Innovation First Online Salon 2: Business to Business Perspective

As the world navigates through the pandemic, can we bet on post COVID-19 innovation boom to spur business growth again?

Businesses have proven over the years, that when faced with challenges, ingenuity can spark off innovative results. The current COVID-19 crisis is no exception. While it’s difficult to predict what this current situation will mean long-term, it is indeed forcing most businesses to seriously rethink their operations. And, this is already happening with intensity. 

Communication leaders shared their views on innovation during and post COVID – The Business Perspective in the Innovation First Online Salon Series II a three-part monthly series co-created by First Partners and Reputation Today. The talk was moderated by Arun Sudhaman, CEO/Editor-in-Chief at PRovoke Media. The participants were – Abhinav Kumar, Chief Marketing & Communications Officer – Global Markets, Tata Consultancy Services, Arpana K Ahuja, India Lead Communications & Programmes, Shell, Deebba Ali, Director Corporate Communications – India PR Lead for SaaS, Oracle, Gayathri Sharma, Head of Communications, India & South Asia, Rolls-Royce, Rachana Panda, Communications leader, Roma Balwani, Director, Communications & Brand, Vedanta Group and Suniet Bezbaroowa, Director, Marketing, Brand, and Communications, Deloitte India and South Asia.

 “When you think of innovations in communications, traditionally, we think of B2C organisations hogging the limelight; however during the current COVID crisis, we were reminded of the importance of B2B who kept the wheels of economy running,” said Dilip Yadav, Founding Partner, First Partners. How did innovation pan out? Did it trigger innovation or was it an opportunity?

Talking about innovation, which is one of the few positives we see in the situation we are living through – we can see new ways of working and frankly steering solutions, said Arun. And business will never be the same again! 

Disrupting existing modes of operation

How did businesses use this situation to disrupt existing modes of operation? Vedanta represented the “essential sector” and they required a different level of agility of communication, not only innovation, which led us to be the first movers, noted Roma. Vedanta Group approached the situation through compassionate communication and not crisis communication. “We are a purpose-driven organisation and this was a time when the brand had to walk the talk,” she added. They set up a special fund, a special task force and the three areas of focus were – the employees, the community and the migrant workers; they also extended their circle to stray animals across many states. An app was also created for the situation. So it was an entire band of workers who came together to converge and create the brand connect – to resonate with all stakeholders. 

Based in Brussels – a city that has rains two hundred days of the year, Abhinav emphasised that “Top priority for TCS was to ensure the safety of our employees and their families and making sure that clients were not disrupted.” Being in an organisation operating in forty six countries with 450,000 employees, they had been dealing with crisis right from the time it started in one part of the globe. As a group, they took up a massive action plan, and “Compassion is the DNA of the Tata Group”. Tata Foundation made a pledge of  $200 million. TCS looked at the technical part of vaccine, research, healthcare, hotels and even education. And the Internal Communication team which normally runs round 400 events a year (which are not possible now), is moving towards digital media – which “puts the team in the centre of it all”.  

Seeing things from the outside now, Rachana observed that “communication is becoming stronger”. In the B2B world it’s been a disruptive change to see that they are saying – let’s go digital! Engagement with customers, suppliers have gone up, which means co-creating content (stories) and being able to engage with them digitally. Digital selling is a part of the B2B market and communicators have a lot to do.

A lot of communication has happened from leadership, which has lessened the gap between leadership and the people, remarked Suniet. At Deloitte, they chose the organic route – “conversations”. There are virtual sessions, programmes on wellness and fitness (that families can also join); and “Each One Reach One” has also added to the impact. In times, like these, positivity is required and it gets infectious, insisted Arpana. They had their own Shell Frontline Heroes that spurned off many stories that were shared and really motivated people. The approach was more about assurance, extending care, even appreciation and the authenticity of every action guided the team at Shell. When it came to innovation, constant listening and dialogues helped with customers. The key takeaways, according to Arpana were – lead with purpose, keep employees first and leadership in the spotlight, increase and expand in communication and communication must be hyper-sensitive in context. 

At Rolls-Royce the focus had to be on people, well-being and safety. “In Internal Communication, what was important was the role of our CEO in leading the communications,” revealed Gayathri and people realised that the new normal was the same for leaders too. Mental health was on top and was very challenging, but they rolled out interesting ways to help people like the “Quirky Tasks” – which lightened the atmosphere. In External Communication, essentially not much has changed. Contextualising stories has been really fruitful, she shared. They have opened up their digital academy to the public. Touching on the global announcement of job cuts, she shared how challenging it was to ensure that the global story stays strong. 

Trust in difficult times is a rare commodity, and at Oracle they ensured that they maintain the level of trust and seamless communication, shared Deebba. The action plan was – segmenting customers to communicate with different segments, putting employee assistance programmes in place, using a balanced mix of earned and paid media with a clear digital strategy. 

External Communication strategy

At the start, the focus was on internal communication, but one thing that changed is the nature of the story, said Abhinav. In terms of external strategy, people wanted to be reassured and inspired “We needed to project it was ‘business as usual’ and we had a Virtual AGM (the first ever) and Financial Quarter Results. Quoting a Nielson study that pointed out that during a downturn, there is excessive share of voice which also leads to gain in market share, he pointed out that there a financial opportunity here too. 

At Deloitte they had conducted a survey on millennials, which is relevant now and a Consumer Sentiment survey too, which would come handy too. 

With crisis, an array of Cs have emerged

The philosophy at Deloitte has been – “Care, Connect, Commit” and their concept “People first” is the code behind everything they do. “We believe in taking care of people. There is a lot of focus on employees from a wellness point of view,” informed Suniet. Mental health is also an important factor, and they have a promotional counseling helpline in place and queries, in the times of COVID, have increased three times. 

At Shell too, the crisis has shifted the focus to 3 Cs – Colleagues, Customers, Community. “We were in unchartered waters, and we realised we have to stay focused on our purpose and people, which led us to our strategy,” said Arpana. The ‘Single Source of Truth’ helped and the daily communication became the go-to source for people. Beyond the WFH, they build human connect through small things like – ‘Coffee Chats’ and ‘Virtual Chai’. 

Sparking innovations

Business innovations have been surfacing, like the participants exposed. It time for the unusual too. You have auto businesses getting into healthcare and the story-telling has been enhanced, observed Rachana, which is “really fantastic!”  

Summing up in one line was Deebba – “Less is more”. When it came to communication, Oracle took a step back to relook at what they wanted to say. With technology as the glue that has kept the world together, the innovations at the product level were happening. As far as communications went, they decided they are going to narrow it down to customers and employees. 

Any signs of recovery? 

The global COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented shock to many business sectors. Any signs of recovery at this point of time? Any hope of communication budgets increasing?

The investment in communication budget will go up substantially in the next stage, opined Rachana and added that employee sentiment will go up considerably and also the share of co-creating content. The real change came in the tone we communicated said Gayathri – Being adaptable, agile – that is what has changed.

During these testing times, the advisory role of communication has indeed been elevated, according to Arun. But, we are at the crossroads today. 

Any signs of happiness looming ahead? Right now, it’s working at where our new priorities lie to predict what lies ahead, said Arpana, signing off. 

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

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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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