Marketing has always been a full contact sport with winners and losers. For the most part, we're playing a zero sum game; when you win, your competitor loses and vice versa. Currently, the Darwinian parts of our marketing are even more magnified, and decision-making under this pressure is hard.
But to quote the famous Kipling poem:
"If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs... yours is the earth and everything that’s in it."
Given the human cost of this pandemic, it might sound trite to talk about opportunism, but away from the critical health issues, the reality in business is that opportunism is exactly what many of us should be thinking about right now. We can use this period to our advantage. We can embrace the challenges of weathering the short term and galvanising a brand for the long term.
There's no recipe for a recession like this, characterised by lack of supply and demand and caused by an enormous black swan event. But there are things that you should be keeping in mind as we go deeper into the second half of 2020.
Judging whether to advertise right now is more than an economic decision. The advice of marketing science needs to be tempered by the wider commercial, social and ethical realities.
It’s hard to justify investment in advertising when many organisations are facing low demand or cash flow problems, and at worst are laying off staff or struggling to survive.
But if you have the budget, the current situation is an incredible opportunity. In investment, they refer to this as 'buying the dip' - buy when the market is fearful and take advantage of the bargains on offer.
That's the way we should be thinking, with the caveat of 'if budget is available'.
In a market downturn, there can be a tendency to play for immediate sales, but this should also be tempered with a broader focus on brand building over time. Advertising’s role is about both delivering sales today but also about priming people to buy tomorrow. If you have the budget, the move with the best long term return is to put money into brand building activity now and reap the benefits later.
Think of it as pre-emptive investment ahead of the curve, designed to put you in good position for a sharp rise in demand when people start to spend again.
This pandemic has acted as an accelerant for existing trends. The average person is being driven by circumstance to interact with, download, or buy from a digital service that they likely wouldn’t have otherwise. Research indicates that 1 in 3 of all online grocery shoppers since lockdown restrictions were introduced are new to online grocery. Household penetration for online groceries has grown by 3% points to 9.5% in April 2020, and the cocooning age group over-index for uptake of online shopping.
This will push businesses to speed up their digital transformation. So take the chance now to prepare your business for this. Analyse the weak points of your digital offering and take inspiration from recent examples of offline companies that have been forced to become creative with digital delivery services.
It’s also likely that we will see the advertising oligopoly of Amazon, Facebook and Google harden as smaller publishers find it hard to remain viable. This trio has the cash not just to ride out the storm, but to actually invest and grow from it. So ask yourself if you have in-house expertise in tactics like Google shopping, Amazon search and maximising Facebook view through? Or can your agency help with these critical tactics?
Other media trends include the maturation of gaming as a media vehicle, with Twitch, YouTube and Steam all seeing upticks in viewership. Gaming is already bigger than cinema and music, but brands are still only starting to become aware of its potential.
There is also a general broadening of the social media landscape, with TikTok in particular becoming a breakout star, offering a brand new self serve advertising platform. This new opportunity is currently under-priced, unsaturated and ripe for targeting a hard-to-reach younger audience - 40% of those on TikTok aren’t on Facebook.
While not everything has changed, some important elements of consumer behaviour and media consumption definitely have. So be agile and adjust your strategy accordingly to reflect this.
There’s also a huge amount of media value in the market at the moment. Those with deep pockets will deliver huge ROI by negotiating favourable rates and agreeing long-term deals now.
If you can afford to take the long view, cold strategic logic would indicate it’s beneficial to strike now when your competitors can’t.
Seize on underpriced media opportunities. Now is also an incredible time to invest in medium/long-term partnerships with quality, trusted, diverse publishers or news brands. If you negotiate intelligently, you'll be able to deliver tremendous value.
Share of voice is the brand’s share of the total communication expenditure in the category (i.e. share of the total investment made by all the players in the category). The basic tenet of SOV/SOM analysis is that share of voice correlates with your % share of market.
Given the current situation, overall advertising spend across markets will likely drop in 2020/2021, meaning incremental SOV will become slightly easier to deliver. This is an incredible opportunity if you have the cash to do so. The cost of SOV falls during a recession, and data from Peter Field from the last recession shows that brands who invested in SOV in 2008/9 derived huge gains.
This is the biggest ‘zero based budgeting’ experiment in the history of marketing. In many categories, media spend has dropped to zero. This provides excellent, clean conditions and a controlled environment for testing what happens when we start to switch media back on.
Have you a hypothesis that search is driving a large proportion of your incremental online sales? Then test it.
Have you a hunch that TV isn't performing? Test that too.
Maybe you believe that a switch from a ‘traditional’ media mindset to a more connected approach that reflects your customer’s journey might be more effective? Now’s the time to trial that.
We can now track the real impact of our spend in a simple way. So use this time as an opportunity to really understand where your media budget goes. Hone in on non-working spend and try to understand what’s good ‘wastage’ and what’s merely waste.
Ever received a hug from a CFO? Me neither. But imagine if you went to them with the revelation that, by doing a deep dive into your current media management process, you’ve found hundreds of thousands euro worth of savings that can be put back into the business. That might just do it.
Because of the complexity of the media value chain, the number of agencies and vendors and middle men involved, there’s huge value to be had in simplifying and cleaning it up. So take that opportunity now. A simple review where you engage openly with your partners should kickstart the process. Ask them a series of questions to understand how they're currently remunerated, what they're optimising towards, the steps they are taking on your behalf to maximise the proportion of your spend that actually reaches a human, and how they’re planning to alter your media strategy post-Covid.
Now is also an opportune time to examine whether you can take some of your media strategy, planning or buying in-house. Could social, search or programmatic be delivered internally with a small, nimble, cheaper team? Would you be able to drive strategy in a more consistent way with an in-house senior media person?
The opportunity to build a first-party data strategy that reduces the need for reliance on others should be a part of this consideration. Do you have a customer data platform and could you use it to better target, to deliver more relevant, timely communication, or to personalise CRM for your customers? Or are you leaving this to your agency or a third party to manage?
Now is a great time to re-consider and take a step back while asking some tough questions of those around you.
Like most sports fan, I’ve developed an unhealthy addiction to sports documentaries over these past few months.
Three in particular – The Last Dance, Diego Maradona & Lance – made a lasting impression on me and I realised they all share something powerful. They provide a raw, unfiltered perspective on the life and mindset of a player.
As a fan, I get to peek underneath the polished exterior and learn about what makes them tick as human beings. To get an insight into how they think and feel and understand what drives their actions. To know not only what makes them great, but also what makes them flawed.
I think there’s something truly magical about being able to see both the legendary icon and the ordinary person at the same time.
It raised an important question for me, how can sports sponsors deliver more of that feeling to fans on a regular basis?
It’s why people get names printed on the back of their jersey. It’s why people pay thousands for match worn boots. It’s why people wait for hours to watch the players transport arrive at the stadium.
No matter what the sport is, fans idolise the players and want to feel closer to them.
But, in many sports, fans and players are growing further apart for a couple of reasons:
1. Player salaries have skyrocketed.
2. Media training is compulsory for many players, so interviews are often dull and full of clichés (‘we play for the team / one game at a time’ etc).
3. Players social media accounts are typically run by agents and used to promote products and services to fulfil sponsorship obligations.
The gap between fans and players is now bigger than ever before. This makes it difficult for the everyday sports fan to connect with the players they admire.
Sports sponsors have an important role to play in helping to re-establish the relationship between fans and players by consistently providing rich access, insight and perspective.
Ironically, it was during a period of no sport when sponsors upped their creative game with player engagement. Fans were given the opportunity to watch, listen and interact with players in new, meaningful ways.
Paddy Power livestreamed a golf event with some of the top sports players and tv personalities competing against each other.
Santandar Bank launched the La Liga Santandar Challenge. A player from each La Liga club participated in an live FIFA2O Tournament with all donations going to charity.
Telstra created the Australian Dice Football League where Australian Football League (AFL) players battled it out in a dice-throwing game that was designed to mimic a football match.
While this type of content was in direct response to the full stoppage of sport leagues around the world, I believe it has opened up new doors for sports sponsors to explore how they get the most out of players and sponsorship assets by putting creative thinking at the fore.
In essence, livestream (Youtube, Twitter, Twitch) can feel much more authentic. There’s often some hiccups along the way, but that’s part of it. Fans get to see what players are like, warts and all. This raw and honest can often lead to nuggets of golden content.
Longform gives fans an opportunity to better understand the personality of a player over an extended period of time. Podcasts, which are naturally longer and casual, give great insight into what a player is really like because ultimately, the medium follows the flow of a natural conversation.
Sports sponsors must consider how they enable fans to engage with players. Twitter comments or polls, chat functionality, audio questions – there are tonnes of ways to do this. It offers another way for fans to feel part of the experience.
With the likelihood of sports events happening behind closed doors, or with less capacity, for the foreseeable future, sports sponsors will have to continue to be creative in how they utilise their sponsorship assets and how they approach sports in general.
An example of this is the virtual Tour De France which is kicking off this month. Race organisers have strongly stated that this is not a lesser version of the race, but is an alternative way to proceed with it given the global situation.
The reality is that major sporting events like the Olympics, Euros and Ryder Cup (all of which are happening next year) might be run very differently to what we normally expect. Sponsors must anticipate, plan and act on this.
Looking back, what is the most unexpected change you’ve encountered since lockdown?
My marketing career background is in FMCG and one of the key things that distinguishes the tourism sector from a category like that, is how stable and cyclical it is. During the pandemic, that changed overnight. Suddenly, our industry was dealing with seismic change. Our team at Fáilte Ireland had to embrace this and re-orientate ourselves, our practices and our responses, to deal with the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) situation we were all in.
There was a big human impact to all of this too. We as a team had just launched a new brand platform – Keep Discovering, which represented nearly a years’ worth of strong strategic and creative work. Within days of launch, it had to be switched off, which was an easy decision, but the team did need to acknowledge the disappointment in that. I think that was what was felt most keenly, at the beginning of the crisis, the human impact. We are so connected to the industry and every day we were hearing the very human side of the fallout. The businesses and families and individuals whose life’s work was under significant threat overnight. As an organisation, we had lived and learned through the last recession and there was important muscle memory there; we were very quick to pivot from our usual consumer focus communications, to B2B. We were operating in a space where everything was important and urgent and communications became central to that. Communications that provided much needed clarity, comfort and structure to our industry versus brand building. We also took the opportunity to ask our colleagues in the HSE if we could help in any way, which resulted in a joint collaboration to create the #HoldFirm campaign. Overall, we moved at a pace, and embraced necessary change in a way that I’m really proud of.
In your day-to-day, what are the most unforeseen tasks taking priority?
The overall theme for the team now, is agility and ambiguity. We’re making plans in a context that’s ever shifting, for instance, we were working to an opening date of the end of July and now it’s the end of June. And in this adrenaline packed time, I keep reminding the team how great it will be to look back and see how much we were able to achieve in such a short space of time. Agility and speed, are valuable skills that we want to retain as a team and within the wider organisation. We have so many stakeholders, which can be a barrier to speed, but a ‘speed of trust’ has been deployed internally and this trust has been further bolstered by our working with trusted partners to get where we want to go, quickly. We are also resetting our focus, creating a balance between urgent and important, where important is getting the time it needs. For instance, we’re engaged in a brand architecture project, which might seem like a luxury at this time, but our priorities now have to include what we need to inform what’s next. We can’t only be focussed on the now and the immediate future.
As a team there has been an absolute need to constantly look at timelines, resource and what needs to be done. You need almost military precision in your approach to give you clarity to move on things quickly. Quite a few members of our team are fantastic at this, so we need to lean into them and leverage our different strengths. We were a relatively new team, and this has been an opportunity to forge in fire, so to speak, something special.
Looking ahead, what are the most surprising challenges you seek to overcome?
We’re acutely aware that the role of tourism has never been as salient, and it’s importance to the National economic recovery cannot be underplayed. 1 in 8 jobs in Ireland are in the tourism sector and a lot of these are in regional and rural Ireland. Marketing and communications will be crucial to meeting that ambition.
There are two key factors that we as a team are focusing on. The first, is not to throw the baby out with the bath water. We know we have an excellent brand strategy. Right now, we are considering what are the nuances in that strategy, what audience insights do we need to respond to, knowing we have a solid platform to jump off.
The second factor for us as marketeers, is that we want to leverage the significance of this cultural moment to do great work, because brilliant, creative communications are what drive us. So as we work towards tomorrow, we are asking ourselves and our partners, how do we deliver something meaningful? How do we keep the new practices and culture of the team alive?
I think we’ve never been closer to our consumer, to our visitor. They are more human to us now, less uniform. We’ve had to dig deeper to understand more about how they are feeling and what motivates them, because behaviour is a useless metric right now, and in fact that has lead us to a deeper, more interesting understanding. We’re coming out of this crisis with a greater sense of freedom – a desire to try new things.
Yesterday: Looking back, what is the most unexpected change you've encountered since lockdown?
The changes to in-store and the work that all of our colleagues had to do to re-orientate how we served our customers was remarkable. What I didn’t expect was to run a campaign, effectively asking customers not to shop with us, as we did for our Grocery Home Delivery service. This was absolutely necessary as we had to focus the service towards those who were most in need – we now serve 5 times more customers aged over 65 years compared to before the crisis.
From a personal point of view, I had only started working in Tesco 3 weeks before Covid-19 struck, so working from home whilst learning the organisation and getting to know new colleagues was quite unexpected. However, I now like to think of it as an accelerated induction that seems to be working quite well. Luckily, I had the opportunity to meet my colleagues and teams in the office in Dublin before decamping to home. I have been remote working one way or another over the last 10 years, so I was able to bring this experience to the team on the “working from home” journey, which was new for many. While it is easy to get carried away in the day-to-day urgency I took the time to review my 30-60-90 day plan and to ensure that I was properly on-boarding with continued 1-1 inductions and check-ins.
Today: In your day-to-day, what are the most unforeseen tasks taking priority?
We always put the customer at the centre of everything we do and over the last 8 weeks that has not been any different. However what has changed is the frequency of feedback and insight gathering – every day we are monitoring what people are saying to us in-store (through our colleagues); on social media; in daily pulse surveys and feedback through our Customer Service Centres. In this time of unprecedented change, we have had to evolve our service to ensure that we’re continuing to deliver for our customers as best we can, and that starts with knowing what they need (or will need).
The biggest learning was what was necessary to make the store safe and the important role our colleagues play in that – the human touch that goes with all of the signage, instructions and restrictions. People on social media were equally quick to compliment our colleagues on a job well done, as they were to identify where we could do better. We re-enforced this with the daily calls to stores – the continuous evolution of best practice.
Tomorrow : Looking ahead, what are the most surprising challenges you seek to overcome?
The in-store environment has changed and I think for the better. Safety is the number one priority and we have created a more efficient shopping experience that customers are responding positively to – at the early stage of the pandemic, supermarkets were the most public places that people would visit and this brought a certain nervous tension, but with the right precautions, a friendly smile and a bit of banter we have been able to create the right atmosphere in stores. This will remain. We have also ramped up our use of technology to create better experiences, especially where customers want less contact points with products, money and people; our ‘Scan As You Shop’ service is becoming more popular as customers take more control of their shopping.
We have revised our plans for the balance of this year based on the new expectations of customers and how they shop; this will impact what we do from now and forever, and what needs to remain in place until a vaccine is found.
In his 2007 book ‘The Black Swan’ Nicholas Nassim Taleb predicted our current situation in a startlingly accurate manner. In laying out the conditions for ‘black swan’ events, he revealed the extreme impact of rare unexpected incidents. Covid-19 is a true ‘black swan’ – a low-probability, high-impact event with major consequences; a natural health crisis compounded by financial peril.
For most businesses this initial extreme shock should be levelling off by now. The natural fortitude of business people will now be kicking in. So the challenge switches to ‘how do we cultivate business resilience and pull ourselves through this?’. The best source of advice for this challenge can be found in one of Taleb’s later books.
In 2012’s ‘Antifragile’, he outlines the concept of things that actually benefit from shocks and thrive when exposed to volatility, disorder or stress. Like a bone growing back stronger after it has been broken, ‘antifragility’ is beyond resilience or robustness. Resilient things resist shocks and stay the same; antifragile things get better. Being ‘antifragile’ is the antidote to black swan events like the one we find ourselves in.
This should resonate with all businesses. Capitalism has always been a full contact sport with winners and losers. But at the moment, the Darwinian aspects of doing business are magnified. The smartest companies will use this time of stress and uncertainty to improve and come out stronger – to become antifragile.
For marketing departments, this could be an opportunity to step back and isolate areas of weakness to be tweaked, sharpened and improved. It could be a chance to pre-emptively build marketing muscle that can be flexed at a later date.
There are a host of pragmatic things that marketers can do right now to galvanise and prepare for an economic bounce back. Here are five places to start:
The last decade has seen an explosion of choice and NPD across all categories. Some brands have bloated their portfolios by building sub-brands to target niche segments. Some have become bloated from buying competitors. This portfolio complexity can be a quiet thief of growth. Too many SKUs can result in ineffective media support levels or shopper confusion. So, see this as an opportunity to analyse what brands in your portfolio are performing. Then observe if the 80/20 rule applies (most of your profit comes from a small % of your brands). If it does, this could be a chance to simplify and re-focus on the profitable core.
In ‘Good Strategy/Bad Strategy’, Rumelt describes how the essence of great strategy is choosing what not to do and then ruthlessly simplifying.
Getting to an elegant strategic plan is ridiculously time consuming. It’s far easier to over complicate, err on the side of quantity instead of editing down for quality. But here’s something to aim towards. General Montgomery’s D-Day plan for taking 160,000 troops across the channel on a single day boiled down to a single sheet of paper. If we can’t get a whole brand strategy into a 10 page deck, then there’s a problem. Take this as an opportunity to make hard, courageous choices that keep the company focused and in motion. It’s a chance to engage in the tough mental work that gets to a really clear, focused strategy with all the fat trimmed away.
A period of mass societal change is also the perfect time to challenge the strongly held biases within your own business. One way of doing this is through ‘red-teaming’. Coined by the US Army, this exercise involves actively looking for weakness and rigorously challenging your plans or assumptions by adopting an adversarial approach. To redteam, you must get into the mind of one of your competitors and actively analyse how you would attack your own company. If you can figure out weak points before a real competitor figures them out, then you can insulate yourself.
This is the biggest ‘zero based budgeting’ experiment in the history of marketing. In many categories, media spend has dropped off a cliff. But that’s also a massive opportunity. Because it creates a clean, controlled environment for testing what happens when we start to switch media back on. With all competitors in the same boat, this creates favourable conditions for tracking the real impact of our spend. Use this time as an opportunity to really understand where your media budget goes. Hone in on non-working spend and try to understand what’s good ‘wastage’ and what’s merely waste. Then start switching on channel by channel and analyse the results.
This pandemic is an accelerant for existing behaviour. The average person is being driven by circumstance to interact with, download, or buy from a digital service that they likely wouldn’t have otherwise. Research indicates that 1 in 3 of all online grocery shoppers since lockdown restrictions were introduced are new to online grocery. It will push businesses to speed up their digital transformation. Brands like Shopify, Amazon and other online retailers are seeing enormous increases in spend. This will dampen down slightly when physical retail re-opens but people will come out of this with a greater willingness and ability to spend money online. So take the chance now to prepare your business for this. Analyse the weak points of your digital offering and take inspiration from recent examples of offline companies that have been forced to become creative with digital delivery services.
Clearly, every business is different. But with careful analysis of these five areas, marketers can make their business antifragile. Smart companies can come out of this ‘black swan’ event sharper and leaner than their competitors, giving themselves a running start when things get back to ‘new normal’.
The first Monday in our new WFH environment felt like a bit of a novelty. We logged on and went about our daily schedule. It became apparent that even though we were home, our response to clients needed to be quicker and more nimble than ever. Whatever idealistic vision of working from home that I had – endless cups of tea, making sure I was always caught up on my washing – soon went out the window!
Week one was somewhat of a scramble. We were brainstorming, predicting, ideating, trying to decide exactly what our clients should be doing. Should they be changing? Should they even be active? One thing became crystal clear – we were deliberating and questioning things in less microscopic detail, and leaning on each other to push forward more. Together with some clients, we gained the confidence to have brand presence sooner. I remember thinking that 16-year-old Aoife’s theme song was never more prevalent – ‘We’re All In This Together!’ from High School Musical… This was definitely helped by the fact that I had a brand new subscription to Disney+ and my first weekend in quarantine was spent re-watching the entire High School Musical trilogy.
We were staring down the barrel of uncertainty. The truth is, in the first days no one knew what to say, but we knew that brands had an obligation to communicate with their customers. We regrouped really quickly and got some excellent thinking together to bring to our clients. Giving them clarity in these uncertain times. We took more and more challenges on board and overall we shifted from client & agency to solving these challenges as a collective. We were now at almost every virtual board meeting. Thankfully, we didn’t need the attire to match and got away easy in our active wear (I have the fear on a weekly basis about putting on a pair of jeans again).
It’s so interesting how not only our environments have changed, but our whole way of working has shifted too. We usually live in our emails; everything is documented, everything is timestamped. But this new way has brought a different opportunity for us to interact with our clients, where we’re talking constantly and, oddly enough, getting even more ‘face time’ with our partners. This has only led to deeper understanding of each other, which is one huge positive of the this experience, and one I hope continues given that it’s forged deeper relationships and understanding of each other.
It hasn’t always been easy, for any of us. There have been late calls, disagreements and often extremely awkward silences in conference calls. But overall, an obligation to our clients to help them navigate these uncharted waters has prevailed. For me, even seven weeks in, we have some great learnings and outcomes that will only lead to better relationships and, in turn, better work for the future;
1. More than ever we are our clients’ partners. We have gone really deep with our clients’ businesses, and been exposed to new areas of the business. This has furthered our understanding of what our clients need and the challenges they face on a daily basis.
2. We have enjoyed more face time with our clients, which has helped move work faster, get more done and deliver great thinking. Given this, going forward some of the emails received on a daily basis could become conversations instead, with both our clients and each other.
3. In addition to the relationships with our clients being stronger than ever, as an agency we have also grown closer. Our conversations are more in depth than ever before, we are understanding each other more, we are taking more time to chat to one another – rather than rushing to the next meeting room, or grabbing 2 minutes to chat whilst en route for a coffee. Better internal relationships will also only lead to better work.
When we come through this pandemic, in addition to my house being more organised than ever, I’m excited to see all of the (even) great(er) work that comes with these new deeper relationships.
Remember this Guy?
Remember his insatiably inquisitive kids? Or his not-so-stealthy wife trying to reign them in? Or his utter professionalism in the midst of domestic chaos?
But fast forward three years, it seems prophetic.
That few seconds of unfiltered reality told us more about him than a thousand interviews ever could have. We got to see what type of person he was when his work-life and home-life collided. And it was glorious!
We are all this man now.
The way we communicate has suddenly profoundly changed as we’ve quickly adapted to a world that was unthinkable only months ago. I don’t know if it will ever go back to how it was. Or if we even want it to.
Every day I’m continually impressed by the way our people and our clients have dealt with these shifting sands. It proves how adept we all are at handling change – especially when we don’t have a choice in the matter.
There’s no doubt we’ve lost a lot in terms of genuine human contact in our workplaces. But I would argue there’s been some positive side effects.
Cast your mind back to a simpler, non-pandemic time. While we may have been sitting right next to each other, we were still self-isolating behind walls of emails, text, WhatsApp messages, phone calls, and meeting after meeting after meeting.
From such a close perspective, we could only make out one side of our colleagues – their 9-5 self. But somehow, by being physically distanced, we’ve been granted a glimpse into something more.
Now, virtually face-to-face with our colleagues, we’re seeing each other as we really are, in our natural habitats. I, for one, think it’s been brilliant.
Why? Because we’re suddenly having to be more honest with each other. It’s making relationships stronger. I feel like I can understand and empathise with those around me in a new way. We’re attuned to each other in ways we weren’t before.
Every engagement means so much more right now. Our conversations are more authentic and meaningful. We’re more action orientated. We’re dispensing with the formality of office norms and getting to the point faster and more collaboratively. I can also honestly say that my relationships with clients are now stronger for it.
I’m even getting more comfortable with my own work-life and home-life being mashed together. In January, I’d never considered being on a video call from home with my 14-month-old on my lap. Now? If he cries, he cries!
We might not have it totally cracked yet, but I believe that in the last six weeks, we’ve formed stronger bonds, which will lead to more trust, more engagement and more work to be proud of.
When we’re all back buying our coffee as opposed to making it, let’s try and carry some of these side effects over.
And let’s never again underestimate the ability of a toddler walking into frame and changing our perspectives.
Every marketing director is under pressure to shift budget and pre-empt what life will be like after lockdown. Here’s a simple, actionable framework across three horizons that will help you make business critical decisions.
The natural reaction to a crisis is to hunker down and cut discretionary spending. Marketing is usually the first to go. In the UK, 60% of marketers are delaying budget commitments and 24% of brands have paused all ad spend for Q2.
Judging whether to advertise right now is more than an economic decision. The advice of marketing science needs to be tempered by the wider commercial, social and ethical reality. It’s hard to justify investment in advertising when many organisations are facing low demand, cash flow problems and at worst are laying off staff or struggling to survive.
But for those that aren’t in do or die scenarios, there is an abundance of research and case studies to support the claim that brands shouldn’t go dark, even if their supply is restricted. We know from the work of Binet & Field that a brand’s growth is strongly related to its share of voice beyond the market average (Extra Share of Voice – ESOV). Delivering ESOV in a recession becomes much easier as category competitors cut spend. We also know that brands who go dark during recessions suffer significant declines that can take years to recover.
Advertising’s role is about both delivering sales today but also about priming people to buy tomorrow. If you have the budget, the move with the best long term ROI is to put money into brand building activity now and reap the benefits later. Think of it as pre-emptive investment ahead of the curve designed to put you in good position for a sharp rise in demand when people start to spend again.
Though it might sound trite, there’s also a huge amount of media value in the market at the moment. Those with deep pockets will deliver huge ROI by negotiating favourable rates and agreeing long term deals now.
If you can afford to take the long view, cold strategic logic would indicate it’s beneficial to strike now when your competitors can’t.
This is the most magnified consumer education period for digital services ever. We’re living in a vast, forced public experiment. The average person is being pushed by circumstance to interact with, download or buy from a digital service that they likely wouldn’t have otherwise. People are trying things they would’ve dismissed before and a lot of these changes will stick post-crisis. This is creating new behaviours across all categories.
To give three examples:
Paywall growth – Because print and online media is suffering, we’re seeing an acceleration of media companies moving towards subscription models. With print and digital revenue declining, the paywall trend is speeding up. We’re also seeing hard hit podcast creators turning to Patreon to supplement their income and the launch of new video streaming services like Disney+ and Quibi. Many people will emerge from this with a host of new subscriptions they didn’t have beforehand and brands will need to edit their media choices to reflect that.
Esport explosion – Gaming is an industry that has seen a huge jump in participation. Twitch, YouTube and Steam are all seeing upticks in viewership. In the first week of quarantine, Verizon reported that US gaming traffic was up 75%. Yearly like-for-like game sales also increased by 44%. The week of March 22 saw 1.2 billion downloads of mobile games, the biggest week ever. While real physical sport is on hold, the virtual world is taking its place. Instead of hosting the Bahrain Grand Prix in real life, Formula 1 decided to create an online version with celebs like One Direction’s Liam Payne and real drivers taking part in a shortened race that was race streamed globally. Gaming is already bigger than cinema and music, but brands are still only starting to become aware of its potential. This is set to change.
E-commerce evolves – Western e-commerce lags behind China when it comes to innovation, but this period will change our habits and alter our expectations. For example, once people start to use services like Zoom regularly and with 5Gs growth we could see brands start to offer live video ‘virtual chat’ style customer service. As everything from yoga classes to the Leaving Certificate moves online, there will be rapid growth in online education. With brands creating virtual fashion shows and music festivals we’ll see growth in virtual entertainment and shoppable online events. And with online grocery shopping booming many people may not want to go back to physically filling their trolley each week.
There have also been plenty of claims, particularly from Silicon Valley, about how human behaviour is going to fundamentally change. But to quote adland legend Bill Bernbach, ’It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.’
What we’re not going to see is a complete move away from all the things we enjoyed before. It’s critical that businesses ignore sensationalist predictions. We shouldn’t be seduced by overstated predictions and unfounded futurology.
The timeline for this return to some normality is opaque. But it’s crucial that businesses plan for it and can respond with agility as soon as the context allows.
One of Bill Gates’ favourite quotes is that we ‘we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten’. Covid will drive change in some areas, but for businesses that can survive it’s important that they don’t overcorrect and blow up their business model pre-emptively.
First, what should I be doing now to ensure my business sustains and can ride the uncertainty?
Second, what should I prepare for next? What will be the immediate changes in behaviour when we emerge?
Third, what’s not likely to happen? What sort of knee-jerk moves and sensationalist predictions should I ignore?
Within just a few weeks everything around us has changed – how we live, work, and socialise. And while there is no playbook for what businesses do next, we do have a clear framework that can guide leaders through and beyond the lockdown.
What is a crisis but a period of dramatic change? When crises occur we turn to our leaders to guide us; and the challenge many leaders face is knowing when they should be reactive and when they ought to be proactive.
Understanding how leaders manage and create successful change can help us understand our current world. And it can also help business leaders bring about change in their organisations – something that they will be called upon to do as we emerge from lockdown.
But while we don’t have a playbook for the Covid-19 crisis, we do have a very firm framework for how organisations can create successful change.
During the Second World War, the US government called on the expertise of psychologist Kurt Lewin. Lewin had spent much of his career studying how organisations function, and specifically how they enact change. During his time working with the wartime American government, he honed his Change Model – a framework that can help leaders bring about successful change in their organisations.
If you want to truly understand something, you must try to change it.
– Kurt Lewin
Some 70 years later, we can see the key tenets of his Change Model in how our governments are responding to the current crisis. And we can look to this same model to see how business leaders can help their organisations manage the current period of change; and even pursue positive change as we emerge from the stricter aspects of the current restrictions.
One of Lewin’s key insights to the change process is that changing how an organisation works creates a more profound understanding of the principles, praxis, and culture of that organisation.
“If you want to truly understand something,” wrote Lewin, “you must try to change it.”
Having just gone through a period of change – albeit one enforced on us – we can all probably say we have a greater understanding of how our organisations work; aspects we want to keep and foster, as well as things we want to improve.
Leaders will face many challenges as their organisations emerge from lockdown. First and foremost will be restarting their businesses; the second will be responding to the new economic, business and market environments.
Both of these may require significant levels of business change, and Lewin’s Change Model may be the best framework to help us understand how we can manage this, and find new opportunities within it.
Lewin’s Change Model identifies three steps to creating successful change
The unfreeze stage is when leaders within the organisation realise that change – especially big change – is needed. This can be because of internal forces – such as ways of working that have become inefficient; or because of external forces – such as increased market competition.
This is the most difficult stage in the change process; change will be resisted by internal forces – such as old ways of working, politics, or established leadership structures – and many may see change as a threat to their power, and so resist it. This becomes especially difficult when the change process is controlled too tightly, and doesn’t involve people from across the organisation.
The key at this stage is creating a clear vision. Lewin argues that this vision should not just involve senior management but should be created with input from across the organisation. This is where most organisations fall down – they fail to adequately define their vision and/or they fail to involve the people who will be impacted by the change. And, indeed, employees often have insights into ways of working and customer behaviours that may not be visible to senior managers.
Once the environment for change has been created, only then can the process of affecting change happen. For this stage to be a success the organisation needs to not only focus on implementing the change but on communicating progress.
This communication must be broad and clear, describing what is happening and why. Those being affected by the change process need to be assured that their leaders have a plan and must be confident that this plan is being followed.
This needs to happen at a macro-level, where everyone has confidence that those in charge are doing their bit. But also on a micro-level, where everyone knows what role they have to play in the change and how this is contributing to the success of the change programme.
Because this stage involves the removal of existing ways of working it is often the most stressful; not only because systems around the employee are changing but because they must now change how they think about their role and their place in the organisation.
People cannot just be forced to adopt the new system, they must accept it; and accepting it is a process.
We have seen this in action, as national and local governments provide regular updates on the progression of the coronavirus and their response to it. Many governments realised that they could not force dramatic changes on their populations, so these have been communicated in advance and brought on gradually, helping people adjust and adopt them.
And this will be the process for how we exit the lockdown. The change to our ‘new normal’ will be gradual and communicated in advance.
Finally, once the change has taken place Lewin describes the process of freezing the change. The new status quo must be given time to embed so that new ways of working become routine for all.
A common failing at this stage is that leaders stop communicating with their employees. Having gone through the change process, employees are left wondering what it was all for. Who benefited? What do I get from this?
Equally at this stage not everything will run smoothly. Mistakes will happen and gaps in the change process will become clear. This is expected and should be communicated to employees and they should be given a process to raise concerns and provide feedback.
But once the process of change is completed that doesn’t mean that change must stop. The organisation should recognise that change is inevitable and should be embraced. Freezing isn’t the return to a static status, but the creation of a process that recognises and supports further iterative change.
Our return to normality doesn’t have to be a return to old ways of doing things. There will be a new normal, and we, along with our national and business leaders, have a role to play in creating that ‘new normal’.
1. Lewin’s Change Model gives us a framework to help us understand what organisations and their customers are currently going through. It can also provide a framework to help business leaders navigate the current crisis and implement successful change in their organisations as we emerge from lockdown.
2. When we begin to emerge from lockdown, customers (having gone through this change) will have different needs and expectations. To help support customers, organisations must first understand their new expectations and behaviours – and since customers don’t yet know what these are we must proactively involve them in the change process to help both them and us define the ‘new normal.’ The organisations that do this successfully will be in a stronger position for the long-term.