COVID-19: The imperative for business transformation

How brands can emerge from COVID-19 better-placed to adapt to the changes around them

Let’s face it, we’re experiencing a serious, global shock to the system. Not in recent memory have we suffered such a seismic disruption to ‘business as usual’.

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t just affecting the movement and availability of money, it’s affecting the movement, availability and behaviours of people. Liberties, once taken for granted, are frozen; supply chains are disrupted. It’s not so much about ‘the markets’ as it is about the marketplace – where and how we sell things.

As Bill Bernbach pointed out at the dawn of modern advertising, it took millions of years for the instincts of consumers to develop and it will take millions more for them to change. We can get carried away with talk of the ‘new normal’ or ‘paradigm shifts’ in consumer behaviour, but, beyond the temporary shock to the system as we navigate lockdowns and social distancing, the fundamentals of need, desire, supply and demand remain unchanged.

What we can observe, however, is that some companies are better-placed to meet these needs and to satisfy these demands when the tools available and rules of engagement are shifted. Some companies can adapt better than others and will emerge from the current situation faster and stronger.

We’re not seeing a new paradigm; not yet, anyway. What we are seeing is an acceleration of the changes that were already taking place. We’re seeing the wholesale adoption of digital channels by consumers – for communication, media consumption, recreation and shopping; we’re seeing the mass migration of workforces to remote working platforms; and we’re witnessing the importance of purpose-led business practices and marketing. We’re looking on as companies and governments wrestle with the respective roles of central vs devolved authority, internal vs supplier activity and the need for global coordination and a strong network of partners operating a coordinated plan. These ideas don’t represent a new paradigm, but they call into sharp focus the imperative for successful change.

For several years now, companies have been talking about the need to ‘transform’, to evolve their traditional ways of doing business. They have been talking about the need to keep pace with changes in consumer behaviour and to capitalise on opportunities afforded by new data and technology. And yet, when, after two years, Gartner repeated a study of business leaders – asking them when they expected to be a business fit for the digital age – the majority reported that they were actually further from their objective than they’d thought they were two years before.

The reason for this is a combination of two factors:

  1. Transformation has all too often become synonymous with a new technology platform, and businesses often forget that real transformation is about people. To change an organisational outcome, you have to change the organisational behaviours. We can’t expect change if we focus on the infrastructure and not on the culture surrounding it.
  2. Without clarity and a single-minded focus on the problem we’re trying to solve, the temptation is to try and evolve by incorporating several piecemeal elements of a solution. We implement the platform, we buy the data, we kick off lots of initiatives, but the wider we spread our efforts, the more diffuse the impact.

So, businesses that started with the right transformational intentions have become distracted by large technology programmes and have allowed their focus to drift.

Let’s return to why COVID-19 presents an opportunity – and an imperative. Businesses and brands can use the aforementioned acceleration of changes to stimulate their own transformation, starting from within. We know from experience that any programme that requires change will only succeed if the organisation (by which we mean its people) wants it to work. The immediate opportunity afforded by COVID-19 is that it galvanises every person in every organisation around the need for new ways of working. The cultural shockwaves radiating through companies across the globe can be harnessed to create the impetus for successful change.

Clearly there will be marked differences in impact by sector but, overall, if we look at the businesses that will move fastest and emerge strongest, we will see some common attributes. Those that are purposeful in their actions, responsive to consumer and employee needs, agile in the speed at which they can mobilise, digital at their core and, above all, flexible will show the greatest resilience and rise the fastest. Those that have addressed their global governance and built up a strong network of partners will be able to put into place a globally coordinated strategy.

These are the businesses that will be able to innovate and evolve. They will adapt their business models as necessary and generate new modes of interaction with consumers. Overall, they will continue to grow the strength of their brand and message, build deeper relationships with customers through digitally facilitated interactions and maximise the opportunities for sales and service by being present as society transitions out of crisis and into recovery.

In forging his alliance with Stalin and Roosevelt, Winston Churchill remarked that we should never let a good crisis go to waste. There is an opportunity for businesses right now to use the COVID-19 disruption as a catalyst for focused change.

By seizing the opportunity and by learning lessons from the past decade of ‘transformation’ false starts, it is possible for leaders to position their businesses for success in a more turbulent future. Transformations undertaken now must not be focused on creating a more streamlined version of today. Instead, they should be designed to realise an organisational culture that has the resilience and flexibility to adapt. They must look beyond the temptations of deceptively enticing technology to focus as much on the organisational behaviours and capabilities that underpin the business. And, fundamentally, they must be coordinated, singular in purpose and ready to start now.

Done well and with proper support, we can expect to see brands emerge from COVID-19 better-placed to adapt to the changes around them – changes that pre-date 2020 but that have accelerated under viral and societal pressure. Done well, the imperative – nay opportunity – for transformation will have corrected our course towards a more flexible and resilient future populated by companies practising the business of unusual.

Alan Davies

Head of Client Business Transformation, WPP

published on

01 May 2020


Technology & innovation

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