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        Faculty, Marketing, Research

        Digital transformation: Marketing in recovery won't look the same

        May 14, 2021 By Harbert College of Business

        All News



        Once the pandemic hit companies worldwide, marketers—the revenue generators, the customers’ closest ally, the barometers of ever-changing wants and needs—went into panic mode. That led to impromptu survival tactics and the looming question of what challenges this new world would bring. 

        But some forward-thinking marketers transformed the process of adaptation into game-changing innovation that now better positions them for growth in the eventual recovery.

        By now, marketing is seeing an unforeseen evolution—an opportunity for a “unique unfreezing,” according to a recent installment in McKinsey’s ongoing series on COVID’s business impact. 

        Professor Linda Ferrell, John Roth Family Faculty Fellow of Marketing and Business Ethics in Harbert College's Department of Marketing didn’t mince words when discussing this sea change.

        “Marketing will be forever changed as a result of this pandemic,” said Ferrell.

        Unleashing the technological genie


        Dr. Linda Ferrell

        What are we likely to see as recovery begins? First off, companies will get closer to customers. On-demand engagement has become the norm. Though Webex, Microsoft Teams and Zoom conferencing have been options for a while now, the need for and the remarkable reliability of these existing technologies meetings has never been clearer. 

        One result: Crowded travel schedules and plane tickets won’t be easy to defend. 

        “Will salespeople stop traveling altogether? Of course not,” Ferrell said. “But we have seen universities and businesses function with conferences and virtual connectedness, and this has saved a tremendous amount of both money out of pocket and time.” 

        And as further technology is harnessed, productivity, efficiency and effectiveness in marketing is likely to increase. 

        Virtual tools have been evolving at warp speed in the past two decades, but it took a worldwide pandemic for marketers to uncover and salvage the digital magic crumpled under piles of old protocols for years. This held particularly true for direct-selling contractors who saw person-to-person contact as a necessity. These companies not only fared better during the worst of the pandemic’s economic downturn, but also stand to gain greater strength in the recovery.

        “Many direct selling firms saw dramatic sales increases, all because their independent sellers started connecting virtually,” Ferrell said.

        Just bring it to me 

        “On demand” has become a way of life for consumers everywhere in the wake of the pandemic. In one eight-week period after COVID hit and lockdowns began, consumers vaulted the equivalent of five years when it came to adopting digital spending habits. 

        On a recent HarbertPodcast, restaurant entrepreneur Kelly Baltes, a 2005 graduate of Harbert’s Executive MBA program, offered his thoughts on the impact on dining establishments seeking to recover from a crushing financial blow.


        Kelly Baltes

        “There’s not going to be that big moment when the pandemic is declared over and we go back to the way we were,” he said. Some of the new spending habits will “stick,” and that will require businesses to be adaptive in that model, all the while keeping the brand strong. The convenience of restaurant delivery is the stickiest. This could be a major challenge to upstarts that were on great trajectories before the pandemic hit; established, large restaurants will likely bounce back quicker. 

        The big question, Baltes said, is, “How can the independents find a right way to come back and to give the guests what they need, which is going to be a little bit different on the other side?”

        But of course, the “I need it right here, right now” mentality isn’t limited to restaurant fare, Ferrell said. 

        “We have seen the explosion of subscription services. We are likely to see more as companies better learn how to monetize their product-service offering,” she said. 

        For instance, as consumers have more universally accepted e-books, the marketers of textbook publishers have offered a variety of pricing strategies, including all-access, which offers students all their textbooks for one low price. 

        “Expect greater innovation in pricing as product access options change,” she said. 

        A society of subscribers

        During the time of COVID, subscription services—from Peloton fitness to the Disney Channel to grocery shopping apps such as Shipt and Instacart—have exploded. This is another shift that marketers must put front and center when planning for the changed environment of recovery. 

        “Certain things that we are now buying online, we will continue to after the pandemic,” Ferrell said. “We have rolled into repeat purchasing online for routinely used or bulky and heavy items that are delivered right to your doorstep. Chewy, the pet food and ‘all things pet’ company, believes that they will retain a great deal of their online pet-related sales. 

        “Think about pet food, pet litter and similar bulky items that they ship to you—that’s a bonus.”

        Entertainment—not just newly released movies but also live streams of concerts and other big events—has moved home, too. 

        “We also have invested in more serious home entertainment technologies,” Ferrell said. “Are we really going to be going back to movie theaters? So, some of the staple of our life, pre-pandemic, may become not obsolete, but in much less demand.” 

        Markets boosted by the pandemic

        In May 2020, the New York Times was reporting that bicycle shops in Brooklyn, Phoenix and Washington, D.C, were running out of stock. That trend built and continued, creating and ongoing bicycle shortage as folks yearn to get out of the house or—if they must go to the office—find an alternative mode to get there. 

        The trend had already taken off. Market research company N.P.D. Group reported that sales of commuter, fitness, children’s and electric bikes increased, by category, from 66% to 121%.

        Similar trends led to a kitchen revolution. Mandates to stay at home not only raised reader demand for more food content from food bloggers and online magazines (Good Housekeeping saw a 93% increase) but sent kitchen equipment sales soaring as people began new forays into home cooking. 

        How we live, how we relate

        It’s not just tangible goods and services that have been affected in this transformational time. Take the assessment of the ads run during the broadcast of Super Bowl LV in February. Often notorious for their offbeat humor and comically startling visuals, these ads offer water-cooler subject matter for weeks afterward. The mood is freewheeling, upbeat.

        This year, there was a notable difference. The humor was there, but along with it a sense of unity and caring in anticipation of recovery. Even if Bruce Springsteen’s Jeep ad calling for red and blue to gather in “the middle” backfired as it aired one month after the Capitol insurrection in Washington, the effort was there.

        Ferrell said this shift in messaging may mirror what will happen not just in marketing, but also in the country.

        “This may be like 9/11, and people were kinder to one another for about six months after the tragedies and then shifted back into their old selves,” Ferrell said. “I think this has been so pervasive and culturally traumatic that we will not go back to our old selves, as so much in our lives will be restructured.”

        An enormous aspect of that restructuring is the way marketers are—and will be—working.

        “Do we need to work in New York City, Los Angeles and other uber-expensive locations? What happens when your workforce, including your marketing department, can work from anywhere?” Ferrell said. “You could attract the best talent and allow them to determine where they operate from. Quality of life, as we have experienced, is taking on new meaning for many and impacting decisions even as to whether to work.”