Marketing in a Pandemic – the need for business model reinvention

COVID-19 has been with us for about a year now. In that year, companies like Zoom have gone stratospheric. E-commerce and food delivery have prospered. Online trainers, home gym equipment and virtual learning have all been much in demand. Netflix has done very well indeed.

At the same time, some businesses have suffered. Anything related to travel, obviously – hotels, airlines, cruises and so forth. Restaurants and hospitality are down too and physical retail as well.

I was looking at a chart recently on how sales of automobiles have dropped in the last year and it got me thinking about whether, in some of these categories, the dip in business was really due to a failure in marketing imagination.

I’m surprised that none of the car manufacturers has taken the opportunity to win users off public transport, for instance – in places where people still get to go out. Bear in mind that most countries had only partial lockdowns for short periods of time so for the most part, people did go out to do essential shopping, pick up food and so forth. Plus, even when the pandemic is “over” there will still be a lot of concern about going out in crowds, so this is more than a short term opportunity. Particularly in big metropolises where a large number of younger consumers choose not to own cars and call Uber or ride buses or the subway, there is an opportunity to position a car as your safe-haven when going out. It doesn’t have to be about selling cars – there are other business models, like short term leases – which could have helped with the business during this time.

Similarly, airlines and cruise companies trying to do “trips to nowhere” is another failure of imagination. To my mind, taking an airplane up in the air or a ship out on the water incurs all of the costs for very limited revenue. Looking at a cruise ship differently – like an amusement park or as a variety of dining and shopping experiences – could lead to people going on a day trip (on a stationary ship) just to enjoy the static facilities. Similarly, airlines could set up experience trips – showing people around the cockpit, engines, control tower and also experience a luxury meal in business / first class seats on a stationary airplane. Trying to get revenue without turning on the engines would be far better than a flight which just circles back and lands at its originating airport.

Those are not going to work for the industries as a whole, obviously, since there is a macroeconomic trend affecting them, but for a few players in each industry who think differently (and potentially have a product / service to quickly redeploy in a new way) there is an opportunity to limit the damage from COVID and perhaps build out a new line of revenue that survives the end of the pandemic.

In some ways, if you look at the business successes of COVID-19, they suffer from the same lack of forward thinking.

Zoom did well because it was the only good option at the time the pandemic started – however, it’s started losing ground to Teams and other video calling options because it didn’t really prepare for the level of usage that happened. Additionally, none of these apps is taking the next step towards creating a virtual work environment rather than just a video calling environment – something that will very likely be needed now that WFH has become more of a way of life than ever before. Even at a less esoteric level, if one of these apps were to start offering simple features that allow someone to apply virtual make-up or virtual formal clothes, it would become a winning difference. We’ve seen cat filters and virtual backgrounds, sure, but the times call for more small features that are actually valuable to frequent conference-call participants.

It all comes back to one thing – understanding changing consumer needs and coming up with solutions to them – that is the core of marketing and indeed, the core of any successful business. If you happened to be lucky and your product or service suddenly became indispensable, great – but you still have to think about whether it’s enough as time goes on and consumer needs become more entrenched. If you happened to be unlucky and your product or service doesn’t work in a changed environment, think about how it might be adapted or reimagined in order to do so.

We have a global medical supplies client who was dependent on the hospital distribution system for their business. Sales in China suffered when hospitals started discouraging patients from coming back for anything that wasn’t a serious medical condition. Over the past year they’ve built a direct-to-consumer channel in China on e-commerce and are expanding into more such channels as a long term strategy. In a category in which B2C was unthinkable in the past and does not exist as a model anywhere else in the world, we’ve helped build a B2C model in China that can become a very viable route for the future.

Change is an opportunity for most businesses – those that make the most of it will find new successes and those who don’t do enough will fall by the wayside even if at this moment, success seems to have found them entirely by serendipity.

At Searchlight Consulting, we help clients think about effective solutions in marketing and business. Each of our Managing Partners has over 20 years of business experience and the writer of this piece, D.Sriram, has had a 30+ year career in China and Asia in business leadership roles at agencies, Ad-tech and consulting companies.

Get in touch at if you’d like us to conduct an ideation workshop to help you identify new ways of doing business.

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