Today, we find ourselves in uncharted territory.  The Covid-19 pandemic is a global health crisis that is affecting the lives of millions of people around the word, leading to trepidation, confusion and sadly in many cases, heartache and suffering.  

It is also a unique opportunity to take stock of our businesses and really prepare for the future. We can look to similar events in the past, current trends and expert predictions for some guidance.

But, this particular confluence of events has never happened before, so we have to triangulate our knowledge as there is no single data source that gives us the answers.  Many ‘experts’ will say there is clear evidence that successful brands should spend through recessions, keep share of voice high, and they will reap the rewards when the ship rights itself down the line.  But this is not an economic recession, this is a global health crisis, the mindset of consumers is likely to be different, the recovery is likely to be different and many societies and people may have changed irrevocably. 

A recent study in the UK highlighted that only 9% of respondents ‘wanted things to return to normal’.  This is the opportunity of a lifetime to re-evaluate, to create our own ‘new normal’.

So what should brands and companies in MENA do?  

  1. Too many brands are focused on empathy and not enough on action.  Consumers will remember which brands watched from the sidelines, gaining small sales victories and which rolled up their sleeves to support the community.

Focus on your existing customers and their needs, this is not the time for market share grabs and obsessive focus on your own sales challenges.  Go back to marketing basics – understanding and supporting your customers.  Know and understand their lives, their needs, hopes and dreams as well as their challenges.  You don’t need to produce an ad to tell them you ‘get it’, show them. 

As an example, I recently received a mailer offering me a ‘two for one discount in these difficult times’…for work-style clothes! During a time where almost everyone is working from home!  A clear example of tone-deaf communications that focused too much on the business problem and not enough on the consumer experience. 

Take that same budget and tell me that for every shirt I buy you’ll send food parcels to displaced workers in my area or support my local hospital.  I would respond more positively to that. That way, you’re helping me contribute and you’re showing that as a brand you get it – it’s not about you! I don’t need the empathy, I need the action. 

Brands don’t need to go quiet, but I think they do need to be quiet if they are not contributing to the effort.  A brand is more than a rousing advert or a sales tool.  It’s a set of beliefs and experiences that consumer can relate to.  The temptation to knuckle down and drive short term sales will be strong, a recent study of industry leaders across MENA by the IAB (Internet Advertising Bureau) reported that 59% of respondents expected a shift to more performance media at the expense of brand investments in 2H 2020. 

No doubt, short term sales will be needed, but so too will the need for brands to re-connect with consumers after the social and economic impacts of Covid-19.  If you are one of the 59%, perhaps give that some more thought.

2. Once you have ironed out your immediate reaction plan, you should turn to the unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity you now have.  Covid-19 is not actually the cause of much of the business change we are seeing, consumers were shifting to digital consumption, digital payments, working anywhere, home delivery etc well before this health crisis. 

But this crisis has accelerated and shone a light on some of these changes to stakeholders and given consumers a bigger taste of a digital world.  Suddenly, where businesses (and consumers in some cases) were previously resisting radical digital transformation or at least trying to pace it in order to make sense of it, they are now forced to accept and leverage it. 

The opportunity is to look afresh at the business, even if you find yourself in the category of businesses who have a winfall at this time – was that strategic or fortuitous?  Ensure you separate strategic outcomes from a lucky winfall and strategic failure from unpredictable bad luck. To avoid unavoidable bias, bring in a third party advisor who may be more objective.  Imagine you are starting essentially from scratch in the next few months, knowing what you know now, what would you do?  

  • What would your supply chain need?
  • What talents and skills will you need?
  • What systems and tools will you need?
  • What would you change about your offering?
  • Are your commercial models still the most sensible?
  • Is your current go-to market really the best way?
  • What will the market be like in 2, 5, 10 years?

Many businesses, may not have the luxury, they will be restarting, essentially from scratch, but either way, you have a few months to prepare – what a gift!  Your teams should be upskilling, reviewing, questioning, testing.  Work as if it’s a blank sheet, don’t fall into the trap of ‘shawarma slicing the costs’ to spread the pain making small incremental changes.  Rethink, restructure, think big and bold. 

Four key digital areas to consider:

  1. Back office efficiency – Review processes to find efficiencies and cost saving in areas such as finance, invoicing, internal processes, talent management 
  2. Go-to market – Consider how consumer behavior changes and acceptance of digital delivery has changed, and will change over the coming years.  Maybe customers are happy with most of the interaction being via digital channels.  What does that mean for your resources, your talent, your processes 
  3. New business lines – Consider if new business can be created or trialed, whether through transferable skills and resources or through newly created
  4. Digital communication – Reviewing possible technology solutions for targeting, or potentially shifting spends to more measurable or interactive channels can provide new customer connections.  The use of messaging apps provides new 1:1 connections, while automated targeting, optimization and creative versioning can drive efficiency and improved results in many cases.

Do this now while you have the time, the focus and the opportunity.  Re-build your company for growth in a post 2020, digital centric world.  Digital disruption is already happening, you have the opportunity to get ahead now.  The companies that use this disruption to re-think and rejuvenate will be the winners come 2021.  

3. Consider your role in building the business ecosystem you need.  In a time of contraction, it will be tempting to look at short term rationalization of suppliers and partners. 

Unlike cost savings which should not be sliced to be effective, the protection of a diverse supplier and partner ecosystem is paramount.  Renegotiate if you have to, but ensure a diverse set of suppliers and partners who will remain with you in your transformation journey. 

If there is a prolonged contraction of activity many smaller, specialist or local companies will be under significant threat. It’s important to rally together and save the ecosystem for the long term. 

If you have the flexibility, consider working with smaller local partners and suppliers, offering a trade in skills and resources if necessary.  You have a duty to protect a wide ecosystem and prevent a concentration into too few companies, whether suppliers, platforms, partners or publishers. 

I’m not suggesting we protect unsuccessful companies, but it’s likely that many winners and losers will be in that position through no specific strategy genius or missteps – many will just be on the right or wrong side of an unpredictable storm.  So, if you’re in the winner’s category through a lucky break, remember the tables could just have easily been the other way around.  What do you do; celebrate your success, or think about your newfound leadership role in building the ecosystem or the future?

Notwithstanding the personal toll of this pandemic, business will change irrevocably.  We cannot predict if people will work from home in the future or ridesharing will be a thing of the past, but we can prepare for an acceleration of digital transformation across all aspects of our business.  These trends are predicated on fundamental business and consumer benefit and will only accelerate into the future.  For the first time, you have no excuses:

  • Consumers are expecting it
  • Stakeholders now see the need for it
  • You have the time
  • You have little choice

So, stop reading this and start planning and executing your company’s digital transformation.