Research from Econsultancy and Marketing Week shows that 80% of marketers paused product and new service launches at the start of lockdown.

So, how did the pandemic affect innovation at Mitsubishi, PepsiCo, and Huawei? And approximately seven months on, how are these brands approaching it now? Here’s what the panelists had to say.

Re-assessing safety and consumer need

PepsiCo’s early priorities during the pandemic were rooted in both the safety of its own employees and delivering on emerging consumer need. Karen Scott explains how demand for certain products increased. “We saw a rise in demand for foods that provided immunity. A little bit later, things like weight management, and mood and mental health. I guess being a small unit within PepsiCo we were able to catch on to some of those ideas and test some pretty rapidly in the marketplace.”

Chief Brand Officer Andrew Garrihy explained how Huawei saw a similar increase in demand, and at the same time was forced to hit the ground running in adapting planned campaigns. “We didn’t stop anything – we pivoted. Right at the beginning of lockdown we had our major flagship product launches, which we had to move to virtual in seven days. We’ve now done seven or eight virtual product launches.”

“In terms of our marketing spend, we didn’t wind back, if fact again we maintained it but had to pivot, because we saw massive increases in demand for PC’s, tablets for wearables, even though some of our traditional categories like smartphones were in decline at that point in time.”

Uncertainty within the market was a bigger challenge for Mitsubishi. CMO Kimberley Gardiner explained, “The question was… ‘how do you market when you don’t know whether your business will be open next week or not? How do you know if your customers still want cars?’ In our case, they very much did, and we had to make sure that – for people who needed vehicles right away – they could shop in a much more virtual way than they had been used to.”

Gardiner says, “For good or for bad, our industry is a bit more traditional when it comes to retail and I think for us it was not necessarily a case of innovation, but flipping the switch a bit and saying okay, rather than spending so much time in the store, now we want to give you more tools in order to shop digitally, while you’re at home.”

“A lot of those first few weeks were reassessing everything and making sure that we could give our retailers and our customers the resources they needed from the beginning.”

Staying reactive to changes in consumer behaviour

While adapting its own workforce to the challenges of remote working, Huawei has been able to capitalise on the increased need for technology within the home.

“What’s become critically important for consumers now is connectivity, which is good for us because that’s our core business.” Huawei’s Garrihy says, “Connectivity went from being this thing that we could get as cheaply as possible, to being a really premium product. No one wanted to be the person on a video call that kept breaking up or stuttering or dropping out. Making things really easy to connect and share, in a really premium and high-quality data stream is where we are heavily focused.”

For PepsiCo, direct-to-consumer has also emerged as a bigger opportunity in certain markets. “We had to quickly react and set up direct-to-consumer sites, particularly in countries like Spain where we’ve got a more traditional market.”

Senior Innovation Director Scott states, “The new normal is that you can’t expect trends to now be certain over a period of time, and we need to figure out how do we stay very reactive, living in the moment, and planning on a much shorter cycle than we’ve been used to.”

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has forced automotive brands like Mitsubishi to refocus on ecommerce, as well as to recognise shifts in consumer sentiment relating to the category. “For us, this pandemic has meant that people are thinking about cars very, very differently. Prior to this there was a lot of self-driving cars, autonomous cars, car-sharing and hiring and all these sorts of things” CMO Gardiner explains.

“Covid hits and people are reconsidering their situation – we are seeing people that who haven’t owned or leased a car in forever now wanting that personal transportation because it’s seen as a beacon of safety. It can enable people to get out, to visit friends and family, do ‘birthday drive-by’s’ and things like that. In order to celebrate and have some sense of normal, the car can be that haven.”

This has meant a refocus on digital platforms for Mitsubishi. “You’ve got to meet the consumer where they are, and you’ve got to help the retailer meet the consumer where they are.”

“For us it’s a huge transition in terms of ecommerce, because like I said earlier, we are much more traditional in terms of how we go to market. Now, with no-contact service and sales, I think in several months from now you will have seen a really big step forward in terms of that ecommerce and building in flexibility into our model.”

Fleshing out innovation priorities for 2021

Unsurprisingly, Mitsubishi’s Gardiner once again mentioned ecommerce as a top priority for 2021, specifically in terms of finding a way to make the online shopping process as easy for consumers as possible. “In the past we’ve had one shopping path – this is how you shop or service your car – but it’s not going to be one way any longer, probably for many years come,” she says.

“How do you simplify the process? How do you use ecommerce tools to meet the customer where they are? And I think, how do you look at content opportunities to simplify messages and make things less overwhelming? Consumers have so much on their minds, the last thing they want is something that adds to the clutter or confusion.”

For PepsiCo, sustainability is coming back to the forefront in 2021, starting with the launch of a new process called ‘Sustainable from the Start’.

Scott explains how packaging is a big part of this. “We very much believe the solution on sustainability is partnership, and PepsiCo is part of many consortiums that are looking at things like paper bottles. We’re actually announcing today a new initiative called ‘The Holy Grail’, where we are joining together with 80 other companies to help mark packaging in order for it to be sorted in a more efficient way. Covid will hopefully accelerate people’s desire to have a more sustainable future.”

With the increase in remote working, Garrihy mentioned privacy as being significant for Huawei. “Our big focus is about building in to all of our devices more control for consumers, so they have effortless control of their privacy, right down to a hardware level. So, cameras on laptops become a button that you can turn off, instead of putting a button over your camera or turning it around.”

Finally, as well as echoing sentiments about sustainability, Garrihy suggested that Huawei will still be hedging its bets on brick-and-mortar next year– despite the struggles that many physical retail brands have faced and continue to face. “This year we are putting 42 more stores across Europe, eight flagship,” he said.

“This is because – even though lots has moved online – the experience is still going to be really critical. The nature of our retail design will change a little, but we still think retail overall is important and will become even more important in the future.”

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