What SAP did digitally to address the COVID-19 climate

Head of marketing for A/NZ talks through the shift away from physical events to digital and how she's pursuing brand building during the crisis

SAP’s head of marketing A/NZ, Rushenka Perera, is a big believer in brand building in a time of downturn and crisis. Why is why she’s committed to brand-led activities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I believe if you keep your brand front and centre in a crisis, you’ll come out better at the other end,” she tells CMO.

There are various ways the enterprise software vendor is looking to solidify brand saliency, from COVID-19 product offers supporting customer needs, to case study storytelling, 10-minute virtual ‘tools down’ virtual sessions and more. And with a directive to not pursue physical event activities for the rest of the year, Perera said she’ll be putting more of her marketing dollars into more brand activities in the second half, too.

Of course, selling brand-led work internally can be a tough job for marketers, particularly those in the B2B space, and Perera acknowledged a balance has to be constantly struck between demand generation and brand. Thankfully, a global push to keep the SAP brand top of mind is helping keep this balance in check. In addition, she said her local MD understands the impact brand work can have on revenue and growth.

Then there’s the data story to support it. Having transitioned to its own SAP Marketing Cloud platform last August, off a former on-premise instance, Perera said she’s been able to show the significant increases in campaign traffic to owned Web pages in hard figures in recent months. For example, during Q1, 2020, SAP reported a 27 per cent increase to Web pages via Marketing Cloud work in partnership with always-on paid media activities.

“When you can show the executives these kinds of numbers and prove you’re keeping that demand generation moving, then it makes it an easier sell to continue the brand work,” Perera said.

Pivoting during the COVID-19 crisis

Like many B2B brands, SAP traditionally spends a hefty portion of its marketing dollars and energy on physical events. Forced physical distancing off the back of the COVID-19 pandemic certainly has changed all that.

Digitally at least, the strategy hasn’t changed significantly. Having a strong digital-led program of campaign and communication work through its Marketing Cloud, along with always-on paid search and publisher-led syndication programs, digital engagement keeps ticking along, Perera said.

In addition, from an advertising perspective, SAP has tweaked and adjusted what was a year-long Qantas advertising program and creative to suit the current context.

“We’re talking about experience management, for example, so we changed the wording to ‘help your remote team thrive’,” Perera said, adding this brand-led campaign work is another string to the vendor’s bow of keeping awareness up.

What SAP has to do, however, is pivot more strongly to digital events it didn’t anticipate it’d be running.

For instance, SAP e’ffect, the vendor’s flagship innovation and experience event which was due to run in Sydney in August this year, is being delayed to 2021. “Given e’ffect is something different in the IT landscape, we didn’t want to try and replicate it with a virtual event, as it was all around experience and activating different senses,” Perera explained.

In its place, she said SAP will explore other initiatives to keep its brand present and showcase innovation in a digital environment.

“Even though we have gone very virtual with our events, it’s been bedded in a strategy which is to have a lot of ‘big rock’ activities, surrounded by always-on paid media and SAP Marketing Cloud campaigns we’re running,” Perera continued. “We’re trying to focus our energy on those big rock activities supported by digital.”

One of these is virtual event initiatives was ‘Adaptive strategies in a changed world’, which was held on 7 May. The event experience was based on SAP’s industry-oriented go-to-market approach and highlighted seven key industries, including healthcare, public services, utilities and financial services.

The event took the approach of providing information that those working in these industries would find helpful at this time and utilised SAP experts, association experts and those from the vendor’s partner ecosystem, such as Accenture and Deloitte, and included a live Q&A session. Client brands such as AGL Energy and the Queensland University of Technology also got involved.

Perera said feedback was positive, with Australia exceeding audience target figures by 17 per cent. The events were put on in partnership with agency partner, Invnt.

“We knew we had to spin it up quickly, and that content didn’t have to be polished, but it had to be something that’s informative,” Perera said. “The priority was to give the right information to customers. We received really positive feedback, and we will do another one as a result.”  

All SAP campaign managers were involved to get these digital events up and running quickly. Of course, there were plenty of lessons learnt around content production.  

“The interesting piece was trying to get those pieces of content up quickly. We tried sending lighting and getting things set up in their [speaker] homes and it was a disaster so we reverted to what they already had,” Perera commented. “The challenge was the quality was very different so we just tried to make it as consistent as we could.”

On a lighter note, the brand has launched ‘SAP In Touch’, a weekly series of midday and 3.30pm digital sessions. The ambition is to help people put tools down for 10 minutes of downtime and provide light relief during the crisis. Each episode feature performers like Lah-Lah’s Big Band for kids, plus comedians, poets and bands.

At a broader community level, Perera also noted SAP’s ‘One billion lives’ social entrepreneurship program, which is realised by developing a portfolio of lean, sustainable, shared-value impact ventures with the support of SAP.iO Venture Studio. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, SAP activated a project for employees to put forward ideas to improve lives with COVID-led solutions under that program.

Tuning into customer sentiment

From a strategic marketing perspective, Perera said SAP globally has looked to Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs to understand where its customers are in order to respond accordingly.

In the earlier phases of the crisis, it was clear what was needed was to content and communications that offered helpful advice and empathy, she said. SAP also pivoted quickly to providing specific product offers responding to the crisis.

“For example, with our Qualtrics platform, we made remote work pulse free of charge so people can assess how employees are feeling at this point in time,” Perera said. “With Ariba Discovery, our procurement platform, we have shared great case studies on how people have used that and been able to deliver things right now.”

One of these focuses on how hospital beds in the US were delivered within a 24-hour turnaround by accurately identifying where they were most needed.

“It’s about displaying empathy and showing how we can help. And we have been adjusting wording in our communications to accommodate for that,” Perera said.

SAP is also using its own products like Qualtrics to get a pulse on how customers are feeling. “We have customers dramatically impacted negatively, and those who have been positively affected. We need to understand what it is they’re going through,” Perera said.

“Woolworths is a large customer of ours and they’re doing ok; other customers have had to close to pull back. So we’ve worked to understand where they’re at and how we can help them accordingly.”  

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