‘No pain, no gain’ can be overused to justify any recent period of unpleasantness, whether avoidable or not. But with the hardships of 2020 unavoidable for nearly everyone, most industry players had no choice but to immediately lunge forward and do some heavy lifting.
In business, 2020 has been a workout like no other. And fittingly, much like the old saying, the hard work put in has yielded significant gains, which APAC leaders focused on during Campaign Connect’s opening panel discussion yesterday, rather than the pains.
“It has been an interesting journey, because while having a very long-term vision on strategy, what we have built as a muscle internally in the organization is being very agile in the way we are executing on operations,” said Sindhuja Rai, global media investment lead at Mondelez. “Even this transition to ecommerce, for example. We took our money from mainline media and realised how quickly we were able to set up an ecommerce muscle and really leverage that to ensure we are able to reach consumers, because that's where consumers are going.”
For the agencies that had to help brands make this shift and adapt their campaigns accordingly, the curve was steep as they contended with their own disrupted setups.
“The first quarter was a tough learning experience,” noted GroupM APAC CEO Ashutosh Srivastava, who said staff adapted quickly as marketers mapped out new scenarios. “But by the time we hit the third quarter, people had pretty much got used to the technology and we were getting into full execution mode and running lots of campaigns on scale.”
No industry was hit as hard the travel and tourism sector, and within that space, passenger airlines were required to suddenly respond more nimbly, despite being heavily regulated everywhere.
“Airlines by necessity are kind of like oil tankers as businesses, because there's so many people involved,” explained Edward Bell, Cathay Pacific’s general manager of brand insights and communications. "With so many teams, it's really quite hard to turn on a dime.
“Everyone's been talking about agility and that's been a watchword for us as well. But we've moved agility as a mindset and turned it into a set of strategies that are ready to go. So we've set triggers looking at the market situation. For example, as soon as [an air travel] bubble is set, we can push the button.”
The difficult work of setting those buttons in place should not be underplayed. Part of the difficulty of setting up the air travel bubbles was the constant clarification of all kind of testing regiments that needed to be set up.
“By necessity, bubbles are actually four- or six-party [projects requiring] a tremendous amount of organization for an airline used to set plays travelling back and forward,” Bell said. In this situation, it was Hong Kong Tourism Board, Singapore Tourism Board, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong International Airport, Changi Airport.
“This coordination is like an Olympic-level kind of plate-juggling,” Bell explained, while noting the effort will not be lost as plans can be put on ice, reactivated and escalated as needed.
What all APAC leaders in the panel agreed on was that this need to become more agile necessitated that companies develop stronger relationships and better cooperation both internally and externally.
“COVID has really been an accelerator for many reasons,” noted Sonia Gupta, Accenture Strategy’s managing director of growth and innovation, who pointed to the rapid advances of clients in the area of telehealth this year. “But to your point, these things don't happen in isolation.”
Gupta noted the changes required to medical policies, reimbursement policies, government programs, technology and the work practices of hospitals and doctors, as well as the new investment money going into startup communities to help traditional industries make the shift.
“I think that the relationship between the government sector and the private sector in providing services has gone up a level,” Bell said. “It's translated into a sense that perhaps we're all a little more kind to each other—a little more understanding, a little more patient.”
And if COVID has encouraged more cooperation between organisations, it’s also had a big impact within them.
“The crisis has brought everyone much, much more closer,” Rai said, explaining how at Mondelez all leaders came out more to engage with team members, connect more regularly across the globe and open up business units to be more accessible.
“What we have seen in the organization is that people have rallied around the sense of ownership and accountability. And it makes you realize a leader is not necessarily required to drive the narrative around the agenda, it is more about ensuring that people are given the freedom to execute in the right manner.”
Connecting with consumers more directly
The need for more openness and cooperation, of course, is all in the name of serving the customer better. To do so in changing times, you need to know what consumers are thinking and feeling, which again requires more direct and open relationships and new forms of marketing. The result was a greater focus on constant communications and performance marketing.
For an airline, not having many new services or offers has forced a change.
“It’s different,” Bell said, explaining how in the normal course of events, Cathay would have many campaigns running throughout the year focused on products or destinations, which they can’t run now. “What we've done is really stepped up the volume and the variety of daily communications through our social networks, and had a productive rethink.” He pointed to how the company built a new volume of content online called Cathay Care describing the hygiene and cleaning regimens of the airline to let customers know what they’re doing.
For others, like FMCG brands, the biggest need was to send messages of reassurance to customers in the quality of their products as consumers were reverting back to trusted brands.
“One of the things that we took a decision around was that we are not going to slow down on investments behind our brands," Rai said. "Because we felt that not at a time like this, it is important for us to very empathetically engage with our consumers. So we kept our advertising investments going on."
At the same time, as Rai acknowledged earlier, they needed to make their products more accessible to consumers through ecommerce where more of them were residing. Srivastava at GroupM notes that as FMCG brands started spending more money in driving traffic to ecommerce platforms they started noticing how much more measurable the results were.
“So what we've seen is a sudden increase in the share of spend and focus on performance-oriented campaigns, as opposed to building strong branding and a lot more focus on short-term results,” Srivastava said, even though COVID has also made the case for stronger brand recognition.
“I think eventually, investment will find the right balance. Because all the good marketers would follow the sound principles of marketing.”