How has Covid-19 reshaped international marketing?

How do you navigate international marketing during a pandemic when every country – even some individual regions within those countries – has been impacted differently? From travel, to social and working restrictions – no two places, or even two months, are the same.  A message that works in one market may be irrelevant in another. Yet, one thing that is certain is that silence isn’t an option. International marketing must go on. After nearly a year living with the pandemic, what have we learnt so far that can guide us forward?

At Comtec we pride ourselves on taking the time to understand the challenges our clients are facing. It’s important to have our finger on the pulse of all the industries we work with. In order to dive deeper into how the pandemic is affecting international marketing and what it might mean for brands in the future, we took a look at the research so far and spoke to a range of experts in this field. Here are 6 ways Covid-19 has changed international marketing.

Existing assumptions around how customers respond in particular markets have been fundamentally challenged.  

Each country is responding to Covid-19 differently. For example, some are in regional lockdowns, some aren’t, some have recovered reasonably well, some have been significantly damaged. This will impact audiences in each market, even in markets which would have traditionally responded to marketing messages in similar ways. Marketing Week found in a global study that 62% of B2C marketers and 51% of B2B marketers say that Covid-19 has caused significant or radical changes to the customer journey. This change in the landscape means that new needs may arise and similarities, as well as differences between markets, may emerge which weren’t there before.

All of this points to the increased importance of local in-market research to truly understand customer needs now, which may have changed significantly from the onset of COVID. Companies, therefore, need to adjust their marketing plans to take account of this updated insight.

“Know what you’re all aiming for (at a global scale) then identify at country level: who the customers are and what will attract, engage and convert them. Know your local audience.” Lynsey Sweales, Google Partner Trainer,  IDM Tutor, CEO & International Digital Marketing Strategist at SocialB.

E-commerce has boomed, providing easier access to international markets.  

Capgemini has found that online retail growth across Europe increased by 36% year on year in October 2020. And eshopworld predicted that cross-border online sales could rise by more than 60% year on year over the Christmas period. For international marketers, this has opened up new markets and made reaching currently unserved customers much more attractive. A survey by the United Nations found that countries with previously smaller online sales figures were the countries that have seen the biggest increase. All of this points to an increased opportunity to embrace digital sales in order to offset potentially declining sales via traditional routes.

Lynsey Sweales has spent the past 19 years working in digital marketing for global organisations, including leading e-commerce retailers, and so I was keen to hear her thoughts on this. She shared that companies that had previously just dipped their toes into digital, faced a sales gap when COVID halted things like trade shows and conferences. It’s now essential for these businesses to quickly fully integrate online. But what about when (if) things go back to normal? Deloitte predicts that companies heavily investing in their online business now will emerge as market leaders in the future.

“More companies are looking into internationalising their business and more companies are globally minded due to the pandemic.” Lynsey Sweales

Technology is driving the ‘new normal’.

The role of technology in global marketing is nothing new but the rate of adoption and innovation has accelerated over the pandemic. Using AI technology to predict customer behaviour is just one innovation which is thought to be increasing in adoption due to the rise in online sales (Yieldify). One of our experts, Rachit Kapoor, was clear that his role as an international marketer is going to be more focused in the future on how to best use digital tools alongside local activation.

“My focus will be mainly on digital and how to use it in the best way, but combine it with local activation to bring in the human touch. It needs to be digital and human.” Rachit Kapoor, Global Marketing Manager with over 12 years’ experience with international brands and corporations such as Gulf Oil, KFC and Aston Martin.

Even the marketing event industry is being permanently impacted by the forced adoption of technology. A study by Bizzabo found that 97% of global events industry professionals expect to see more hybrid events going forward. A key driver for this is that this method provides a more cost-effective and efficient model of delivery.

With good use of technology comes efficiency and improved ways of working and this is especially meaningful when dealing with large volumes of data or insight. By adopting technology at a faster rate, global marketers will be better equipped to identify and react to local information.

“When you are online you can buy and sell from anywhere and COVID has opened peoples’ eyes up to that.” Lynsey Sweales 

Innovation at all levels has been forced. It’s now an essential part of global business and therefore international marketing strategy.

With a remote workforce and online purchasing, geographical location has become much less of a barrier. For emerging markets, this accelerated digital shift could result in significant innovation in the way the world buys and sells goods. We could see for example, small markets grow as the playing field is ‘levelled up’. Countries such as India, Vietnam and South Africa have all identified the opportunity that Covid presents for them (Bloomberg). The damaging impact on global supply chains when China was hit by the pandemic, signaled to the world the risk of relying on one country for the supply of goods and therefore left room for innovative countries to step in.

Similarly, advancements in digital marketing, apps, the proliferation of subscription models and streaming services all impact global marketers as they will be expected to understand and apply innovations quickly. Being able to innovate and think creatively will be a critical skill in all areas of business moving forwards (McKinsey) but with marketing being at the cutting edge of change, embracing innovation is even more important.

“The pandemic has been like the Big Bang. We have a new way of living now. It’s changed how people think at a deep level.” Rachit Kapoor

With a global strategy comes the need for local understanding.

The pandemic has created a shared language and global conversation. Adversity has the power to bring people together and now being ‘glocal’ is more relevant than ever.

As companies take up the opportunity of working internationally the need to understand how to apply this global strategy at a local level still applies. For example, an e-commerce store would need to understand that for some countries, paying online isn’t the norm, they pay with cash on delivery. Although the shift to online has created a wealth of opportunities, it still needs to work locally. Brands need to be more empathetic and human which means being locally focused and locally reactive.

“Glocalisation will become far more prominent than globalisation.” Rachit Kapoor

Brands have to be authentic.

How a brand is perceived by consumers is essential to its success. Consumers want brands that share their ideas and beliefs. In the hyper-connected, globalised world, it’s easier than ever to keep a close eye on what brands do and don’t say. Those that choose to speak out, stay silent or contradict themselves on topics that consumers care about, may end-up in the crossfire. Social media has put the spotlight on brands like never before. Consumers are savvier than ever and can spot disingenuous behavior as quickly as they can hit retweet. With more people using these platforms during COVID, brands can’t ignore the need for an authentic presence.

Brands must behave empathetically and with sensitivity to the challenges consumers are facing. It’s important to stay current with changing restrictions or updates and keep messaging clear and consistent. For brands working across global markets, it’s crucial to understand the specific situation for consumers in each market, as the impact of COVID on the local economy and society will vary considerably.

But what does it mean to be authentic? In ‘Brand authenticity: An integrative framework and measurement scaleMorhart et al. conducted research into how consumers understand and define brand authenticity. They found that brands that are seen as authentic must be:

  • Faithful toward itself (continuity)
  • True to its consumers (credibility)
  • Motivated by caring and responsibility (integrity)
  • Able to support consumers in being true to themselves (symbolism)

As one of the experts, Rachit said, “[during this time] the brand promise has to be much deeper”.

Looking to the future.

One thing is certain, understanding people and keeping abreast of changes within each country is essential. Empathy is essential if you want to be remembered for the right reasons. One size will not fit all and the brands that thrive will be those who have their ear firmly to the ground and are ready to adapt.

How can you show your customers you understand them? If you have local market colleagues, make sure you’re listening to them. They’ll have a better idea of influences outside the global news bulletin.

Alongside speaking to marketing experts we’ve also spoken to L&D and Creative Agencies to see how the pandemic has impacted them. If you’re interested in finding out more about translations please get in touch.

A huge thank you goes to everyone that spoke with me and contributed to this, in addition to those mentioned in the article.

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