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Market-Morphosis: How the Landscape has Changed

Part one of our three-part series, "Business Unusual: Marketing Accelerated"

  • October 2020

Dynamic. Digitized. Driven by Purpose

The marketing landscape is not going back to “normal.” It has been transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic. And more change is yet to come.

Egon Zehnder reached out to marketing executives around the world for their insights into the challenges at hand. Our colleagues connected with business leaders and posed a single question:

“How will the marketing function look different post Covid-19?”

Leveraging our deep relationships across industries, we spoke with 65 executives from 61 companies to gain real-time insights on the future of marketing. We found that marketing leaders see profound change already sweeping their profession, from the way their markets operate, to the way they’ll need to work, to the talent and capabilities they’ll need to be effective in the future.

Markets: A Changed Landscape

Chief Marketing Officers face a radically altered playing field. While many of the trends they face will seem familiar, the speed and depth of their impact will challenge businesses to respond in new ways.

Expect the unexpected

The COVID crisis has not only had primary public health effects, but it has also driven knock-on effects on the economy and our way of life. It’s exposed how easily events can challenge our basic business assumptions and how ready we need to be to shift gears.

Marketers will need to function in a landscape where traditional planning and processes no longer suit business needs. “The idea of planning a campaign for 12 or 18 months will not be possible any longer. We need to be agile in our approach,” said Kate Kibler, Vice President, Digital at US-based Timberland. It’s already difficult for brands and agencies to adhere to the traditional budget process, setting marketing spending plans 6 to 12 months out, she said. The world is too uncertain. “No one will be able to operate under those assumptions.”

One risk manager at a global sports company suggested companies “play some war games” to rethink how their brands have been impacted by specific COVID-related changes such as US/China relations and consumer attitudes around climate change.

But other leaders warn that the broader economy remains the greatest challenge. “Business will slow down. We’ve seen it all across the world when movement control eases up, the economy doesn’t immediately rebound back. In cities where lockdowns are lifted, some might experience a resurgence in coronavirus cases. It‘s likely to be a long road to recovery, said Cheryl Goh, Chief Marketing Officer, Grab, a multinational ride-hailing company based in Singapore.

Digitalization will explode

The migration to digital has been accelerated by necessity during the pandemic. Early movers have been joined by many who might not have otherwise shifted their business models so rapidly. Even companies that embraced digital change before COVID-19 will find their process pushed into high gear by the consumer demand for e-commerce options. And those without digital sophistication are in a fight for their lives.

“The digital road map will accelerate by three years,” predicted Albert Saltiel, Senior Vice President, Marketing & E-Commerce, Customer Satisfaction for US-based AutoZone.

For most, the acceleration is well underway. One former CMO, now on the board of a major retailer, witnessed the ramp up firsthand as executives there pushed the online business from 3% of revenues to 12% in short order. And the pressure is building across industries. The pandemic has driven shoppers to buy products they’ve never before bought online, and 70% are buying more than usual, according to The State of Commerce Experience by Forrester Consulting. Digital commerce is driving growth with upticks in online search, traffic, and orders, the report found.

The speed of transformation may be positive, but it will have pitfalls for some. Not every business will be able to ramp up in necessary digital expertise. Some companies will “rush towards the things that seem to be more impactful and more accessible, mostly around digital,” said a former Chief Customer Officer of a British multinational retailing company. But without the right digital talent, they may not be able to stand out, he said.

Purpose anchored purchasing will expand

While the search for purpose has been growing in consumer consciousness, COVID-19 has pushed it to the forefront. In times of trouble people look for sources of safety and comfort. They turn to what they know and trust.

They want to see businesses caring about their customers as much as their shareholders. This will fuel growing consumer attention to provenance, authenticity and meaning.

“It’s a process that will require creative thinking. Consumers are not going to settle for window-dressing purpose efforts,” said Carla D‘Alessandro Chief Marketing Officer at Brightline Trains. “Many brands have been focusing on identifying and cultivating ‘purpose’ for years; however, in a post-pandemic world, consumers will be searching for a two-way street in securing trust and when navigating choices that affect a wide range of products and services.”

Purpose will center around the concept of trust, said John Rosair, Managing Director, Asia Pacific and Global Travel Retail, US-based Beam Suntory. “People are looking for safety, quality/value for money and brands they know and trust. Launching new brands and asking consumers to take a leap of faith in something new will be challenging.”

Brands that attempt to extract value from consumers without giving back in a meaningful way will be left by the wayside.

Carla D’Alessandro Chief Marketing Officer at Brightline Trains

“Ultimately, consumers will look for purpose in far more than just traditional marketing messages,” said Jonathan Mildenhall, CEO TwentyFirstCentury Brand, former CMO of Airbnb. “The major shift for brands is moving from ‘ads to acts’. Acts of generosity that lift up the communities they serve. It’s a daunting moment, but brands have a fighting chance of making a difference if we set about it with integrity, purpose, and a clear understanding of what our communities really need.”

Change from the outside in

These fundamental shifts in the landscape mean that industries and companies must adapt. External change will necessitate new ways of thinking and working. For example, performance standards will be reimagined. After years of striving for growth, companies may emerge with a new or expanded set of performance measures. For many, this new reality will mean a greater focus on productivity and returns. As a result, companies will focus on keeping only star performers who have broad understanding of the market and their discipline.

In sum, Marketing leaders across the globe and across industries agreed that COVID is forcing broad societal shifts that will resonate for decades. “COVID is going to significantly change consumer behavior and it won’t be short lived either,” said Chip Bergh, CEO of US-based Levi’s. “My dad grew up during the Depression. He was nine when it started. Even when he died at age 84, he had two cases of Campbell’s Soup under his bed. His behavior was changed by the Depression.” Bergh said it’s hard to look at his own 12-year-old daughter and not imagine the same behavior change is underway for her right now.

The landscape of the marketing function has been changed by COVID-19. These new markets will be the playing field to which all must adapt.


< Part Three
Big "M" Marketing Just Got Bigger

Part Two >
New Marketing for the New Normal


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Next in Business Unusual: Marketing Accelerated

  1. Market-Morphosis: How the Landscape has Changed
  2. New Marketing for the New Normal
  3. Big “M” Marketing Just Got Bigger
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