OPINION | Beer for health workers, fashion face masks: How businesses innovate during Covid-19

Agility, resilience, flexibility – these organisational holy grails should now be more urgently and more enthusiastically pursued than ever before.

Why? Because they are the keys to business survival.

Chaos and uncertainty are all around us right now, thanks to Covid-19, but there are some things we know for certain. It is certain that this pandemic will wreak havoc on lives and communities worldwide. And it is certain that the change it brings will put companies out of business if they can’t change their ways of operating quickly enough.

What then can businesses – large and small – do to respond?

Today, organisations need to be extra quick-thinking, decisive, inventive, and reinventive. Already around the world we are seeing examples of how agile businesses are pivoting, strategically and creatively, to take advantage of new opportunities – and their actions can help show the way.

1. Rethink what you do, use what you have

Fashion giants such as Armani, Burberry and Prada (among others) have shifted from making ball gowns to surgical gowns. There has even been a rise in designer face masks

General Motors, Ford and Tesla are manufacturing ventilators. South African micro distillery Inverroche has shifted from making gin to hand sanitisers, as have multinational drink and beer manufacturer AB InBev. Brewgooders in the UK are assisting citizens in supporting NHS staff by giving them the opportunity to thank frontline workers by ‘buying them a pint’ – in true British tradition. The company has set up a delivery service where pints of beer can be delivered on behalf of individuals to the homes of frontline workers as a way of thanks.

2. Forge new and unlikely partnerships

Biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca’s CEO Pascal Soriot says, “Governments need help with their supply chains, capabilities, skills and expertise – and that it remains crucial for companies to partner with others in order to scale their efforts.”

In the USA, Coca-Cola is partnering with a not-for-profit organisation and Georgia Tech engineers to provide plastic sheeting and logistics and supply chain support to help produce face shields for health workers.

Even smaller businesses such as Vienna’s horse drawn carriages, which generally depend on tourists, are continuing operations by now delivering meals to seniors across the city. 

Locally, Vodacom and Discovery have partnered to make free online doctor consultations available to all South Africans.

Cape Town-based Granadilla Swim is partnering with other small businesses such as Woodstock Bakery and local organic farmers, whose sole access to markets collapsed with the onset of the lockdown. Granadilla is now using their on-line order capacity and distribution channels to deliver fresh produce instead of swimwear to clients around the Mother City.

3. Step up and stay in touch

Like their international counterparts, South African big business has stepped up to the front line. Some have made hefty cash donations to the Solidarity Fund, while others are providing products or services.

For example, UNILEVER is donating soaps and sanitizers to various charitable organisations, while the SASOL Foundation is offering free online primary and high school text books and resources during lockdown.

Even small enterprises, arguably the already most damaged and at risk, can demonstrate care and stay in touch with their customers. Countless small businesses are offering online information and awareness campaigns, online classes, entertainment, recipes, and even simply uplifting messages of encouragement on social media platforms.

No matter the size of your business, brands have a responsibility to give back to loyal customers by showing solidarity and empathy particularly during this time. Brands that connect with customers even by just showing solidarity may also have the best chance of survival.

Despite a smaller wallet post Covid-19, customers will have a soft spot for brands that reached out to meet their physical or emotional needs when times were tough. As an article in the MIT Sloan Management Review points out: “In addition to simply being a good practice for ethical reasons, there are empirically established correlations between charitable activities and future financial performance, improved relations with government authorities, and reputational legitimacy.”

4. Forget short-term sales

If you have not yet shifted your approach to marketing, now is the time. Move away from an emphasis on the hard sell, to a newer marketing paradigm of support. Marketing should be the role that cares about and listens to the consumer, feeding information back into the company to inform strategic decisions.

For many businesses, sales or the provision of services are not possible during lockdown at all. But it is possible to use this time to stay in touch with consumers and their changing skills and needs. Take the world-famous Keukenhof flower park in Holland which has launched a series of innovative virtual tours to take its spring flower display to millions of people online. Similarly, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Musée D’Orsay in Paris, among others, are offering virtual tours of its art exhibitions.

Athletic apparel company Lululemon has created an online platform for hunker downers to do yoga classes at home during the lockdown. While this may not increase sales of products in the short term, it allows customers to remain part of the brand while stores are closed and improves well-being during lockdown.

It is likely that this new way of connecting with customers may continue post-lockdown. Changing consumer needs will lead to a demand for new services and products and for new ways of consuming services and products, as well as a change in spending patterns in the months and years ahead. Staying in touch with customers and understanding their needs by meeting them where they are, is likely to put your organisation in a better position to meet those needs.

5. Take care of your staff

In addition to the measures announced by President Ramaphosa to mitigate Covid-19’s impact on employees and SMMEs, many businesses have already shown enormous agility in crafting caring crisis-management plans for their staff. Moving staff off-site, setting up systems for working remotely, or conversely providing protective gear and sanitising work environments.

Further innovations include extending paid sick or annual leave provisions, rethinking HR policies, providing learning opportunities, offering dedicated support to anxious staff, taking salary cuts at management level to ensure wages for the most vulnerable employees. Cared-for employees are loyal employees, and more likely to go the extra mile.

The end of lockdown is not the end

Covid-19 has inflicted severe human suffering and economic strain already, and it will continue to do so, well into the future. The end of lockdown will not be the end of Covid-19. Finding a way of being agile enough to continuously adapt as the world moves from crisis to crisis, is likely to be part of our new normal.

What these inspiring companies are showing us is that in these strange new times, strategic agility – the ability to move fast to take advantage of change to secure competitive advantage – is a key business skill for the new normal.

Being more agile

Of course, not every business will be able to redeploy their capabilities or resources to meet society’s immediate needs. But do what you can. Ask yourself, what are the improvements we can make, and look for incremental innovations. Better still, figure out the “why” of your organisation, and it will be easier to change your “how”. According to Simon Sineck, clarity of purpose (why does our business exist) will ensure the ability to think of new and different ways (how) to achieve your desired end result.

For organisations wanting to brush up on their strategic agility, answering three simple questions is a good place to start: (1) What do we have that’s necessary now? ; (2) What do we have that others do not have? and (3) How then do we partner with others to achieve our desired end result?

Agility (be that strategic or creative) adaptability and empathy for both employees and customers are key elements in staying afloat in the short term and improving the chances of business survival in the long term.

Mignon Reyneke is Associate Professor of Digital Marketing at the UCT Graduate School of Business.

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