Gill Huber, managing partner of Oystercatchers, shares insights about how TUI, WW and N Brown Group adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic and the longer-term impact of these changes as businesses now navigate a new period of economic uncertainty.

Survival mode – this is where most businesses and leaders found themselves in March 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic fully hit our shores and lockdowns were imposed.

No one had experienced anything like this before – everyone was impacted, and everyone had to respond – but there was no existing playbook nor crisis management checklist to follow; no instructions on how to run our businesses remotely, how to serve our locked down customers or what the marketplace would look like in a month’s time, never mind the next year.

Covid-19 transformed the way brands operated overnight and this forced survival mode was focused on short-term, reactive plans and processes – and it lasted for longer than many of us initially expected.

But we are now in a new phase; as we move past the state of urgency created by the pandemic, brands are now turning to building for the future and planning for stable, long-term growth, even amid a more changeable and uncertain climate. Confidence in the market is growing, yet tough market drivers and the cost-of-living crisis mean consumers will continue to err on the side of caution with their spending, and brands will have the tough job of continuing to adapt to changing behaviour.

And what’s interesting is that while no one would actively choose to go through such an intense and stressful time, the learnings and changes enforced by the situation did lead to a positive push in a new – and sometimes better – direction.

As brands need to be increasingly robust and able to cope and adapt in more changeable and uncertain times, they can take these new strategies forward as they plan for the next few years. When we discussed how brands can move from surviving to thriving and prepare for the coming years at our recent Oystercatchers event, the assembled marketing leaders had some interesting insight into what they had learnt and how they were putting new approaches into practice going forward.

Wellbeing focus

Two themes that emerged centred on people – both how the crisis had impacted the way people had worked and led their teams, and how important it was to nurture staff wellbeing. Sometimes there was a chasm between sections of the workforce; through no one’s fault some were furloughed while others were working harder than ever. As a holiday brand, TUI had one of the toughest pandemics but its Chief Marketing Officer, Katie McAlister, said: “We always knew we had good people – a good culture – and they went above and beyond.”

To look after staff wellbeing TUI made it a top-down mission to understand how staff were feeling. And this involved looking at the resilience and skills of its leaders to have those conversations with their teams. It also introduced fortnightly team meetings “with no tasks, just ‘how are you’”. The pandemic proved an opportunity for the brand to better organise its previously quite scattered wellbeing initiatives – so they were more accessible to staff.

Business focus

While digital transformation has had the lion’s share of the attention, it is not the only way businesses had to change in this period. For WW (formerly Weight Watchers) its 500+ workshop groups had to shift to Zoom – which often involved coaches helping members unfamiliar with this type of technology to access it. Before the pandemic only 20% of its members used the WW app but that has since shifted to nearer 80%.

Anna Hill, WW’s Senior Vice-President and General Manager, explained that lockdown was a change experience for its members, but community remained core. “The need for human connectivity is still there but it had to change – in lockdown we had members cooking on Zoom together, walking together. We could do things that we couldn’t do in the physical environment, and we’ll keep those.”

At N Brown Group, it had been fortuitous in launching a homeware brand, Home Essentials, in January 2020. So as people’s focus turned to their homes – which they were now spending most of their time in – it was well-placed to meet that customer interest and demand. Its Chief Brand Officer, Kenyatte Nelson, said it was the success of this business that balanced its portfolio and helped it navigate the pandemic.

For TUI, the digital transformation was dramatic – necessity made previously reluctant customers book online and make more use of its online customer service facilities.

But no matter what direction the transformation went, it was faster, said St. Luke’s CEO, Neil Henderson. “The pace was extraordinary. Everyone’s mind opened.”

Branding, marketing and agency relationships

TUI developed the theme of enrichment during the height of the pandemic, which became its brand strategy. It appointed a new creative agency, set a new position for the brand, and created a new campaign around ‘moments that make you richer’. And while the content and storytelling of brand marketing was – and is – needed to inspire people, as the customer journey becomes more complicated, the brand must show up in more areas. “Seventy-five percent of holidays are sold online therefore there’s a big bias towards digital,” McAlister said.

Nelson was not keen on the term ‘performance marketing’ – “just use marketing” – and argued that what channel a brand uses depends entirely on where the customer is more receptive. “It’s about making choices that drive growth and customer lifetime value.”

Under the intensity of Covid-19, the relationship between a brand and its agency shifted and sometimes expanded. Marketing leaders needed support – and the panel talked about the importance of being honest, and indeed admitting vulnerability, to ask agency partners for help. Clients needed to have faith that the agency team could meet their needs and understood the brand’s vision.

The client:agency relationship was often more open and equal, and people were respectful of each other and their daily challenges. Even to the extent that in lockdown people dressed more casually, we saw into people’s home lives, and as Hill said: “On Zoom everyone is equal – we’re all in the same size square.”

From an agency perspective, Henderson said there was increased sharing and you got to the real problems clients were dealing with.

Planning for the future

Did the sudden crisis of the global pandemic put a stop to long term planning? Is there any point in five-year plans if uncertainty is still lingering, albeit for reasons outside of the pandemic? Nelson was all for three-year plans – but with the caveat that you’d have to change it after a year. “Long-term plans and ambition are a good thing. But if the business is not set up to be agile, and flex to where work is, it will be in trouble at some point. Lots of senior leaders make a decision, set a plan, and get emotionally attached to it. When it’s not working, they don’t want to change. I think great leaders change their mind a lot,” he said.

And Nelson’s approach to the future – keeping what he’d learnt best from the past two years – was inspiring. It included holding onto: overcommunication; high empathy (Covid touched everyone); low ego (“don’t act like you know everything, because you don’t”); and singularity of objective (“we came out of the pandemic thinking we are trying to do way too much stuff”).

The worst of Covid-19 is hopefully over but we are clearly in a period where multiple macro factors, will continue to impact businesses of all sizes and types. But it is possible to thrive in challenging times and brands – and their partners – are match-fit after the past couple of years.

This article was published in WARC.

Image credit: ©BronacMcNeill