#21interviews: Covid has created a brand vulnerability

Elouise Brink, the senior marketing manager at Country Road, says consumers expect even more from brands after this year.

Elouise Brink, the senior marketing manager at Australian lifestyle brand, Country Road Group (CRG) South Africa, part of Woolworths Holdings, says Covid has created a vulnerability for brands that means marketers must socialise and workshop creative ideas across diverse creative teams before executing, because consumers expect more from brands. They expect them to be authentic, responsible and purpose-driven.

1. How have you reinvented your retail strategy?

Our stores closed for a little while and that was a massive impact on our business. We have a dedicated service model. A critical part of our service is to greet consumers with a smile – now we had to wear masks and wrap our heads around health and safety. We needed to understand how we will now look after our customers. Our customers all currently, want ease and convenience, so they can come in and out. Everything we do locally has strong links back to Woolworths, so we much of what they are implementing, we are too. We really worked hard to support our staff. A lot of our staff were also scared to stand in stores. That has been hard to navigate. One of the big things for me, was to understand those challenges and see where we could help our staff and understand our customers and quickly see where we could make it easier in store. We can’t just switch on technology overnight; we are part of the Woolies infrastructure. So, we needed to go look at how we can be more personable while maintaining the distance and still making our customers feel comfortable in our stores. From a supplier perspective, that was more Australia which dealt with suppliers, but what we have certainly ramped up, is to put more focus on sustainability and supporting local. In the past, we had had tons of conversations about localising the brand and collaborating with local designers; and it has been a hard conversation. Then COVID-19 happened, and Black Lives Matter happened, and all of a sudden everyone started looking internally. Australia started looking at how they could support local more and become more sustainable to support the environment; so then in South Africa, we got the opportunity to do the same thing. That has been a big shift for us, we have been supported by Australia to act locally. We are supporting local talent and we are doing it in a sustainable manner.

We have two really good stories: The one is the Country Road partnership with the annual Twyg Sustainable Fashion Awards; and, on Trenery, we had that amazing competition earlier this year to give young designers the chance to design a pattern for us. We had 400 entries and the talent was so amazing, we ended up with more than one winner, which we will announce early in 2021. I want my marketing to have purpose and make a difference in someone’s life. That gets me up in the morning. Even more so now, when we are re-evaluating what we are doing, so every little bit we can do to better the world, is really worth it. Consumers are seeing through normal marketing, they want to see authentic storytelling, they want you to support local talent. That is what the future of marketing is going to be about. To really drive local brand moments, we are creating a purpose and supporting local talent and making a difference. We can’t be selling our clothes here and not have a responsibility to contribute to this economy.

2. What have you observed about changed consumer behaviour?

The biggest change for us has been the shift to online. It has really been significant. Woolies have put a lot of focus into online, but that behaviour has doubled for us in terms of percentages. We will have to gear up to look at online differently. Every retailer has experienced this fundamental shift. The shift of the consumer for wanting honesty and transparency was there already, but it now also feels like we have to push it further, consumers also want us to make a difference. We are also seeing a lot of storytelling during Covid, a lot of content. As marketers, we have to figure out what good storytelling or good content marketing looks like. It is not just about putting clothes on people and expecting them to sell. There has to be more to it. Whether you are talking about the fact that our swimwear comes from recycled nylon and that process of how it was made. The consumer wants to know the back story. Our products are ethically sourced. The understanding that our linen is grown free of chemicals. We need to tell those stories.  We have already opened up five five-star green-rated stores in Australia; and Sandton will be the first such store in South Africa to achieve five stars. That kind of storytelling, I believe, is what the consumer is after. Again, connecting and buying into that brand, which has more meaning. For us, as a premium slow fashion brand, there has to be a story. You have to feel that experience when you come to us.

3. What are your key learnings you can share with your peers?

One of the biggest learnings for me, certainly, is that I don’t think I have ever socialised from a marketing and communications point of view, as I did during Covid. Normally we would rush to market, tell the story and launch. What happened during this time, is that everything needed to be re-evaluated and relooked at; I would talk to people and reach out to people outside of the organisation and ask their opinion too. There could have been instances where I could have made a misstep – what I learnt was to speak to as many people as you can. Listen, listen, listen  and watch and learn. I saw so many brands trying to do something good, but ending up doing something wrong, unintentionally, and harming their brand. My advice to my team was move slower, and take in what is happening around us, before tapping into the social conversation. I’ve never been so afraid of my role and what I am responsible for, as I have been throughout this period. The amount of work we need to do with the people we are allowing into our brand space – we have to do more work on making sure suppliers won’t harm our brand. It is harder navigating these times. We don’t have all the answers, so it is important to workshop ideas with as many people as possible. These are opportunities we will miss if we go back to how we were as marketers. This is not a common thing in marketing, but because the world has changed so much, you can only benefit from doing that. Our campaigns will really resonate with that. It will make our work far richer. Covid has created a vulnerability in all of us that we may not have had before; we are constantly looking inward, and people are no longer shy anymore to ask for help and share. I am definitely reaching out to people more.

4. How do you think we will do business going forward?

What I expect from next year… I’m not 100% sure. The one thing I know for sure is that 2021 will not be that different from 2020. I’m not expecting everything to all of a sudden turn around and go back to “normal”. This, what we currently live in, is life as we know it until there is a vaccine, with all the uncertainty. In my world that could be store closures; a different way of thinking – transparency, authenticity, all those things come with it. As a brand leader, those will be the things I focus on, but not expecting a perfect world. I’m very grey about next year. I’m setting up strategies and I’m keeping up the momentum of the local partnerships we started this year. As long as I can lead my team into this new world with purpose, the rest we will adapt to. We have to be very adaptable. We have had massive delays at ports with our products. It doesn’t help to get upset about it. Deal with it. Figure out a solution and let’s move on. That is the attitude I’m going into next year with. All of us would like to know more. What we are going through now, is teaching us to be better at what we do, better people, better marketers, just better. So, don’t lose hope. It is difficult in retail, we are not getting the product when we want it, there are challenges the whole time. ‘A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor’ (Franklin D. Roosevelt), is a quote that resonated with me recently.


For more insights for retail and brand leaders in the #21interviews series publishing 1-21 December 2020, ahead of 2021:


#21interviews LAUNCH: 2021 comes with a disclaimer by Louise Burgers, Publisher & Editor, RetailingAfrica.com

#21interviews: Brands need to get brave says Bozoma Saint John, Global Chief Marketing Officer, Netflix

#21interviews: The power of being purpose-led will drive brand value by Karin Du Chenne, Chief Growth Officer Africa and the Middle East, Kantar

#21interviews: Plan for growth in 2021 says Herman Botha, Group General Manager, PNA Group

#21interviews: Next year will be all about authentic visual immersion by Craig Bellingham, founder & CEO, Studio[K]irmack

#21interviews: Reimagining a better world without the inequality of ‘normal’ with economist and author of the post-pandemic book, FutureNEXT, Dr Iraj Abedian, talking to Retailing Africa Publisher & Editor, Louise Burgers.


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