Pivoting with Purpose - Build Reputation and Grow Loyalty Over the Long-Term


The SARS-COV-2 coronavirus and COVID-19 are continuing to ravage the globe and it doesn’t seem likely that things are going to return to normal anytime soon. At time of writing, the global case numbers are sitting at over 44 million, with over one million people having lost their lives to the illness.

Outside of the threat to lives, the biggest concern regarding the impact of the global pandemic is how it’s impacting on business. From small “mom and pop” stores to massive corporations, COVID-19 is making it more difficult to carry out business in a way that is both profitable and effective. This is creating a situation where all businesses are being forced to look at every level of their operations and search for ways they can pivot and become a company better suited to operation in this unusual environment.

It’s this consideration which brought together representatives from major retail organizations to discuss how to “pivot with purpose” in the world of coronavirus.

The panel was moderated by Michael Ryan Chan, Managing Partner at Evye LLP, and was made up of:

  • Ng Aik Phong, MD, Fave
  • Nakul Gaur, Senior Global Leader, eCommerce, Performance Media & Analytics, Unilever
  • Peter Knock, Non-executive Director & Specialist Advisor, National Online Retailers Association (NORA) Mentor
  • Mark Gray, Senior Manager Partnerships & Cross Border, TheMarket.com

COVID-19 has completely changed the world and the future is unpredictable. Companies of all sizes are looking for advice and direction with how to move forward in such an ambiguous environment.

Where do we start?

Unilever kicked off the discussion by laying out how the pharmaceutical giant had established five priorities for the COVID-19 crisis.

  • Protect people
  • Ensure supplies of products continue
  • Adapt to consumer preferences
  • Secure the future
  • Give back to the community

Fave added to this by describing what if refers to as the “COVID hierarchy of needs”. Taking inspiration from early psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which laid out a theory of how humans prioritize essential elements of existence such as food, warmth, and security, against more luxurious considerations, the COVID hierarchy of needs demonstrates how businesses need to pay rent, support workers, etc. to ensure survival, before looking to less essential innovations.

This will, of course, be different for different companies. Industries such as high street retail were already struggling before the coronavirus crisis hit and things have only gotten harder since then. These businesses find themselves near the bottom of the hierarchy and must make tough decisions to cut costs and ensure their survival. However, other industries such as those which produce surgical gloves, masks, and other forms of personal protective equipment (PPE) find themselves thriving and can still work on less survival focused innovations.

NORA has representatives on the advisory boards of many retailers which gives it a unique perspective during this crisis. It has established a Snapchannel where all retailers in its network can communicate with one another and share strategies. In the early days of the crisis, this consisted of simple stuff such as how to facilitate working from home but, as time has gone on, the discussions have turned to more complex considerations. Former competitors have become more like friends and have been helping one another with warehouse space, supply chains, staff, and more, which shows that anything is possible when companies work with instead of against one another.

TheMarket.com is based in New Zealand and had to respond quickly to changing situations. Initially this meant shutting down all merchants which weren’t selling essential goods, which then created the need to support those which could no longer operate. Small and large companies moved from partners to family and the focus became how to help them survive. However, it quickly realized that its existing plans were set up for natural disasters, cyber-attacks, etc. rather than a global pandemic, and changed how the company thought about overall preparedness.

How to find the center in a rapidly pivoting environment?

Before you can pivot an organization, you need to establish the center point you need to pivot from. In an environment such as the COVID-19 crisis, it can be even more difficult to find this center that it normally is.

Fave is more than used to pivoting. The brand started out as a fitness app but rapidly evolved into several other markets. In a crisis such as this, with no end in sight, a business needs to look for new opportunities which are congruent with the environment. This means working with clients and partners to search for new blue oceans/markets which are ripe for tapping into. Minor shifts should be prioritized as larger ones require a more significant investment which companies may not have spare funds for right now. Loyalty schemes, gift cards, table ordering systems, contactless solutions are all spaces Fave has moved into in response to the pandemic.

Solve a new problem to pivot effectively.

As a much larger corporation, Unilever understands that every organization has a different culture and that people like consistency. When China was emerging from the worst of the outbreak, it found that managers in those markets were more receptive to pivoting, as they had weathered the worst of the storm and were keen to get back to work. Unilever carried out in-depth assessments of 150 markets to discover which brands had declined, which had remained stable, and which were improving. For example, the Lifebuoy soap brand is highly COVID salient and worked to make the product more accessible, with a focus on improving sanitation and hygiene across the globe.

Giving back to the community

Most companies are putting community at the head of their priorities. However, how does an organization achieve this while maintaining business integrity?

NORA started by focusing on how to look after its teams and then evolving that to include customers. Working with charities and donating (time, expertise, or capital) help foster a broader community focus and creates stories that customers want to hear.

TheMarket.com took its profits during lockdown and donated them to local charities. It also offered discounts to essential workers and created drive through pickups, food boxes, and other ways to help people access groceries who may be struggling to do so. It’s important to understand however, that not all businesses can afford to engage in charity to this extent and each company must stay within its budget to ensure survival and not feel pressured to spend more than it can afford on community projects.

Unilever added to this by pointing out that customers are not stupid and are extremely savvy to companies which “virtue signal” (pretend to care about an issue just to look good to others). Any community project needs to therefore be well thought out and be genuine, not just a cynical attempt to improve optics.

People in general want to do the right thing but the timing needs to be right and the effort needs to be appropriate. For example, eBay Australia waived seller fees which helped smaller businesses remain profitable during the worst of the pandemic. However, Amazon US shut down fulfilment centers which disproportionately affected third party sellers, while benefiting only itself and customers. Companies need to get the tone right and have all stakeholders and customers in mind.

Be genuine, forget likes and publicity, and think how you can help.

Final thoughts

There’s a big difference between reacting and pivoting. While reacting can be both positive or negative, pivoting involves a more well thought out strategy and adds positivity to your business. Government stimulus will not last forever, so now is the time to be proactive in preparing your organization for what comes next.

Some industries will overreact, some will underreact, and some will hit the nail on the head and get things exactly right. That’s why communication is more important than ever as it empowers you to learn from both the successes and failures of those who used to be your competitors.

Find the center point, learn from peers, be genuine, and try to keep all stakeholders in mind. Businesses need to become chameleons as agility, flexibility, and the ability to change colors quickly and often will be crucial as we pivot in this new normal.

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