Lessons from COVID-19 with Asia's marketing leaders

When reports of a new and potentially deadly coronavirus strain first began to surface from China at the start of 2020, few people could have predicted the earth-shattering impact COVID-19 would have on their lives, work, and the global economy. Several months on and the world is slowly beginning to regain some semblance of order. No more so than in Hong Kong, where the resilience of its people has allowed the city to weather the storm better than almost anywhere else.

But even while practitioners return to their offices and kick the marketing machine back into gear, this experience has left them all changed. Rick Boost asked several of the region’s marketing voices to impart the lessons they have learned working through a global pandemic.

Darren Chuckry
Hong Kong chair
The Marketing Society

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I found myself awakened by a deep curiosity within, which led me to find a new purpose in life, ensuring that I dedicated a minimum amount of time each day to improving my mind, body and spirit.

This awakening pushed me into learning new ways of doing business, trying new tools and software that I previously never would have used, and being inspired to connect virtually with friends, peers, and mentors from across the world. Most importantly, I developed a strong belief that instead of letting fear take control, I would look fear in the face and always find the unique opportunity waiting on the other side.

Fear is our worse enemy. Instead of being scared, attack the issue head on and see what new opportunities might be waiting for you. The world has changed forever, have you?

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.” – Eleanor Roosevelt.


Napoleon Biggs
Chief digital officer
Web Wednesday Ventures

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Hunker down, wear a mask, work from home, go virtual! Yes, working from home has taught us to appreciate the internet and the ability to run our lives online. We’ve learnt to Zoom, TikTok, HKTVmall, and Netflix. We’ve also learnt how to hoard toilet paper and flatten the curve, although these don’t seem to be linked!

Now the gates of social distancing are being opened, we stream into the streets, flood into the parks, cascade into the malls, pour onto the beaches and roll into (and out of!) the bars. Scratch the digital surface and everyone will admit that we miss the company of other warm-­bodied beings and those invaluable moments: chatting in the lift lobby, grabbing a coffee, bumping into an old client at the bar, or catching up on industry gossip at a conference.

None of which online meetings or collaboration tools can ever match. In all honesty, it has been tough to sustain a digital marketing and innovation consultancy over the past four months.

It may be true that COVID-­19 has acted as an accelerator, pushing formerly reluctant corporates to move their operations into the digital realm. But many marketing and technology budgets remain frozen, waiting for evidence of an economic comeback, wondering whether it will be in the form of a “U”, “V” or “Nike swoosh”.

Now is the time to hustle. COVID-­19 has challenged us to dig deep into our souls and unearth hidden creativity. Mine has come in the form of a “public service” campaign to drive awareness of the myriad of SMEs that exist in Hong Kong and illustrate their energy and passion through a series of short videos.


Jane Dee
Co-­founder and CMO
Beyond Beauty Global
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What personal lessons have I learned? Health is of utmost importance – taking care of oneself and being considerate of others became a focal point for me. It is being mindful of my actions and ensuring I am well-­protected not just for me, but also for my community.

Mental wellness also became a key priority – keeping a positive outlook every day is crucial and I achieve this through a daily routine of morning meditation and devotion, outdoor exercises, and a healthy breakfast. Last, authentic and solid relationships with loved ones can get you through anything. A quick call to friends and family puts a smile on my face and lift my spirits up. I’m extremely grateful for my relationships and make reaching out a daily habit.

As for my professional lessons? Working from home and remote work will be the new norm and working hours will be flexible. Everyone can be productive outside the office, but boundaries need to be put in place.

For instance, I break my time into one-­to-­two hour intervals and lunch breaks are sacred. Business travel will also change, in that leadership and employees will utilise virtual communication and presentations rather than travelling for work or meetings.

Furthermore, a sophisticated digital infrastructure and processes in business and organisations will be mandatory.

Looking at our audiences, health, wellness, sustainable and organic brands will be the top choice for discerning consumers. Luxury will be redefined. People will prefer genuine experiences, interaction, communication, and content rather than just premium material goods.

Sunshine Farzan
Group head of marketing and communications
Tricor Group

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We are living a reality that would have been inconceivable a few short months ago. Along with the public health crisis, much of the global workforce is remote while economic markets worldwide have been completely disrupted. No matter your industry, companies need to adapt to rapidly shifting consumer behaviour and demand, which is where marketers can shine.

We’re marketers, not fortune tellers, and it’s unclear what the post COVID­-19 “new normal” entails. However, during these extenuating circumstances, there are four key lessons that marketers can take away to thrive amid uncertainty.

One: Crisis brings opportunities. Marketers and brands must quickly pivot, respond and anticipate how their brand, customers, products, partnerships, and supply chains will be impacted, and this should be frequently adjusted. It is important for marketing leaders to conduct scenario planning and consider a full spectrum of best and worst­-case scenarios to create fluid marketing strategies and effectively seize emerging opportunities.

Two: Cash is king. Many marketers have had to quickly scale back discretionary spend in order to help businesses maintain cash flow and liquidity. Those who did not quickly respond are dealing with harsh consequences. Marketing has always been performance-­based and driven by KPIs and metrics. However, amid the current financial pressures, it’s becoming increasingly critical to keep an acute eye on profitability, cash flow, and the bottom line, while continuously adjusting plans to optimise ROI.

Three: Product development and digital innovation are never optional. Despite economic headwinds, companies cannot be complacent. Digital transformation has helped companies adapt traditional business models to keep pace with evolving customer needs. For example, healthcare has quickly rolled out tele-health, while the education industry has overhauled on-­demand online learning and training.

Four: Teamwork makes the dream work. COVID­-19 has changed how and even where we work. Marketing teams must adapt so they can delegate work and train for the future. Evaluate all processes and identify opportunities for streamlining. What talent gaps are you likely to face post­ COVID­-19? What  can you do proactively to help create a stronger future for your company? Marketing teams that take this opportunity to reflect, respond, and anticipate the road ahead will emerge more resilient and successful.

Vincent Leung
Global digital marketing manager
Lenzing Group
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In the past few months, people have been required to stay at home throughout the world to curb the spread of the COVID-­19 strain. Due to this, people have nothing much to do aside from going online and using digital media to communicate. This contributed to a 25% rise in eCommerce sales in March alone in the US, based on research.

Due to this, it is crucial for brands to let their audiences know we’re together with them in this crisis through digital media, ensuring constant connections with positive messages. The times are tough right now, but when it’s all over and the economy picks up, people will remember the brands that communicated with them through these tough times.

Yvonne Leung
Chief marketing officer
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COVID-­19 reinforced the importance of knowing your customers well to survive during a crisis. Consumer behaviours and preferences have changed during the pandemic and businesses must grasp the essence for moving forward, and seize business opportunities.

But how? During a crisis situation, customers can’t really tell you their preferences or motivators as they do not explicitly know, and no precedents are available for data analytics. I’ve learned the best innovative solutions come from the best empathy­-led consumer insights.

To dig down for insights, marketers should empathise to discover the emotions that drive user behaviour and uncover user needs, which they may or may not be aware of, before ideating the game changer, and prototyping. What this pandemic taught me as a marketer is that beautiful changes, including digital transformation, can arise from adversity.

Tim Williamson
Managing director, APAC
Telum Media
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We have a distributed team with offices around the region so the initial transition to working from home was relatively seamless. Having said that, we are an engagement platform for communications professionals and the media, so two things happened.

Communicators were suddenly flat out on the front line of managing COVID-19 communications: internal, external, government, brand, you name it. At the same time, journalists and media outlets were trying to cover COVID­-19, and everybody was working remotely under very stressful conditions.

For us, that meant we had to be quite nimble and focused on how to help both communities as efficiently as possible. We’ve been running media requests from journalists looking for COVID­-19 and non­ COVID­-19 story angles.

We’ve been finding out how to engage with journalists when newsrooms are in lockdown.

And we’ve been reporting quickly and accurately on the impacts of reduced advertising budgets on the media industry, which has been quite dramatic.
Because everyone has been working remotely we started producing more video and digital content such as interviews with senior editors and communicators, hosted webinars (which we hadn’t done before) and even held virtual networking events. As with everybody, we’ve had to think on our feet and we’ve surprised ourselves in a nice way at what we have been able to achieve which will inform how we do things in the future.

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