What’s next? Branding business in a global meltdown

by Louise Burgers. It is business unusual and this is the new normal. How to change strategy to ensure business survival or repurposing.

by Louise Burgers. What is next for your business with the unprecedented shutdown of the global economy over COVID-19? This coronavirus is expected to devastate global economies as millions are forced into self-quarantine and major industries grind to a halt. How do we strategise ourselves out of this?

I’m not even going to go into all the stats and numbers as they will be out of date by the time I post this. The impact of this virus is such a fast moving target, that planning any strategy right now is as helpful as planning what to do if aliens landed tomorrow and threatened to enslave our planet. But at least we have toilet paper.

Every business sector has been impacted. In the past month, we have watched with increasing horror, the spread of this virus across the globe and more and more countries imposing travel restrictions; and state and community lockdowns to force people to stay indoors to stop the spread of infection. We also know, in our own networks and in our own industries, how virtually overnight, business has been lost. This is only the beginning for South Africa and Africa.

At least Africa is about three weeks in the spread of the disease behind the rest of the world, so have time to learn from others’ mistakes and successes; as well as plan for the worst case scenario. But, we could also be dealing with the economic fallout a lot longer, because the health of our economy was already at critical stage and our Winter season is just beginning in parts. So, expecting the worst is yet to come and with no gameplan and all our strategies for 2020 annihilated within a few weeks – what is next?

What future?

Like many, I went to one of Cape Town’s regional malls on Monday and watched the continental menu meals fly off the shelves at Woolies and baked beans have to be restocked at Pick n Pay. Only one young girl was wearing a facemask; I was one of only two people wearing disposable gloves; and mall management were putting up posters reminding people to wash their hands and coronavirus info posters, while informing me they would be putting up hand sanitiser stations at all entrances to the malls and were beefing up security in case of extreme panic buying. Only the chemist had workers wearing gloves – no other frontline retail staff were in masks or gloves at the tills, although some had sanitiser spray bottles at tills or entrances; and I certainly didn’t see much social distancing going on, apart from a few suspicious looks in the toilet paper aisle.

With all the rumour and myth-making around the disease, some incontrovertible facts stand out: we will probably all get it at some time in the next two years, most of us won’t die; but the economy will be severely disabled and some businesses sectors are dead already, they just haven’t been informed yet.

Graeme Codrington.

South African futurist and global speaker on the future of work at TomorrowToday, Graeme Codrington, who saw much of his own business evaporate overnight as travel bans took effect, shares how he and his directors have had to repurpose their offering, both online and in the face of this global uncertainty.

“The next round of Covid-19 stories is going to be of layoffs and the most vulnerable employees in the world being shafted by their capitalist employers. I fully understand the problem: my entire business has been crushed in the past few days. I make my money by hosting public events, meeting with groups of people to plan for the future, speaking at events and travelling around the world to do so. In other words, for the next few weeks at least, I don’t make any money at all. Our directors are talking about how we will survive. We are also going to be paying special bonuses to all our staff, seeking out corporate loan facilities so we can provide loans to our employees who can’t get credit easily, and guaranteeing everyone’s jobs.

“But I am seeing stories already emerging of mass retrenchments. Companies telling their employees they ‘have no other options’. This is not true. Unless you are already bankrupt, and you as an owner have no money left, there are other options. A heartening story came from a sports team, where a young 19-year-old superstar making millions of dollars a week paid all the contract staff at the stadium (security guards, cleaning staff, waiters, etc) their full salaries for a month. The owners of the stadium and the sports team he played for had told them they wouldn’t be paid as they were contact workers.”

Panic planning

Trendspotter and retail analyst for Retailing Africa, Dave Nemeth, says his phone was ringing off the hook on Sunday night after the President’s speech, with panicked clients wanting to know what to do next. “Sunday night I only got to bed after midnight, with clients calling in a panic. I’ve had conferences cancelled. I’ve been telling clients for years that they have to work differently. Now they are forced to work differently.”

Nemeth said retailers needed to get their staff working from home at head office level because of the amount of people working in those buildings, because if head office collapses, the industry collapses. “The big retailers are not set up for staff working from home. Does everyone have uncapped fibre? Because if not, how will they get onto servers and place orders?

“Then what is going to be vital is communication. If you want to survive this thing, you will take a knock, and you have to market the hell out of your business or you will be out of sight when things turn. Part of that marketing is not going out and telling people about specials on facemasks; it’s to keep conversations going on what special measures are being done to protect customers: like special hours for the elderly. Retailers have to be perceived as worrying about their customers and actually giving a damn.”

Staff communication and training was also key and required professionally produced video conferences and online systems. “Retailers also can’t just run out and think they can create an online store, because if you don’t already have that in place, you are doomed already.”

Innovative thinking was required to save businesses already floundering because of cancelled campaigns, orders, dwindling numbers of people. “As far as restaurants go, we have just assisted one of our clients who own a popular restaurant in Johannesburg, with a plan for them to immediately start looking at takeaways, which they have never done before; and changing their meals to healthy home cooked meals which they can deliver. They have their own van so can deliver locally and to customers in nearby suburbs.”

Nemeth said the world had changed and our work habits had to change along with it. “I don’t just preach, I realise the affects that this virus has. I have just lost a whole heap of revenue due to [the effect of the] coronavirus. I knew it was going to happen and I have measures in place. I will however have to spend more on marketing and brand positioning. Cut this and you can close your doors,” Nemeth reiterates.

Marketing musts
Lebo Madiba.

Managing partner and head of PR and influence at Ogilvy South Africa, Lebo Madiba, says business unusual doesn’t mean it’s the end of the line for business: “It actually means that it’s time to leverage opportunities that are there to explore in our new normal. The key is to be able to stay afloat while we learn to navigate around the current restrictions. It is a health scare, with lots of emotions attached to it. While the temptation to attach marketing messages to it may be high, it is important to remember to remain authentic and human and avoid cringeworthy campaigns.

“The balance can be about leveraging opportunities by coming up with both a commercial and a social impact message. In retail for example, we know that once the bulk buying is over or when restrictions become tighter, the sector will be hard hit. This presents an opportunity for ecommerce to thrive, therefore a change of strategy in communication and advertising should drive consumers in that direction.

“We are aware that not all South Africans are able to bulk buy or self-isolate or even afford hygiene products, as an act of social impact, retailers could run promotions for customers to donate a portion of their shopping or to buy extras for donations towards helping the less fortunate or similar,” Madiba suggests.

“The way forward from here on is to place the consumer at the centre of any campaigns, with consideration of what their needs are – tapping into the functional and emotional. In a bid to remain relevant, brands must not lose their truth,” Madiba concludes.

PR strategist Keri-Ann Stanton, who has her own consultancy @KAmuses, wrote about “our new normal”, giving this advice to her clients:

  • “Cancel your events – it is selfish and short-sighted to continue with business as usual. The recommended postponement is to October 2020. I feel I may have a brain aneurysm if one more person thinks their events are safe proof.
  • “You can still launch products, services, brands. Hello tech! Hello digital! Hello 4IR. Now for PR people to prove their agility and creativity.
  • “Welcome to the power of internal comms. Now you need to unite a workforce working remotely, under fear and uncertainty. Now is the time to find your mojo: to use words and imagery and video content meaningfully. Recessions mean retrenchments – what is your internal comms narrative around this? Are you in fight or flight mode?
  • “Plan B thinking. Your business as is, may not exist by the end of 2020. What skills do you have in your workforce that can be used differently? What need is there that you can adapt your offering for? Change. Agility. I can’t think of one industry: from restaurants to film production companies to eventing companies, that will not have to adjust their thinking.
  • “Remote working. Get with it. Quickly. If you are not comfortable with Zoom, Skype, Slack, Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp groups ,etc, and you still insist on face to face – well, you are an ass. A selfish one,” says Stanton.

“I say this all with love and grace. These are scary times. Trust your gut. It is business unusual. Flip the script. Do things differently. Something beautiful can come from all of this,” says Stanton.

Strategy: Be human

Codrington is doing a series of videos urging business and communities to do the right thing and TomorrowToday has put together a COVID-19 Rapid Response Team to help business and organisations strategise through this global crisis. This is his advice:

  1. “Test if companies can work from home. PWC globally sent all staff home to work for one day to test what was needed.
  2. “Make sure the buildings you live and work in are set up to protect us. We don’t want to be touching things or touching each other, i.e., you can’t have fingerprint access; there must be hand sanitizer at all stations. Remind people to wash their hands after meetings.
  3. “For your businesses, realise that we are heading into a few weeks, probably some months, where we will see the spiking of cases around the world. You have at least three months now of complete chaos – supply chain issues, deliveries to customers, staff issues – staff getting sick, staff having to look after sick family members or children. You have to reduce your costs and become more efficient. You have to go into crisis mode as if we were in a war. I’m not saying panic, but… the world is changed. What decisions do we now need to make?” Codrington asks.

Alec Hogg’s BizRadio has an interview with senior Old Mutual executive Andrew McPherson, who is currently in quarantine at home after testing positive for COVID-19: “The world needs to realise that we need to come to a halt to clear the world of this virus… Society has to mobilise and the priority has to be clearing the world of this virus and then we can resume economic activity,” urges McPherson. Listen to the whole interview here.

As Codrington said in a post over the weekend, after reports of a company that retrenched workers and then offered to hire them back at 60% of their original salaries: “If you are the owner or director of an employer company, please do the right thing for your people and not for your shareholders in the next few weeks. Be a human, not a capitalist. And, yes, those things are opposites. Now is the time to be a human. Now is the time to think beyond wallet. Now is the time to be kind and compassionate and help those in need. And if you think your economic system doesn’t allow you to do that, you’re more lost than you know. Screw capitalism. Be a human.”


Louise Burgers (previously Marsland) is the Publisher and Editor and Co-Founder of She has spent over 20 years writing about the FMCG retailing, marketing, media and advertising industry in South Africa and on the African continent. She has specialised in local and Africa consumer trends and is a passionate Afro-optimist who believes it is Africa’s time to rise again and that the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) will be a global gamechanger in the next decade.


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