On January 1, 2021, MarTech Editorial Director Kim Davis explained, kicking off the MarTech conference today, “everything wasn’t suddenly new again. It wasn’t a sudden reset. We’re living and working in a continuum of change — change which was already happening in 2018 and 2019, but took off like a rocket in 2020.”
Now a year into the pandemic, with recovery and vaccinations on their way, marketers and agencies have upped their game in order to adapt and survive. Brands are more digital and empathetic, and they aren’t giving up ground in these areas. That’s because the changes we all went through were a long time coming, dating back before the first COVID-19 cases.
In his keynote to MarTech conference, Davis was joined by three guests to discuss B2C changes, B2B changes, and the changing demands of diverse audiences.
Consumers demanded digital transformation
The transition to digital architecture that has transformed many businesses in the last two decades hit hyperdrive last year. Davis sees it as preparing for the moment that the pandemic brought to us. But the most important thing to keep in mind is that the pandemic wasn’t the root cause or result of this transformation.
Teresa Barreira, CMO of digital agency Publicis Sapient, agreed. “COVID brought few changes [on its own],” Barreira said. “The main impact was to accelerate trends in business and society that already existed but were not fully embraced.”
She cited the expansion of telehealth, curbside pickup and home exercising. All of these advances were possible pre-pandemic. They offered convenience and improved options for consumers and patients. These were opportunities that many companies missed.
According to Barreira, one grocery store client saw a 700% increase in new customers on their digital platform in the first months of the pandemic. Subscriptions for grocery services increased 300%. Because of government shutdowns all over the world, these options became necessities. But why didn’t companies implement these capabilities earlier? The pandemic gave consumers a voice.
“Digital adoption is prevalent and will continue to be…not because of this moment, but because this is something consumers want as part of their daily lives,” Barreira explained.
“COVID not only accelerated digital transformation,” she added, “but it also highlighted weaknesses in many businesses, governments and education, and also of course, inequalities in society.”
Brands pulled back on pitches to engage empathetically
The need for empathy skyrocketed during the summer of 2020 as the national conversation grew to include the painful recognition of injustice and inequality. The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis brought about a moment of reckoning for brands, while so many people of all ages responded to what they saw as signs of systemic racism in the country.
In the marketing world, brands realized that the usual product pitches were ill-equipped to meet the moment. Brand conversations had to change.
“Topics such as chips and cookies and milk sort of became secondary,” said Martin Ekechukwu, CEO and Co-Founder of the agency WHTWRKS. “Brands, at the end of the day, knew that having regular commercial time, or speaking on a normal topic, or on a particular holiday like Mother’s Day, was no longer going to fly because everybody in that moment of time was incredibly sensitive to anything related to black topics, brown topics and George Floyd’s murder. So what I’ve noticed, myself, is that people are coming and asking for direction.”
Ekechukwu acknowledged that brands still had a responsibility to “sell chips” and generate revenue and value for shareholders. But these consideration had to be balanced with social responsibility.
As a result, many brands decided to pull back on normal messaging and spent more airtime addressing their audiences in an empathetic way. Marketers can utilize data to create personalized experiences for customers, but they also have to be sensitive to the moment and evaluate what can be the next appropriate message to their customers.
B2B customer journey goes virtual
Marketing sensitivity and empathy extends to the B2B space, even though it’s usually a more complicated buying process.
“Everything is about what the buyer wants to do, and they’re more digital and virtual,” stated Craig Rosenberg, Distinguished Vice President & Analyst for research firm Gartner.
Important sales meetings have migrated online, taking away some of the mystery of the buying process and making strategies more intentional. This has enabled B2B marketing teams to connect the dots more from marketing to sales and revenue — a concept championed as revenue ops.
From the revenue side, buyers are still buying, according to Rosenberg. “Digital, virtual selling is, in the end, good for the buyer [and] good for the seller,” he said. As a result, the pandemic has crystallized the value of CMOs and their ability to navigate challenges with speed and agility.
Whether engaging with B2B buyers or consumers, the marketing world can never go back. It’s on a forward march, a continuum of change, toward more sensitivity to demands for digital transformation and concerns for social responsibility.
This story first appeared on MarTech Today.