Beyond the Pandemic: Eight Principles Marketers Can Use to Find Opportunities in Crises

January 14, 2021

Legendary marketing professor and consultant Philip Kotler has a stern warning for practitioners who are simply muddling through the coronavirus pandemic, waiting for a return to normal. That kind of complacency is a business killer, he says.

“Marketing is no longer placing some ads in broadcast and print, and pricing your product. That’s the old marketing,” said Kotler, who is known as the father of modern marketing. “If you’re just going to coast on the older marketing, you won’t be around.”

Kotler made these remarks at the online launch of Transformation in Times of Crisis, a new book by Nitin Rakesh, CEO of global software company Mphasis, and Jerry Wind, a pioneering researcher and emeritus professor of marketing at The Wharton School. With a forward from Kotler, the book offers eight principles that can help marketers emerge from these unprecedented times stronger, more resilient and ready for what’s next.

“We have to start thinking about the new reality and how to operate there,” Wind said during the launch event. “Creativity is a must, and you have to start enhancing your and your team’s skills in this area to try to be able to come up with the right type of solutions to address the new reality that we’re going to deal with.”

The COVID-19 outbreak, global economic instability and social unrest have combined to create disruption like no other in recent times. Normal will no longer look the same after the pandemic subsides, and companies that want to win in the long game should start pivoting now. Wind said the eight principles apply to marketers, but they also work for managers, nonprofit leaders and even policy makers – anyone wanting to build a better future.

“The key takeaway [is that] you have to change, or you will not survive,” he said. “Most importantly, you have to have the courage to change.”

Rakesh hopes the book will serve as a model of best practices for both individual business leaders and their industries. “It’s very clear to us that, as things changed overnight, people had no choice but to find ways to get back up and running in whatever shape and form,” he said about the events of 2020. “There was a lot of early experimentation that happened over the spring and summer. We are starting to see that some of that will stick, and now the focus is how do you take some of those and move them into long-term, impactful business model changes.”

The eight principles are:

  1. Challenge your mental models and always stay ahead. Every company in every industry can find opportunities in this crisis if executives reexamine and, if needed, change their mental models.
  2. Reimagine and reinvent your approach to customers and stakeholders. Being proactive about communication, especially with customers, in a sensitive fashion is imperative.
  3. Speed up digital transformation and design for personalization at scale. Personalize each individual unique experience using enhanced digital capabilities.
  4. Reinvent your talent strategy and embrace open innovation and open talent. Find the right internal and external talent to drive your company to innovate and come out strong, regardless of whether a crisis is present or not.
  5. Seize the need for speed and design for agility, adjacencies and adaptability.
    In a dynamically changing environment, ensure that you can adapt fast. Build the capability to quickly mold and flourish in any environment.
  6. Innovate then experiment, experiment, experiment. A crisis is a great opportunity to learn from natural experiments. Experimentation and innovation are critical.
  7. Redraw your timelines and build a portfolio of initiatives across all innovation horizons. Even as you are addressing the current needs during a crisis, you also need to create the opportunities it offers and prepare for the next crisis.
  8. Deploy idealized design, recreate your organizational architecture and network orchestration. The idealized design process is a powerful tool, which involves imagining what the future could be and then working backwards to the present to create that reality.

Keep an Open Mind to Change

For Wind, the most critical principle is the first one: Challenge your mental models and always stay ahead. He pointed to the profound lifestyle changes that have been driven by the pandemic. Online shopping has increased by double digits in the past year with no signs of slowing down, according to numerous studies. Millions of employees around the world have left office buildings to work from the safety and comfort of their homes. And countless schools and universities have adopted virtual or hybrid learning.

Those changes are here to stay, which is why it is important to take careful inventory of existing mental models and adjust them, Wind said.

“You cannot just ignore the experience of the last nine months,” he said. “Working from home has been successful and can help in rethinking the future of work. E-commerce has grown enormously, and all retailers will need to think about shifting to an omnichannel strategy. E-learning…cannot be ignored in designing the new educational paradigm following the crisis.”

Rakesh noted that the extent and scope of the disruption became more evident as the pandemic rolled along and accelerated changes that were already in motion, such as the move to digital. At Mphasis, he used the moment to “play offense” with his team and brainstorm ways to embrace change. He encouraged other business leaders and marketers to do the same.

“The world has been an exciting place over the last 10 years. I think it just got a lot more exciting with the acceleration of these trends,” he said. “Many of them are driven by technology disruption, many of them actually led by the customer behavior change and the move away from traditional modes of engagement.”

Creating Value for Marketers

The authors put their own principles into practice while working on the book. They initially planned to write about the “architecture of disruption,” but changed the focus in March when the pandemic was in full swing. Then they decided to try an innovative publisher in India to speed up what is typically a nine-month process with U.S. publishers. “[They] were able to get the book out in 40 days, which made all the difference in the world,” Wind said.

Kotler, who has written more than 80 books, said Transformation in Times of Crisis “creates value” for marketers who want to figure out where they stand, find and fix their weak spots, and prepare for what’s next. He encouraged marketers to read all the chapters of the book — not just their favorite ones – because the eight principles work together as a cohesive strategy.

“New marketing is about collecting big data, getting to know our individual customers, getting to know what they care about, what they want from you, from the society and the economy, and showing that you care,” he said.

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