers directly and during the pandemic has helped brands benefit from their customers’ increased screen time.
The app marketing efforts were rewarded when, for some of the global brands, their application even made it into the list of the “most used apps” during the first weeks of the lockdown.
- Maintaining brand trust has been crucial for marketers: not just on one’s owned channels (like the app or the website) but also on widely used platforms like Google, map services, social media platforms or other directories.
Updating opening hours and providing correct information for individual locations has not been an easy task but an extremely important effort to ensure consumer trust, considering the continuously changing regulations and restrictions (that might differ not just from country to country but also from region to region).
These COVID-19 marketing tactics have 3 goals in common:
- Immediate activation of the customers and direct revenue impact: Marketing leaders focus on tactics and channels with a proven high ROI and low cost.
- Maintaining flexibility and the ability for fast adjustment of marketing activities.
- Strengthening brand trust and customer relationships in the long term.
A new strategic direction emerges from these tactics, shaping what marketing will look like in the years to come.
3. Accelerating digitalization: The online and offline world are converging
Every one of the guests agreed that the crisis has accelerated digitalization for brands with a physical footprint.
Many of the brands have seen an unprecedented increase in online sales. Although it hasn’t outweighed the losses made in the bricks and mortar business, it is a strong indicator of future trends. Habits change fast and consumers have grown used to a new way of purchasing.
Yes, this will result in a strong shift toward online interactions. But even more importantly, consumers will move much more naturally between the online and offline world, blurring the lines of the two spheres.
The consumer will be the one to set the agenda and brands have to provide a customer experience that lives up to their ideas of shopping and buying in the “new normal”.
During the crisis automotive brands have revisited previously started marketing and sales models like online stores for their cars. It will probably never be the predominant way to purchase a car (and spend tens of thousands of dollars) at the click of a button but it shows that brands are making strong efforts to be present along the whole online-offline customer journey.
The crisis has forced brands to dip their toes into new terrain. While brands haven’t yet adopted a clear general strategy or any particular new technologies, they have more recently started to prepare for the “new normal” by heavily investigating solutions that speed up the connection of online and offline business.
In the near future, this will result in a much more widely available offering of models like
- Delivery services: order online and get a delivery to your doorstep
- Pickup or “Click and Collect”: buy online and pick up – either without leaving your car through curbside pickup or drive-thru, or going to a location for an in-store pickup.
- Contactless transactions: enabling customers to interact with a brand with almost no physical touch points means acknowledging the consumers’ increased concerns around health and safety, thus establishing trust.
All these models focus heavily on the local customer experience and the individual locations of a brand. With the COVID-19 crisis, investing in global-local marketing has become more important than ever before: fueled by the converging of online and offline, consumers expect brands to live up to their global promise at a local level.
Looking at the three response strategies it’s safe to say that brands are not only adjusting their marketing, they are rethinking whole business models, revenue streams and customer journeys.
The “reactive mode” tactics used at the beginning of the crisis are indicative of the direction brands will take in the near future. They will focus on high ROI activities and performance solutions, ensuring flexibility and the ability to quickly adjust and to stay very close to customers, building relationships with them that last.
The pandemic has accelerated the shift toward online interactions. Brands with a physical footprint, especially, (or in particular) are seeing that the crisis has blurred the line between online and offline – but also between the importance of the global and the local brand experience.
And while many questions remain, it has become clear that the time of thinking in silos of “online” or “offline” is over. Welcome to a new age.