Changing up your business in response to Covid-19

Three SME bosses share how their companies are pivoting and reinventing to stay afloat during this crisis brought about by Covid-19

RESPONDING to the many challenges that Covid-19 brings is a battle - and I'm not going to sugar coat it.

When the Singapore government announced that they were closing bars from March 26, my heart sank. Our business, Trouble Brewing, a local craft brewery, sold primarily B2B, supplying beers to bars, restaurants and hotels directly.

This virus has been devastating for F&B, and even before the measures were put in place to minimise the spread, our sales had already plummeted as tourist numbers dropped and people stayed home more. After the bars were closed, I knew we needed to move quickly if we wanted to survive.

As the global pandemic evolves on an almost daily basis, it's hugely difficult for many brands to adapt and react in time. Many companies (both big and small) have been left scrambling to create new strategies to protect their business interests - while also finding ways to protect their employees. For business owners like myself, it's a daily grind that has required more planning, pivoting and coffee than I could ever imagine.

While there's a lot that we still don't know, here's what we do: the brands that will make it through this pandemic will be the ones who pivot quickly to meet their consumers where they are now. And with people home all the time - especially since the circuit-breaker came into play - e-commerce is key to survival.

For Trouble, this meant leaping into action and completely changing our business model in about 24 hours. Working almost non-stop, our team shifted our business from an offline B2B brewery into an online B2C direct sales business - offering next day home delivery (now same day) and carving out an entirely new revenue stream. In the first 48 hours we received more than 200 orders from people all over Singapore, and today - just over two weeks on - we are inching close to 1,000 orders.

While this doesn't match the revenue lost, it has changed the narrative from "are we going to survive this?" to "how can we come out the other side in the best possible position?". And that is a huge shift in perspective.

This situation is obviously still evolving, and we're not sure what's going to get thrown at us next, but if the last few weeks has taught me anything, it's that the following is what you have to focus on if you want to get through these unprecedented times:

  • Keep your perspective long-term, not purely reactive:

The speed of this pandemic means that we have all had to be somewhat reactive to respond - but don't lose sight of your brand in the long term. There's a significant amount of research that shows that during downturns or recessions - or a crisis - the general consensus for success at the other end is maintaining your brand and increasing advertising. In fact, during the 2008 global financial crisis, WARC research found brands that increased marketing spend actually gained +2 per cent of the market share within the first two years of recovery - almost three times as much as those who cut it (-0.8 per cent).

Now, more than ever, your brand building activities matter. I appreciate that it's harder for small businesses with little to no marketing budget to do this, and that for larger MNCs it's going to be hard to justify increasing marketing spend when everything else is being slashed, but the ability to dial certain activities up and down depending on the circumstance is key. For smaller and medium-sized businesses - like ours - think about where you can add value to your brand through already-loyal customers who know who you are. If you don't have the spend to reach new audiences right now, focus on those you can reach and reconsider your offering to them.

One of the campaigns we have launched is called Adopt A Pub, which encourages consumers to use a code at the online checkout that's aligned to their favourite pub - one of the bars we usually supply our beers to - to pass 10 per cent of the sale directly to them. This comes at no extra cost to customers, plays into the #supportlocal narrative that has taken hold across Singapore, and is a great way for us to offer support to the F&B outlets which have always supported us.

  • Get comfortable with digital and build that social media profile

One of the first steps to adapt to a world consumed by Covid-19 is to re-learn who your customers are, and where they are online. If you can't reach them online, you're unlikely to reach them at all right now, so this is imperative. Your sales teams are probably struggling to adapt to social selling and are not used to maintaining these relationships virtually and remotely, when they'd normally be done face-to-face.

We took a long look at our customer journey and how it changes now without the step of physically going to bars and restaurants. How will we ensure that we get the awareness we need, how are people considering purchasing our products, what's the customer acquisition like on our platforms, and how can we improve customer service digitally - and quickly. Given that it's only been a few weeks, this is still a work in progress and we have a lot that we are constantly updating, redesigning and pivoting. For example, by running AB testing on different audiences and using various ad sets for social media platforms (Facebook and Instagram) and then analysing the campaign data, we can see which messaging drives the most requests and reach for our products. We've also been able to gather specific feedback on our offerings and are currently looking into how we can tweak these to better suit our customers.

All this basically comes down to always being 'on'. It's exhausting and requires a steep learning curve if this is all totally new for your business, but it's 100 per cent necessary to align with both your customers and sales teams properly.

  • Now is the time to get creative

The old "but we've always done it this way" excuse has never been accepted by me - and even less so now. Innovation is borne from adversity, and if there's something new and different to try that aligns with your pivoted business plan, then you'd better do it. While you of course need to maintain brand consistency and not do anything so extreme that it could negatively impact brand perception (or show you to be opportunistic during a pandemic), consider what it is that people want to hear.

One thing we launched right away was a weekly virtual pub quiz, where anyone is invited to join from the comfort of their couch to share some beers and have some fun. Not only is this very aligned to our brand, but it's an easy and interesting way to help people connect during these tough times - and in our most recent week we hit capacity at 100 teams taking part.

New research from Kantar's Covid-19 Barometer found that consumers want as little disruption as possible during a crisis - and they are even more worried about this than getting the disease. It also found 65 per cent expect brands to contribute to improving society, which is an increase from previous years, but they also are desperate to be entertained.

What I take away from this is that people are always looking for something new and interesting, and if it's got a social cause, then all the better. So think about how you can be creative with your brand to change up the way you do things.

  • Leaders need to stay calm - but also be realistic

And finally, one of the harder aspects of managing your way through Covid-19 is being the right kind of leader to help everyone get through this. No matter what this pandemic throws at us, looking after our people is the most important thing, but it's tough for many businesses that are having to cut salaries or jobs - while maintaining enough support from remaining staff to keep pushing on.

My advice here is to be as realistic and transparent as possible. Don't freak out about the situation, but do provide your employees with a mild, moderate or severe scenario of this pandemic, so that they understand the business decisions you're making.

The light at the end of this tunnel is that, well, there is a light at the end. You can come out the other side of this, but it may not be with exactly the same business as you went into it with - and nor should it be! Change is necessary and mandatory in times like these, and if you're not pivoting, then you're not evolving with the times.

Our lives and our businesses are never going to be quite the same after all this is over, so which side of history do you want to end up standing on?

  • The writer is founder and CEO of Trouble Brewing and Mutant Communications.