Rahul Sachitanand
Mar 31, 2021

How Cathay Pacific, Shell and Mercer used the pandemic to sharpen their brand purpose

As the pandemic continues to impact marketing plans, a panel of CMOs advise that marketers should focus on story doing over storytelling and empower local markets to devise their own impactful campaigns.

How Cathay Pacific, Shell and Mercer used the pandemic to sharpen their brand purpose

Until the pandemic grounded almost its entire passenger fleet, Cathay Pacific was among the world's busiest airlines, operating to around 200 destinations worldwide. However, with Covid-19 cutting this business to ribbons, the carrier has been compelled to look for a new purpose for its business and found it with its cargo business and freight airplanes, as carriers of life-saving food, medical gear and most recently vaccines that could bring the world back to some sense of normal. 

"We see ourselves as a force of positivity and progress to get wheels rolling again," Edward Bell, general manager, brand, insights and marketing communications, Cathay Pacific, told attendees at a Marketing Pulse Online session. "We don't see ourselves as the star, (instead) we enable society to do what is required to get on its feet again." 

For Cathay, the pandemic has meant a return to its roots. The carrier's founders De Kantzow and Roy Farrell began by island-hopping products from Australia across to the rest of Asia in the aftermath of World War 2. Now, decades on, the airline's leaders find themselves dusting off decades-old imagery as they turn back the clock. 

Elsewhere, CMOs are finding different ways to make their brands shine during the pandemic, even if they have to scrap entire marketing plans enroute. For Liu Xiaowei, regional vice president, external relations, Shell Asia-Pacific, this meant throwing out 2020's marketing plans and returning to the drawing board to redraw strategies afresh. 

"From the pandemic onset we turned off all campaigns and instead focussed on two aspects: care and continuity," she said. "Going forward, we should focus on business for good and on story doing over storytelling." Marketers need to focus on performance, behaviour and then on marketing and communications and not other way around, she advised.

As Shell has sought to keep its marketing and brand purpose relevant, it has focussed its efforts on four key tenets:

1. Shareholder returns.
2. Energy transition, lower carbon and zero emissions by 2050.
3. Powering lives through products and services and contributing to an inclusive society.
4. Protecting the environment by reducing waste and contributing to biodiversity.

In this company's case, it focused on the theme of "mobility empowers lives" in a three-part video in India, highlighting how people moving was important. 

As enterprises consider how to retool their brand purpose in a pandemic, Natalie Troung, partner and CMO Asia at Mercer, contended that grand gestures and investments were not not essential to drive marketing forward. "Purpose-led telling doesn't have to be about ground-breaking gestures and throwing pots of money at a problem," she argued. Instead, Mercer has partnered with local social enterprises for its Page 150 initiative and left the choice of businesses to local markets, rather than have HQ make hard choices for them.

As companies consider how to most effectively broadcast their purpose, she contended that they "shouldn't be too perceptive about how stories are told". Instead, as marketers, the goal should be to ensure employees understand brand purpose and then empower local teams to tell stories that are relevant and resonate. 

While many marketers had a contingency plan for an economic recession, no company had a plan for such a global pandemic and they have been forced to make plans on the fly, Troung admitted. "We had no ideas how to market during a pandemic and build brand purpose. [Our approach was] let's just see how we go and let's co-create rather than assuming we have all answers," she concluded. 

According to Cathay Pacific's Bell, the pandemic has also made marketers realise that the needs of consumers, employees and business partners has shifted. "The number one thing people need today  are the basic building blocks—safety, security and hygiene—all things we took for granted," he said.

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