The year ahead for brands: agility will be key

Alongside the challenges of 2020, there have been surprising opportunities for brands with their finger on the pulse. Despite optimism about coronavirus vaccines, 2021 remains a year of unknowns. Whether it’s QR, VR, EVs, the EU or the UFC shaping events, agile brands that understand the trends driving consumer sentiment and behaviour will come out on top.

The year ahead for brands: agility will be key

'What do we already have in our toolkit that we can blow the cobwebs off with?'

By Jack Hinchliffe, marketing director, KFC, UK and Ireland

Rather than trying to sound like my finger is totally on the pulse, I’m going to sidestep the question. Predictions? After this year? If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s the folly of trying to predict the future. Maybe we could learn more – and be better prepared for 2021 – by learning from what’s happened this year.

What has struck me, certainly in terms of the hospitality and restaurant trade, is that 2020 has seen a resurgence of innovations or tech that were frankly considered a tad dated or old hat. Hello, QR codes and apps – the saviours of our sector.

I couldn’t imagine, with the furious privacy debate around ID cards 10 years ago, that in 2020 I would find myself tapping the Covid-19 contact tracing app so that I can eat a burrito outside, willingly allowing my movements across London to be tracked hour by hour from restaurant, to coffee shop, to pub.

And we are not only sharing data, we’re doing it with a relic of a bygone era – QR codes. But here they are to the rescue. Suddenly the barriers and limitations of QR codes became microscopic in comparison with the benefit of being able to eat out with my household bubble.

Apps that allow customers to order in advance via mobile and collect from restaurants emerge with fanfare.

It feels like we’ve been transported back to 2007.

Closer to home, in our sector the biggest comeback on the block has been the drive-through. In recent years, it’s been at risk of losing relevance. Commuters and young urban professionals wanted their food in city centres or transport hubs. Yet, through Covid, it’s having its moment in the sun again and couldn’t be more relevant.

So perhaps for 2021, alongside thinking about what we know will continue to change (acceleration of digital and delivery… naturally), we should also look back at those forgotten or overlooked innovations that have sat gathering dust. What do we already have in our toolkit that we can blow the cobwebs off with, put to a different purpose and make shiny and new once again? To quote a mantra from another time of national crisis – let’s make do and mend.

But most of all, what I’ve learned from 2020 is that what matters more than the channels and the tactics we use to stay relevant is what we’re in business for. For me, that’s food and the role it plays in people’s lives. The reason customers have shared data, used QR codes, downloaded apps and sat in drive-through lanes goes beyond the functional. Our industry serves a human need to be sociable over a shared meal. We are a treat on a Friday night. A shared moment of connection around the dinner table. A reason to see friends.

That will never change.

No matter the category or industry, my learning from 2020 is to stay focused on what our customers want from us, whether we need to develop new tactics or refresh old ones, we’re in business to serve their needs. That’s what we need to remember, no matter what 2021 throws at us.

'Those taking brave decisions will be heard loudest'

By Emma Sherwood Smith, director of marketing, Carlsberg Brands, UK

There was a moment in June when we, the Carlsberg Danish Pilsner brand in the UK, made a bold decision. Boris Johnson was considering allowing pubs to reopen 10 weeks after they had been forced to close overnight; and beer-drinkers were licking their lips at the thought of quenching their thirst with a pint of draught beer in a pub. Others, understandably, disagreed, given the pandemic remained ongoing.

Finally, news broke; pubs could reopen on 4 July, and we faced that decision. Do we stay quiet and see how it plays out, given media hype about booze-loving Brits packing out pubs? Or, get involved in a cultural moment, put ourselves in the middle of a polarised conversation, and have a voice? Tough questions for any brand. And bravery has not always been part of our brand DNA. We’d shown a thirst for it in 2019, when we rebrewed from head to hop our lager in the UK, upgrading every touchpoint, most notably its recipe. At that time, it was considered brave by some, a “Ratner moment” by others. Time has shown it paid off, with sales in pubs alone up £33m year on year in 2019, a swing of £108m on 2018.

Back to June. As serving time ticked closer, we took the bold approach, placing our brand slap, bang in the middle of the debate. It meant a tonne of preparation, second guessing what the prime minister would say, and confidence in our key insight: that everyone in the UK would be watching the announcement, most on social media, and everyone would want to talk about it on social soon after. Speed was key. Boris broke the news and the BBC first posted about it at 12.47pm; Carlsberg had its 10-day countdown social post live at 12.46pm.

We went for it, and as we approach 2021, more brands will be faced with a similar conundrum, so what did we learn?

While others cut spend, we continued to run our TV ad throughout lockdown. Feedback showed that consumers still wanted moments of relief – indeed normality – and our ad helped deliver that. We took it further and shot a brand-new ad specific to this cultural moment; written, cast, filmed (in a pub) and launched within two weeks. The ad was titled “Welcome back pubs” and was loosely themed around The Great Escape. We’d never acted with such agility; perhaps virtual working was a catalyst. 

Finally, we launched the ad on TV and social media, timed with pub opening time, alongside the sponsored trend #WelcomeBackPubs. This placed Carlsberg in the heart of the conversation, while championing the pub. Our stance divided opinion – it was heart in the mouth stuff at times, but it paid off.

Metrics exceeded our aspirations with 3.3 million film views, 6.83 million impressions, 366,000 engagements and 16,000 mentions of the sponsored trend. We’d achieved our objective of making Carlsberg central to the anticipation of pubs opening. So, what does this mean for brands in 2021? Brands that have a credible voice will thrive. Those taking brave decisions, or choosing to be part of cultural moments, and always acting with integrity and credibility, will be heard loudest. This, backed by agility and speed in execution, is powerful. It can be high risk, but it can also be high reward. Will it pay off? Probably.

Illustration: Ben Jennings