Innovation First Online Salon 1: Business to Consumer Perspective

How is COVID-19 impacting brand experiences for businesses? By now it is very clear that things will not return to ‘business as usual’. The new challenge is redefining business by identifying, connecting and delivering basis what the markets and consumers demand. For businesses to survive through COVID-19, they will need to innovate. And, we have seen many defining moments of brands that will determine the future. 

Innovation has been defined as an idea, a method or product but today, it has to be an ‘attitude’ or ‘ethos’ which must be blended into the business culture. Defining innovation, Atul Ahluwalia, Founding Partner, First Partners put it this way – “they say necessity is the mother of all invention, but I would go on to say necessity is also the mother of innovations”. Innovation was the main focus when three years back, he first partnered with Reputation Today to get senior Corporate Communication leaders to talk, discuss and debate on innovation. Getting to understand innovations in organisations and communication that was the crux of the discussion that was centred around “The Business to Consumer Perspective”.  

The talk focused on innovation during and post COVID-19, and was moderated by Arun Sudhaman, CEO/Editor-in-Chief at PRovoke Media who stated that “we can feel a sense of community in such a virtual experience”. The participants were – Marco D’Souza, Communications Manager, Google India, Nandini Basu, General Manager, Corporate Communications, ITC Limited, Neeta Linz, DGM, Corporate Communications & CSR, LG Electronics, Pooja Garg Khan, Head-Corporate Communications, Panasonic India, Prasidha Menon, Global Head of Communications, OYO, Ravi Sharma, Head – Marketing PR at Hyundai Motors India, Senjam Raj Sekhar, Communications Consultant, Shefali Sapra, Director, Public Affairs & Corporate Communications, Danone Nutricia India and Sujit Patil, VP & Head of Corporate Brand & Communications, Godrej Group

No readily available playbook to navigate these unchartered times

Innovations from the marketing, communications perspective and the lessons learnt were tossed around and revealed by all. When Arun brought up the point that trimmers were doing well during the lockdown, Pooja added that their grooming range did well during the lockdown and recorded 5x sales. “There was no readily available playbook to help us navigate through these unchartered times. It’s not the new normal, it is the normal now,” she declared. And, what worked were the ten commandments and some of them were as follows. Culture should be the epicentre of any communication.  Frenemies – COVID has made competitive brands come together and find new collaborations to engage stakeholders. CSR is a powerful tool, but it means we speak carefully only if we have something to say. Predictive analysis, which is saying what is working for you. Engage in inter-regulatory communication. ‘Raw and real’ is the new discipline – let’s not sugarcoat things and let’s be honest and true with people. Focus on feelings. Speak only if you have something to say. All these points designed and ruled their PR communication.

Thinking out of the box

How do we bring newer features and solutions to the consumer? “We were very clear – people needed access to information quickly”, said Marco. They immediately dived into how it would make life easy and most importantly, they wanted to bring information across the board. “We made it our main goal,” he said. What unfolded was the entire humanitarian crisis of migrant workers and we tried to make information on food and home shelters readily available. The question was how to lift the bar? So they reached out to all channels –  to provide information on food and shelter homes – and even tapped into local radio channels,  which made a huge difference. It was indeed, thinking out of the box. “The pulse of how things are – is reflected in social channels and we crafted communication around them,” he revealed. 

Effective ‘tragital’ communication

Coming from a multi-business organisation that had diverse businesses, Nandini explained how they became aware of the increased focus on health, hygiene, immunity and ITC responded – and  launched a host of innovations. There was a fruit beverage that supports immunity, Savlon sanitiser and so on. Looking at distribution partnerships, they tied up with Domino’s too. Their brands like Ashirwad came up with recipes etc. ”We did effective ‘tragital’ communication (traditional + digital) and we were in the news every day, with a whole range of innovations, and we realised Content is King!” she exclaimed. Their brands continued to use advertising to reach consumers and also became ‘publishers’ – eg the hotels division tied up with Star network and co-created a unique piece – ‘5 STAR Kitchen ITC Chef’s Special’. And, as an organisation, teams made sure the products reached different parts of the country. 

Communication based on emerging behaviours

Communication was based on some behaviours they saw emerging, said Sujit. Key themes like  focus on personal hygiene, wellness and safety were surfacing, and what was the fallout?  In terms of product innovations from Godrej Interio, they digitally communicated on concepts of mixed space for wellness (giving tips on WFH etc) to bring the brand close to the consumer. And Godrej Securities Solutions created products around cameras with inbuilt sanitisers; they developed ‘Protekt India’ movement which “created amazing ruboff”. Another learning was the realisation that “agility is going to become hyer-agility in every aspect of an organisation (communication, responses, campaigns) and we are working on this”. The average time to launch a PR campaign has gone down considerably, he noted and virtual engagement with media has increased. This is the time to explore newer channels  – eg their customer care innovation of moving on to video-based service for Godrej Aplliances, which is working well; booking flats virtually for Godrej Property is delivering amazing results. It has opened new vistas of communication but, has maintained the impact! 

It’s a completely new world out there

Communication has evolved and it’s a completely new world out there, said Shefali and that  consumers look for credible information from us (with so much of fake information floating around!). Communication is a thread that is winding personal and professional lives. After 

social listening they identified  women’s concern for health and wellness , especially new mothers and so they launched a new programme – The Voice of Experts and  got experts to speak and address their concerns, which has worked well.  “There is a communication fatigue, so we have to be careful about the frequency and not be a me-too,” she said.  They partnered with Swiggy to deliver specialised nutrition products to mothers in remote towns, “to face the last mile connectivity”.  Another eg was about e-commerce. As they had many consumers using it for the first time, they realised that they had to adapt to emerging consumer needs. Even in media they have changed the mix. 

Engaging customers and communities

Touching on the company vision last year called “Progress for Humanity” Ravi pointed out that Hyundai sincerely believes that they need to engage customers and the communities too. That’s the reason they brought in important innovations – like they created their own ventilators to support the community and had a tie up with a French company Air Liquide Medical Systems (ALMS), to provide the know how, for production and supply of ventilators. They started the #WeCare umbrella campaign for Hyundai, when the customer confidence was low and also started EMI assurance programme too, which was aggressively promoted, engaging media. A sales campaign was launched for dealerships – opening the doors to customers on May 16, following 100% hygiene practice. Finally, community service – a 360 degree campaign was created – Click To Buy, which gave them a big advantage.

Creating fun elements

What is going to be, the communication to customers – was the first challenge faced at LG. Neeta said that they spend time to find out how people are spending time; they found people were taking time out for cooking during the lockdown and were spending time with their families. So they “created some fun elements to keep people relaxed” like recipes and shared it with customers (on a Facebook page) and got good response and created a karaoke competition and so on. They ensured that the field and sales force were constantly kept engaged. As a community they wanted to contribute – and reached out to hospitals, the police force and even  got appreciation, which helped in elevating the brand. Then in terms of employee communication, they tried to engage their families too. They had the #LGKidsSaluteTheRealHeroes intitiative, when the kids of LG Electronic’s employees saluted the “Real Heroes” and they put together an ebook – Real Lives of Heroes, where kids wrote how they salute real life heroes like doctors etc; and there was a karaoke session and a spiritual session was also organised for trade partners.

Taking ownership and responsibility

For OYO, at a global level, “innovation has been more in terms of the approach that we take to the entire function”, pointed out Prasidha. It is about how you elevate your role as a communication team to work with business teams and how do you collaborate with your leaders, asset partners or employees. Is the communication authentic, credible, delivered timely through the right platform? It was important for them to get into one-on-one engagement and to increase communication – be local, engage more frequently and help asset owners address their fears. “That is when the role of communication as enabler and custodian of doing the right thing comes up. It’s less about celebration but about taking ownership and responsibility,” she elaborated. 

The hallmarks for innovative, disruptive communication 

Innovative or disruptive communication, clearly has some hallmarks according to Senjam namely – simplicity, effortlessness and the ability to have global impact. Taking the example of top Universities of the world, who got the opportunity to come out into the forefront of research as ‘thought leaders’, there was Oxford University that was developing a vaccine, Stanford University that had developed an app but one University that has a disproportionate share of mindspace was John Hopkins University –  which was the only one with data source (that was actually started by a student who made a dashboard when the pandemic started!). Taking the eg of tourism, he explained how tourism had lost everything during the lockdown and how Zermatt Tourism stood out, by displaying one country’s flag a day which countries watched out for, and filled the country with pride. Both campaigns had all the three criteria he mentioned, that made them stand out as truly disruptive. 

Some lessons from the pandemic

On the people’s front how to keep a positive mindset (to keep motivated), listen, learn observe before taking any action as listening is important, work as a team, and the brand has to be sympathetic in any communication were the lessons imbibed by Pooja. 

Taking a deep breath and finding stillness that helped to reach solutions and to keep things simple (people face a torrent of information today!), were what Marco emphasised.  

Life throws the ‘reset’ button when not expected. How did they do it? By 3 Rs – recover (adapt to WFH), reboot (leverage opportunities and address concerns and reshape business) and re-imagine (relook at the future), was Nandini’s quick repartee. 

Authenticity and trust are things which have to be demonstrated now.  The Trust Barometer showed that 88% want brands to keep the public fully informed – how the brands are protecting employees and customers. This is the best time to re-imagine and upskill ourselves said Sujit.

The underlying message is to engage in a credible manner. They way to communicate has changed. To be swift, agile and adapt were the lessons, Shefali pointed out. 

Learn to be comfortable, being uncomfortable. Everything is dynamic and things change so, be ready to adapt, unlearn. The importance of employees as enablers of communication also got highlighted, noted Prasidha. 

COVID has taught the need to innovate, according to Neeta. We need to communicate and we need to try to have a 36 degree approach, and together we will come out of this situation.  

The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Shree Lahiri on EmailShree Lahiri on LinkedinShree Lahiri on Twitter
Shree Lahiri
Shree is the Senior Editor at Reputation Today and hopes to move from one focus area to another in the editions that will be released this year. Having worked in Corporate Communications teams, she has experience of advertising, public relations, investor and employee communications, after which she moved to the other side – journalism. She enjoys writing and believes the power of the pen is indeed mighty. Covering the entertainment beat and the media business, she has been involved in a wide range of activities that have thrown open storytelling opportunities.

She can be reached at: @shree_la on twitter

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