Ahmed Hassan, independent Digital Transformation Strategist and former Chief Digital Officer at Spark44 suggests a way through the blur of the current crisis. We avoid the kneejerk, don’t stop our marketing activities, adapt them, and take a lesson from the great recession and keep moving.


Knee-jerk reactions are interesting things, at best almost always detrimental to business, and at worst catastrophic. Essentially they are a protective response, rapid in nature, usually with little thought, often emotional and caused by an action that a person is highly sensitive to or feels the need to be protected from. We have seen a lot of these over the last few months in the wider world and more interestingly in the business world too.

Most of the knee-jerk reactions have obviously come as a result of company responses to the pandemic. The virus hit like a tsunami on a small sandy island, catching everyone off-guard. Suddenly people weren’t buying and weren’t actually able to buy. Even website traffic momentarily dropped. The closure of concessions and shops, the disappearance of parties and soirées, and the lack of posing and sharing at the workplace all destroyed the ability to acquire, and perhaps even the need for, certain goods. The focus – rightly – was on protecting oneself and one’s loved ones from the invisible enemy.

The luxury goods sector, already struggling prior to the pandemic (Mckinsey) had a few more nails hammered into its coffin because of Covid-19, but what was interesting was the response of these and other brands. Since the initial reaction to the outbreak, which saw companies associating themselves with the concept of community and togetherness, hoping for a positive brand association, there was a realization that this ‘new’ way of the world may be around for longer than anyone could have predicted. This is when the real knee-jerk responses began. The business press (and even LinkedIn) were rife with statements of companies cutting their marketing budgets, reducing headcount, shutting down divisions, and so on. Some did try to amplify, grow or in many cases activate their eCommerce capability in the hope that this would help stabilize sales.

What is actually required however is a measured, structured and strategic response to the new zeitgeist. Yes, costs will need to be cut to balance the books, but there needs to be a realisation and adoption of a more focused, scientific approach to the understanding that how things were (consumption of goods) is not how things will be (Stanford). My history teacher at school always told the students – whilst walking around the classroom bouncing a golf ball – that “the past is the key to the future”, and so it is looking back at global events that have had a direct impact on buyer behaviour that has led me to synthesise down what I believe are four critical areas that companies should maintain a focus on and investment in:

  1. Strategy. Changing consumer behaviour throughout the lifecycle of a purchase. Adapting your customer journey maps to accommodate longer deliberation and risk/reward steps.
  2. Data. To map the actual experience from the anticipated journey allowing for an agile response and a move to real-time personalised communication. It is also imperative to enable predictive modelling for the strategy work.
  3. Content. Yes, I know this is an over-used phrase, but it is actually critical. The content needs to focus on the value proposition your brand is offering at each stage of the journey, solving the customer need and moving them along the journey.
  4. Integration. Connecting your technology backbone to enable the flow of data between your eCommerce engine and fulfilment back-office systems, and allow for more rapid real-time agility. 

Why change? 

Well, the Stanford article mentioned above, although based on a US study, neatly summarises the long-term impact on consumer confidence and more importantly on the duration of a recession. As with our pandemic related financial crisis, the Great Recession was not caused by a lack of consumer spending but was prolonged because of it. Further research clearly showed that post the Great Recession a new consumer emerged, one that “…wants to buy and is therefore looking for opportunities and experiences that could make life happier and more satisfying” (Voinea and Filip). In addition Sharna and Sonwalker whilst investigating buyer behaviour during this period identified a move to simplicity and a break from brand loyalty versus cost. With Quelch and Jocz identifying the existence of four consumer segments (not driven by income) in post-recession world: The slam-on-the-brakes, the pained-but-patient, the comfortably well-off, and finally the live-for-today segment. Each segment in turn engaging differently to the four purchase decision groups. 

The potential but probable recession that Covid-19 is washing up on to our shores is likely to be deeper, far deeper than that of the Great Recession as it impacts every single segment with impunity. As Quelch and Jocz postulate, it is likely that the changes in consumer behaviour as a result of a long drawn out crisis will permanently adjust and become the modus operandi, “The post-recession consumer will be stronger, more agile, and more connected than ever. The recession will bring more mindfulness to the buying equation – which means that consumers will be calculating purchases in a more complex way” (Yandi). Specifically the luxury sector needs to mount the transformation of its approach to marketing with great urgency, as Lachowska noted that the impact of Great Recession was likely to be on durables “My findings point to the largest drops in total spending occurring at the upper percentiles of the distribution of expenditure.” 

Of course, companies did react and change as learning from the Great Recession, but as Andrew Curry highlighted “One of the common mistakes made by some brands in the wake of the recession was to confuse value with price.” He went on to say “Value is about the whole package, the emotional and service benefits as well as the product or core service. Consumers will pay more if they understand the value of the whole thing.” So the focus on value is critical. This should certainly meet the behaviors of the new consumers and aid brands in the selling. 

All this goes to highlight a fundamental change in consumer behaviour which in turn requires fundamental change in marketing.

But how do you do this? 

Well, this varies from company to company, but the key thing is belief. It may seem daunting to CEOs and CFOs to understand the need to continue their marketing investment, to hold the line, to act bravely but this is exactly what is required. It does not cost millions to do this, in fact adapting the budgets will allow you to implement this in a cost-neutral fashion. I will say this though, if we are to get out of this, then we need to develop strategies that understand the new consumer, building their confidence and encouraging them to buy.

If you feel this is of interest and/or would like support in driving the transformation of your marketing/technology functions, you can contact Ahmed via LinkdIn.


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