By Fadi Zeidan, Business Director at Starcom 

Fadi Zaidan, Business Director – Media at Starcom MENA

Martin Luther King Jr once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in the moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenges and controversy”.

The same holds true for today’s industries, organizations, and brands as they navigate unchartered waters due to the pandemic. As COVID-19 continues to ravage the globe bringing a lot of uncertainty and signaling unprecedented disruption, organizations must re-evaluate the brand impact on their current business strategies and business models. In tandem with this, it is imperative that as marketing and communication practitioners in the field, we strategically collaborate and engage with our partners to support them in their drive towards digital business transformation through effective approaches to innovation that delivers value and provides an effective competitive advantage.

While stay-at-home directives in MENA have eased, the current environment has dramatically posed several challenges on brands. The impact, irrespective of size and on what border of the world a brand may operate in, has pushed brand owners and marketers to step out of their comfort zones if they are to reap the possible rewards of this unexpected crisis. As some organizations have witnessed a major hit on their bottom-line revenue’s others were quick enough to deliver a strategic response to capitalize on growth opportunities. 

With that said, forward-thinking brands that have adopted a digital-centric approach driven by disruptive technology with customer centricity at the heart, are most likely to have healthier growth prospects. During uncertainty, marketing spends tends to be the first affected within an organization. While this may be a short-term solution that brand owners are forced to undertake, leaders must weigh in and assess its long-term consequence to the brand. When uncertainty strikes, transformational organizational change is inevitable. And as consumer behavioral habits change, brands need to develop and maintain relevant meaningful customer connections and offerings that add value to consumers and earn their trust. Furthermore, in-market brand visibility, awareness, and relevancy are crucial.  

During the past decade digital technology has significantly disrupted product categories and to some digital has been an indispensable tool that helped in re-engineering consumer journeys, creating valuable digital offerings, and ensuring a seamless user experience. With the world uniting as one to fight this global pandemic, technology adoption is no longer a choice to help ensure societies remain functional and resilient to a current and unforeseen crisis. It is now apparent that the pandemic’s long-term effects are here to stay and have rapidly transformed core routines, such as the way we do business, conduct meetings, educate our children, seek medical advice, produce and distribute products, and the way we can lead our leisure lives.

While consumer expectations have always been high, the broad shift in mindsets and attitudes has pushed brands to lead with expressions of support and empathy. Based on the latest Gartner report on brand expectations, consumers are looking for connection and comfort. This is achieved through the right form of communication that in return creates positive and transparent connections that offer comfort to consumers who are seeking information on product availability, distribution capability, affordability, safety, CSR initiatives, and above all online shopping experience and reliability.  

Brand leaders and marketers working on this side of the spectrum must ensure they reprioritize digital investments on growth platforms, focus on fundamentals in delivering customer value, and remain agile to take advantage of any new technological trends arising. 

As technological trends accelerate within MENA, it’s no surprise that this region’s population represents some of the world’s most digitally connected and tech-savvy consumers. They are quick adopters of the latest trends and have an average of 96% smartphone penetration. Driving the Middle Easts’ digital economy, the UAE’s relentless pace of innovation and digitization initiatives delivers a platform where brands can nurture and innovate through technology.  

There is some truth related to the concept that the larger an organization the harder the transformation; however, this idea is not set in stone. When leaders develop a clear business strategy, are harmonious in their transformation mindsets, identify capabilities, and foster a culture of inclusivity and innovation, success is certain. 

Online shopping, which was once a “nice-to-have” service has now become a “must-have” service. We have all heard how the largest mall in the world, “Dubai Mall” provided an e-commerce solution to both their tenants and customers, by partnering up with Noon and Namshi. Now, customers have the privilege of shopping for their favorite brands at their comfort through a ‘virtual store initiative’ facilitating the exchange of brands, products, while also benefiting all parties involved.    

Other F&B organizations such as Del Monte were quick to digitally transform their current business model through the launch of an e-commerce store, allowing consumers to order fresh produce. Assessing the current success of its digital store in the UAE, the company is now expanding into KSA, Kuwait, and Jordan.  

The Fintech industry is another example, as the adoption of contactless payments and digital wallets continue to increase. Covid-19 pushed consumers to avoid the use of cash to limit the spread of the virus. According to the article in Gulf News “Contactless Payments are on the rise due to Covid-19″, a study by MasterCard showed that contactless payments have risen 100% in March in the UAE. Banks have provided this digital solution for years now and will continue their quest to become more innovative in relation to digital products, as customers enjoy as faster and more convenient transaction experience. More recently, Abu Dhabi Taxi just announced the launch of its new app to provide an online payment feature for a completely contactless journey to passengers and tourists.

Another example is that luxury fashion brands have stepped up to the fight of Covid-19 as they transformed their business offering to help those in need. The initiative, #thread4cause, is a true testament to how brands lead with empathy and provide a purpose in times of crisis. The Arab Fashion Council together with Dubai Health Authority repurposed their clothing manufacturing facilities to produce personal protective equipment. The shift from once designing fashion to protective surgical wear was not easy; however, agility and speed to ensure success, was of the essence for the noble cause of protecting healthcare workers on the frontline of this pandemic.

The list is exhaustive as many other industries transformed their business models to meet consumer needs. Healthcare launched Telehealth services, DP World one’s of the largest port’s in the world deployed tech software and hardware enabling the entire process of handling cargo to become automated with very minimal human interaction. In addition to this, remote working pushed businesses to adopt technologies including VPNs and VOIP’s, virtual meetings, cloud technology collaboration tools, and other communication tools. 

This unanticipated crisis has pushed us out of our comfort zones. It has accelerated disruption and demonstrated the importance of digital readiness. More importantly, it has empowered marketers and brands to redesign their performance plans to deliver creative and thought-provoking work.  

While the age-old saying, “every beginning has an end” still rings true, we need to ensure we value what has been done along the journey we’ve taken. That is what really counts after all. 

Preparing for what’s next post-Covid-19 is a no brainer and following are some essential points for brands to consider:

  • Reassess business strategies and maintain agility to changing business models
  • Adopt consumer-centric strategies that are meaningful and provide solutions
  • Build a solid infrastructure and framework to support a digitized world and new tech
  • Invest in an omnichannel approach and deliver a seamless personalized experience
  • Stay human, ethical and purposeful