Customer-led innovation in a time of crisis and beyond

Five our CMO50 finest share their learnings about innovating during COVID in our latest special report

At its most basic, innovation is the introduction of something new. And in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the process of innovating has flourished across Australian marketing and customer teams as they strive to keep up with the rapidly evolving crisis and its impact on customers, business models and market dynamics.

To explore the learnings and opportunities CMOs can sustain and grow from these crisis-fuelled innovations, CMO caught up with five marketing leaders from the 2019 CMO50 list of Australia’s most innovative and effective marketing leaders to find out more. Here are just a few of the lessons we picked up. This year’s CMO50 program is brought to you by Adobe.

Embracing testing and learn

Innovation has ultimately proven an exercise in test-and-learn for the CMO50 leaders we spoke to. Commonly during the COVID-19 crisis, innovation has been about optimising, pivoting, adapting and trying new things in response to customer needs and changing behaviours.

“We don’t term it innovation, we talk about test and learn,” ABC director of audiences, Leisa Bacon, says of Australia’s national broadcaster. “Behaviours are changing regularly, and we have to keep adapting with our audiences. This time has been a great opportunity to test and learn – from our platform and mediums to the creative we use. It has activated an appetite to do things differently.”

There’s no doubt the biggest media trend is digital acceleration. The ABC has seen a huge lift in digital engagement, with increased volumes of consumers engaging in live digital news and stories on iView as well as through social channels. A major emphasis has therefore been on optimising digital offerings and capabilities.

Bacon says the common thread fuelling optimisation efforts has been to “make it easy and make it accountable”, with a clear track record of learnings helping teams achieve both.

Being operationally efficient

Operational improvement has dominated business innovation efforts for many organisations during the COVID-19 crisis. While there are a few instances of disruptive innovation transforming business models, most examples are operationally-oriented, driven by digitisation, automation and data-driven enhancement.

This is certainly the case at Suncorp, and executive general manager of brand and marketing, Mim Haysom, says COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the organisation’s perception of what is possible. The driving force is again growing reliance on digital and shift to online services.

“Traditionally, we thought about innovation as digitisation, automation and product innovation. Now, there has been a massive focus on innovation around the operational component,” she says. “We are changing the way we work to meet that opportunity for improvement in customer experiences and in operational efficiency through better gathering of data and automation.  There’s been recognition innovation isn’t just a nice to have, you have to be in it, doing it, responding quickly to be sustainable and resilient as an organisation.”

A big step forward has been introducing agile ways of working in order to fast-track digital solutions. To do this, Suncorp introduced ‘tiger’ teams, cross-functional teams designed to align skills, thinking, design and to collaborate around customer problems to deliver at pace. An initial project saw customer self-service Web chat enabled in four days.

“These are truly cross-functional teams and cut across the whole organisation,” Haysom says. “What is different is those teams are really empowered to make decisions based on the business need, backed up by data and insight coming directly from frontline teams and customers.”

Innovating with purpose

Then there’s innovation as an exercise in realising opportunity. In many cases, COVID-19 has seen CMOs reinterpreting entire go-to-market strategies and their very brand purpose.

Just look at South Australian Tourism Commission (SATC), which pivoted to a domestic focus as opportunities for international travellers to come to Australia dried up. Executive director of marketing, Brent Hill, says the rethinking needed over the last six months has been significant.

“It’s so critical to understand the importance of brand and your purpose, but be able to respond and adapt,” he says. A session upfront to commit to finding a positive way forward was vital in putting the SATC team on the road to innovation.

“If we’d just stayed focused on the fact literally no one is coming here, there are no tourists and we’re stuffed, who knows where that would have got us,” Hill says. “Instead, we said: What are some of the valuable things we can do to generate momentum? Even things like turning some of our marketing dollars into funding to help our industry survive that extra week: We knew if we could to that, we’d be doing our job.”

Having multi-tier priorities

At Telstra, chief marketing officer, Jeremy Nicholas, identifies three tiers of innovation marketing can directly or indirectly affect. The first is product and network innovation, an area with long lead times. In the case of COVID-19, heightened data security risk saw the team bring these aspects forward in marketing and messaging. 

Secondly, innovation comes in and around the product proposition. A recent COVID-related example was NBN plans. Telstra’s marketing team adjusted the proposition to highlight when customers are eligible for certain tax benefits, working with the NBN wholesaler on pricing.

The third tier of innovation is around marketing execution. In the early days of COVID-19, Telstra tapped 5G cell tower and postcode data to trigger and suppress certain messaging to specific customers. Another innovation was in pivoting an AFL sponsorship to a virtual content and engagement play, which millions have tuned in to over the season.

Know your end-to-end CX

ANZ chief marketing officer, Sweta Mehra, cites a significant shift away from defining innovation largely as a customer acquisition exercise, to one of providing information and utility to both customers and partners during the crisis. This has been driven by a mission to help customers improve the way they manage their money.

As a result, ANZ invested in more do-it-yourself content. Another pivot has been away from creative and content purely for the consumer, to more tools for bankers, brokers, accountants and partners. One innovation helping drive business growth has been targeting people with home loans re-evaluating their financial situation and management during the COVID-19 crisis. This has seen the bank achieve record highs in daily home loan applications.

The third innovation area for ANZ’s marketers has been the propositions offered to support customers during the COVID-19 environment, such a business planner tool to drive better financial management and engagement.

“Innovation requires us knowing quickly what it is and isn’t working, then making sure we all going through the same funnel and actively make choices versus getting stuck in organisational bureaucracy,” Mehra adds.

Want to know more about how Australia’s top marketing leaders are pushing the envelope on innovation? Download the whitepaper, ‘Customer-led innovation in a time of crisis and beyond: A special CMO50 report’: