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Can marketers maintain a newfound empathy and agility?

As part of our new series in partnership with The Marketing Society, this month we hear Wendy Walker, senior director marketing APAC at Salesforce and member of The Marketing Society Asia.

2020 has been an interesting year for CMOs - to say the least.

Not only has the world changed this year, but so has the business of marketing. Asia was of course one of the first regions to encounter COVID 19; with the customer engagement and marketing landscape totally shifting as we found ourselves pivoting on a daily basis.

And whilst as an industry, we are well into the adjustment phase of the pandemic, how we plan and execute will continue to evolve as we enter a ‘new normal’.

With businesses across the region now at different stages of stabilising, reopening and growing, it’s more important than ever for CMO’s to be in tune with the current environment. And as we all continue to navigate unchartered territories, it is a time for embracing innovation, experimentation and agility.

I’ve had the pleasure of hosting several CMO discussions over the last few months and the challenges faced are similar across the industry. Two themes that continue to surface are; balancing empathy with the demand for business growth and; how as marketers we can maintain this new found innovative mindset and agility as we emerge from this challenging period.

Like other CMOs, I found that when the pandemic first emerged, there was an immediate need to stop and reexamine all existing advertising, marketing programs and communications, and question whether they were still relevant or would add value to customers given what they were experiencing; particularly with a view toward eliminating anything that could come across as tone-deaf.

Choosing messages and communications appropriate to the brand’s position in the customer’s life, and the level of impact being felt in different areas of the region, became critical.

But how do we continue to lead with empathy for our brands and our people whilst still meeting the increasing demands to hit growth numbers and business goals?

Never before as marketers have the ability to use our inner voice, intuition and years of experience been more important to guide decisions when planning and reacting to the environment - one that continues to change daily. The way brands act during this time demonstrates to customers whether the relationship with them is genuine; a time when we can play key roles providing messages to inspire, uplift and drive action.

And the reassuring sentiment I’ve been hearing is that we have a stronger focus than ever on supporting our people, customers and communities. Brands that can use this lens to remain centred on representing the communities they serve and ensure diversity of thought and experience to guide and contribute to decisions - will be those who lead.

During times of crisis, inclusion and diversity are often at risk, but in fact are absolutely critical for resilience, re-imagination and ultimately business recovery.

Conversations around this theme have often focused on a shared aim of leading with values, communicating brand purpose clearly, and showing up when and where it matters in relevant, empathic and authentic ways.

Understanding how this pandemic has changed the consumer mindset allows us to step into their shoes and create valuable communication strategies. It’s increasingly about finding a balance between personalisation and automation; shifting perspective, tone and treatment to increase empathy and effectiveness when creating stories around a brand’s offering. Marketing strategies that do this will ensure brands stay connected with current customers and reach new ones.

Some important considerations include ensuring communication is kept clear and concise, showing empathy to an increasingly cluttered online environment; focusing on relevant content to stay connected and offer support that can provide real education or assistance, including uplifting advice to help keep your audience moving forward despite the challenges being faced.

Now more than ever before, customers are choosing companies that do more than just turn a profit; they are looking for brands that they can not only connect with, but feel good about supporting. We know that brands will be remembered for their acts of good in a time of crisis; particularly if done with authenticity.

And this has been evident in many of the consumer messages that we’ve seen from brands across the region, in campaigns which have often been turned around in record time as the pace of change in consumer behaviour has been even more rapid.

As marketing leaders I think this was our first glimpse into a newfound agility, innovative mindset and speed to market that we’re seeing in our teams like never before.

There has been a pivot to ‘progress over perfection’ and many of us have come to realise the scale of what is possible with resources we already have; witnessing real and empathetic stories thrown together quickly, being often just as effective as perfectly polished ones that spent months in production.

We have all now seen that ‘change’ can come from anywhere at any time and dramatically impact us and the way we do business. Being innovative and adapting quickly has proven to be key to surviving and the more adaptable and resourceful your teams are the better your chance of success.

But how do we maintain this innovation and agility as we move through the next phase?

The overarching sentiment I’ve been hearing is that re-skilling is now critical to maintaining this approach and managing customer demand in the long term. Leaders are focused on ensuring their teams have opportunities to learn new skills, experiment and innovate; providing a ‘no playbook’ environment within which everyone can contribute.

As working remotely becomes the new norm and consumers spend more and more time online, our world has become one that is totally digital dependent, and consequently demands us to re-skill our teams to be digital-first; learning new skills fast. Many of us have seen radical change across the customer journey, and often it has revealed some gaps in the existing approach. This has helped force innovation to improve the ways we communicate and the use of new tools.

With traditional marketing touchpoints being redefined, knowing your customer can be more challenging than ever; highlighting the need for brands to have the tools and technology in place to integrate capabilities and ensure a consistent and seamless experience, both online and offline; not only reaching customers where they are but meeting the new expectations around personalised experiences. With more content online than ever before, boosted by increased digitally focused budgets, optimised digital strategies in terms of channels, spend and creative ideation is critical to ensure a share of the audience your brand needs to reach.

The momentum behind digital-experience adoption is unlikely to reverse; so it’s time to focus on building enduring capabilities to deliver the personalised experience that customers now demand. The pandemic has proven the importance of innovation, resilience and agility as key contributors to growth, and the need for inclusion and diversity as an enabler of business performance.

As we move beyond the current phase, there is definitely a sense amongst those I’ve spoken with, that this global crisis has helped shape us into better and more efficient marketers. Most of us will recognise that our teams’ ability to relate to and empathise with our consumers, provide accessibility and execute authentic content has accelerated; and this skill will continue to play a significant role in our future success. As leaders, we must continue to inspire and encourage this innovation and newfound agility continues.

After months of uncertainty, it can be difficult to take a long-term view with many brands still in survival mode and, although they recognise the importance of having a long-term strategy, it is the mix of predictable and unpredictable that makes it especially challenging to see a clear path forward.

What we do know, is that those brands that continue to lead with empathy through the uncertainty, and can adapt and remain flexible enough to deliver on changing consumer needs, will be the ones who come out on top.

I hope once this is over not only will we all emerge with even greater empathy but that the world itself will become a better place for all of us.

Wendy Walker is senior director marketing APAC at Salesforce and member of The Marketing Society Asia.

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