What the pandemic is teaching brands about customer experience

by Dan Herman. The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted customer behaviour in unprecedented ways.

by Dan Herman. “Increasingly, clients think about creating experiences, not just about brands. And the job of the CMO is about the end-to-end customer experience, not just how it sits and lands in advertising.” That’s the view of Mark Read, global CEO of WPP, the world’s biggest advertising group.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted customer behaviour in unprecedented ways. With over 50% of humanity experiencing some form of government-mandated lockdown, the customer has sought a way to minimise the risk posed to them by COVID-19. They’re spending more time online – from searching, comparing and buying products to consuming more entertainment online, some stepping into the world of webinars and streaming services for the first time. WARC, a world-renowned marketing advisory firm, has identified that 43% of consumers are considering paying for a subscription service that they didn’t have before the outbreak of COVID-19.

Customer’s needs from products and services have also shifted owing to a sudden change in their economic and professional contexts. According to McKinsey, over 60% of global consumers have changed their shopping behaviour on account of the pandemic, focusing more on convenience and value. Accenture has found that 46% of people who never worked from home before now, plan to work from home more often in the future. These statistics represent only a fragment of the multitude of shifts that are happening with customers today.

So, what does this mean for brands?

Understanding customer pain-points and resolving them will help brands deliver on customer-centricity. Communicating brand experience via advertising is insufficient. Brands need to maximise the impact of all their interactions that extend from engaging with a call centre agent to interacting with a virtual agent on a website, to filling an order form and delivery details for an online purchase. To navigate the challenges of this pandemic, brands need to focus on the end-to-end customer experience.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced that a focus on customer experience is a true differentiator for brands. Only businesses with their finger on the pulse of changes in consumer behaviour have shown themselves capable of winning the hearts and minds of their customers. For retailers like Pick n Pay, this has meant extending operating hours to create more space and time for vulnerable groups like the elderly to shop in their stores. Others like Checkers, have ramped up their investment in home delivery services and scaled their home delivery app in record time.

Technology businesses that offer collaboration software like Microsoft and Zoom, are cashing in on the unprecedented explosion of remote working. Microsoft Teams has introduced a plethora of new features to improve the experience of businesses and professional services. These have been informed mainly by the vast amount of data these companies receive from customers. After having been exposed to hacks at the outset of the mass adoption, Zoom paused all new features. It is now focusing exclusively on security practices, paying attention to resolving a critical customer pain-point at a crucial time for the platform’s growth.

Streaming services have turned to analysing streaming data to find ways to deliver consistent experience and delight customers. Netflix experienced a huge traffic spike during the European COVID-19 peak and decided to reduce its bitrate speed to alleviate pressure on telecommunication networks while maintaining high-quality streaming experience for their customer. In South Africa, Multichoice noted a 20% usage increase of their free DStv Now offering, and responded by enabling users to access news, educational and kids’ content for free.

Several brands in South Africa have shown genuine empathy for customers and broader society, despite considerable challenges to their business sustainability created by hard lockdowns and rapid economic decline. Some, like BMW South Africa, Ford Motors South Africa, SAB, Distell and L’Oreal, moved their manufacturing operations from producing products to producing face shields and sanitisers. Discovery and Vodacom have partnered to deliver free telehealth consultations. In the banking sector, major banks like Absa and Standard Bank have found ways to offer payment relief to the most affected South Africans through specially created programmes.

The lessons are clear

Customers expect brands to deliver an easy, consistent and empathetic experience if they want to win their share of wallet. According to Gartner, customer experience drives over two-thirds customer loyalty, outperforming brand and price combined. To get ahead of the wave of customer-driven change, brands need to choose to understand their customers at a deeper level. At the heart of customer experience, lies an ability to show empathy for customers and what they are experiencing. It is the brands that show compassion and demonstrate real customer-focused innovation that will win over the hearts and minds of new and existing customers.


Dan Herman is head of customer experience at Wunderman Thompson South Africa; a marketing expert and senior manager; with a BA Hons, PDM (WITS), MA (UCT). He’s a trusted advisor, having gained nine years’ experience as a marketing consultant to global brands across a range of disciplines and industries. He’s won 14 awards for advertising campaigns across ATL and digital marketing; and is the creator and co-host of an award-winning marketing podcast.

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