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Lessons in brand adaptability in a time of crisis

The annals of human history have proven, if nothing else, that we are an adaptable species. Our innate ability to change in accordance with our environment has led us to basically dominate the world. Considering our ability to communicate and our ability to create and believe in stories about a better future is what sets us apart from other animals in the evolutionary race. It’s no surprise that the way brands communicate in these unprecedented times needs to be adaptable.

COVID-19 has been a monumental learning experience and has rewritten the definition of what it means for a brand to be adaptable. We now know, with certainty, the speed at which things can change. Not only this, we also now know first-hand that as humans we are able to withstand high levels of uncertainty and remain functional while doing so.

I do not think anyone could have imagined that SAB wouldn’t be able to sell a single beer for a whole eight weeks. In our 125-year history, to not sell beer, had never entered the mind. The last time beer production was broken in this country was during the Anglo Boer War over 120 years ago. Suddenly, unable to sell our products, we were faced with how to build our brand equity in a unique and challenging time for everyone.

Never has it been clearer that it is not the strongest that survives, but rather the one most adaptable to change, and by reengineering our business to meet a new and unique need – we were able to really live our brand purpose, of bringing people together, albeit from a distance this time.

I am a firm believer in the philosophy that as marketers, it is our jobs to leave a brand better than it was when we found it by making meaningful and practical contributions to society. My personal view on how to do this is simple, and at its centre is people.

First, find the right people

As soon as lockdown was implemented, we were faced with the challenge of putting entirely new routines in place. The face-to-face interactions we took for granted in our daily work lives were replaced with new tools and systems to communicate with each other virtually.

Over the last three months, I have witnessed my teams interact and come together in ways I never would have expected. This experience has taught me that adaptability starts with your people. You need people who are able to deal with change efficiently and effectively. As a manager, this requires actively looking for traits like resilience, openness, and an internal belief that one truly can change the future. While traits such as hard work and dedication should never be overlooked, it is those inherent traits which will ensure that your organisation is forward-looking and agile in an ever-changing environment.

One of the most effective ways to deal with big change is to have a very clear picture of the future, know why your brand or business exists, and be very aware of your inherent strengths. That is when you will be able to face change head on and get through difficult times a lot quicker. When your people are aligned with your purpose, you can deal with big change fast and effectively.

Accept that change is inevitable and that it happens quickly

As we all clamour for relevancy in the conversation of the day, the ability to be agile enough to shift with this conversation can put you on the front foot. While planning big campaigns 6 – 18 months in the future remains critical, the importance of being part of conversations that are happening in real time are becoming more and more important. Our ability to be adaptable was truly tested with COVID-19.The market required us to respond much quicker than we had ever imagined. Creative work that usually took months of planning had to be out in a matter of days, and big campaigns cancelled or postponed.

This has been a valid learning for us, as having proven to ourselves that we are capable of doing this, when life returns back to some semblance of normality, I believe that we will be able to turn around large creative projects quicker than we ever did before. We will become more efficient in the way we spend our marketing budget knowing that there are alternatives solutions to almost every problem.

How were we able to do this? It all starts with data.

Data is the foundation of adaptability

It wouldn’t be possible for us to have been as effective as we were if we didn’t have the right data at our disposal. With strong capabilities and access to the right analytical tools, brands are now able to empathise with what their consumers are going through in real time. This gives us the ability to identify opportunities to be of service to our consumers in a way that adds value to their lives and builds equity for our brands. From production of hand sanitizer and PPE to setting up a WhatsApp line to fight gender based violence. From setting up platforms for crowdfunding to support bars, to providing food relief to our taverns, it certainly was not traditional beer advertising.

Good quality data enabled us to see exactly what conversations were happening both online and in traditional media, which allowed us to quickly shape campaigns and communications to respond to market changes.

Data also enabled us to give each brand a clear role on how it would communicate during the pandemic, be it messages of safety, encouragement, social distancing, or just satisfy the need for good entertainment. From there, we were also able to craft a role for our brands to support consumers as we adjust to the new normal.

Data, the SAB way

We have a dedicated business intelligence and insights team that runs our data process with daily and weekly reporting mechanisms. We aggregate social media data into our data centre, from where we can structure and visualise the data using a Business Intelligence Tool like Looker.

Conversation and sentiment data is overlaid with, for example, paid media data or sales data. This helps us determine if our campaigns are driving the right kinds of conversations so we can track the effectiveness of our marketing investment and course correct in real-time.

Tapping into the world

There is often a lot of undue criticism laid on large companies. In a time of crisis, one of the big benefits of being part of a large multinational organisation is having countless experts around the globe sharing knowledge and best practice on a daily basis. This enabled us, as a part of SAB, to adapt quickly and learn from those countries in further stages of development of the pandemic.

Several of the campaigns and initiatives we created in response to this pandemic were best practices learned from other markets. We found ourselves in the fortunate situation that these markets were ahead of us in terms of their lockdowns, meaning we could anticipate and react to our consumers using tried and true methods.

With that being said, even if you are not a part of a multinational organisation, that doesn’t mean that you can’t look to other markets to learn from their experiences. We have more information at our disposal than ever before, and not only that, we have the unique ability to reach out to any brand in the world and form a relationship in order to better ourselves going forward.

Into an uncertain future

Learning and adapting will continue to be critical weapons in our fight against this pandemic, but also in how we navigate disruption and change in the future.  As marketers, when we are clear on why our brands exist and what role they play in people’s lives, then adapting and learning becomes an essential part of building brands that truly play meaningful roles in society.

 Article by Vaughan Croeser, Marketing Director at The South African Breweries

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