It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that the coronavirus pandemic has ushered in some challenging times and it doesn’t look like they’re over yet. Marketing Week’s own research has shown that marketers face a recruitment freeze, slashed budgets and, in some cases, pay cuts and redundancy.
Even in companies whose bottom lines were not directly impacted by lockdown – events and travel just two that come to mind – the prospect of a recession has led to extreme caution around expenditure or starting new projects. Coca-Cola’s announcement early on that it was pausing all ad spend was certainly food for thought.
That said, a number of organisations vowed to proceed as planned with their marketing plans, notably Procter & Gamble. Given its large portfolio of homecare products, it made perfect sense for the company to “double down”, as its CFO said in April 2020, and for that position to be restated two months later as a drive to “push forward not to push back”.
While the temptation during the pandemic may have been to hunker down until the worst had passed, customer experience is one area where companies could not afford to cut corners. In fact, during lockdown all the groundwork companies had put in beforehand suddenly revealed just how customer-centric some organisations were. And how much work others still had to do.
A continued – and even enhanced – focus on the customer experience has been key to businesses minimising damage and maximising opportunity during the period of lockdown. And, indeed, this was a prominent theme during the process of selecting this year’s CX50 list of the UK’s top CX professionals, announced in July by Marketing Week, in partnership with Zone and Cognizant.
Now, as we move towards what many will hope is the end of the most drastic measures against Covid, we will see just how well-prepared companies are to pick up where they left off and why it was so necessary, even in straitened times, to keep that investment in customer experience flowing.
Identifying the trends
Gifting may not immediately spring to mind when fighting off a world-altering virus, but as Notonthehighstreet.com found, the consumer need is still there – but businesses need to invest time and resources in identifying how it manifests.
“It’s the nature of my job. Numbers drives everything I do,” states customer and growth director, and CX50 member, Emilie Mouquot. “It’s very straightforward. We find pockets of opportunity, look at what’s happening in the market and [try to] understand the next thing. The first quarter of our financial year, April to June, demonstrated that our approach is winning. We’ve seen the fastest growth of the business since it started.”
Mouquot believes agility and responsiveness have been key during the pandemic but so has the ability to be “bold and brave”. She notes that “it hasn’t been an easy one to convince the business and board” to launch a TV ad campaign around Fathers’ Day and supporting the site’s small business suppliers.
Notonthehighstreet has made it its stated aim to support entrepreneurs, however the company’s TV ad spend is usually reserved for the key festive period. Yet here it was launching a campaign in mid-summer and in the middle of a pandemic.
“We really looked at customer numbers, and the rate we could acquire new ones as well as the retention rate and the number of people coming back. It gave us confidence,” she insists, “plus the rates of TV ads were slashed so it was easier to justify. The numbers told us everything. We were accelerating our acquisition but our retention was great.”
Building on momentum
“These are clearly unprecedented times and we’re not unique in that every business has had to deal with it,” states Pets At Home’s chief data officer, Robert Kent, also named in the CX50 in July. The company did enjoy a relatively fortunate position during lockdown, as it was classed as an essential retailer. People were also spending more time with the pets they already had, while there was a distinct upward trend in pet ownership overall.
The company had already embarked on a programme of data integration and personalisation a couple of years before Covid hit, but what the pandemic has demonstrated is that an analytical and data-powered approach is going to be more important than ever.
We have so much room for growth we have to build on what we have. The board recently agreed more investment.
Susan O’Brien, Just Eat
“The long-term view of investing in the power of data was assured a year or two ago and, now the capability has landed, it’s clear it’s delivering results. Now one of our objectives is to bring AI into the company – we’ve been able to build algorithms to identify which customers are likely to leave us, prevent churn and target with personalised offers,” Kent reveals.
Keeping the momentum going in terms of investing more in analytics and targeting is like “pushing on an open door”, Kent says. The company is already committed to improving customer experience and the pandemic has proven a test bed for planned strategies as much as anything. “Understanding stores at a local level, forecasting so we have the right range in stores and online – that’s for the long term,” he insists.
Investing in growth
Delivering on customer experience in a pandemic has highlighted the extent to which investment in it, and the partners who help brands deliver it, are constantly and organically evolving.
“Our restaurant partners are the bedrock of our entire being,” insists Susan O’Brien, chief marketing officer at food delivery service Just Eat and another CX50 member. “It was very important that we listened to them and were able to support them.” In this case, it meant acting to help restaurants extend their service radius to access more customers during lockdown, but also continuing to progress the company’s growth strategy, begun before Covid hit.
“We are going through a significant merger but it has reignited that growth piece. We added 50,000 restaurants in H1 across the group because we were opening up the customer universe to restaurants who were themselves changing their business model. In terms of marketing investment, we have so much room for growth we have to build on what we have. The board recently agreed more investment,” O’Brien reveals.
She adds that the company is investing in the delivery offering itself, the restaurant supply and working with bigger brands. There is diversification on the table and continued investment in terms of media from PPC to TV. O’Brien notes that the brand has only just launched a new campaign featuring rapper Snoop Dogg and so “we still have a lot more to do”.
“Our foot is very much on the accelerator and [we recognise] that we are fortunate to have been in a category that benefited during the pandemic,” she concludes.
Cycling has been another one of the good news stories of the pandemic, but like his CX50 peers, Rapha founder and CEO Simon Mottram knows that just because you’re popular, it doesn’t make it all plain sailing. “Customer operations has had its work cut out since March. With three distribution centres, it helped us manage peaks and troughs but my biggest worry was that the warehouse would have fallen over. You’re only as good as the product you can dispatch.”
“Face-to-face contact is going to be even more prized but it has to be delivered in the right way. It has to be rich and real. People won’t go to shops just to pick up products in the way that they used to. They’ll go in to connect with brands and each other and experience things the internet cannot offer,” Mottram insists.
This is vindication of the company’s earlier investment in its ‘clubhouses’. “They’re not shops,” he says, they are chances for cyclists to connect and enjoy the brand experience.
In the light of how retail will change emerging from Covid, continued investment in customer experience after the pandemic makes sense and vindicates Mottram’s strategy in the face of early cynicism: “It looked bizarre and like a crazy investment but in the last few months people have been desperate to go back to them because they mean so much more than an online transaction.”
It’s something many others will be weighing up, as the economy moves slowly, hopefully back towards a scenario where consumers once again feel confident shopping and interacting with brands in physical spaces.