Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic has hit the planet, there has been a lot of debate about how companies have or should be responding to the situation. Over the last three years at First Partners, we have been co-organizing an innovation series to bring forth insights for communication. Given that the undeniable relevance and immediacy of innovation could not be truer in the times of Covid-19, we decided to look at the brands' response to the pandemic from the lens of innovation.

Accordingly, with Reputation Today and PRovoke Media, we organized a set of online salons entitled ‘Innovation During & Post Covid Times’; one involving communicators representing B2C brands, and the other with those from B2B brands. These salons shed light on how these distinct set of professionals and brand reputation custodians looked at the current situation. What emerged was that while there were areas of marked divergence, both sets of people agreed on many approaches. The unique characteristic that marked any approach, regardless of focus, was innovation, and this is what has kept each brand alive and in the game.

For the B2C sector, the Covid-19 crisis posed a severe barrier and resulted in a sudden, direct hit. With country-wide lockdowns and a halt in consumer activity, consumer-focused activity came to a veritable standstill. For these brands, therefore, the focus of innovation had to be on problem-solving while engaging with customers and employees who needed to support the customers despite challenges.

At ITC Limited, India’s second largest FMCG company, “We did effective ‘tragital’ communication (traditional + digital) as we realised content is king!”, said Nandini Basu, general manager of corporate communications. In fact, ITC adopted a problem-solving approach, for instance, by converting their perfume factory to produce sanitizers and by modifying distribution by tying up with Domino’s Pizza for doorstep distribution of Aashirwaad flour. At Google India, the innovation focus was to bring new features and solutions to consumers, said Marco D’Souza, communications manager, “people needed access to information quickly, so we made it our main goal”. Google responded to the humanitarian crisis of migrant workers by making “information on food and home shelters readily available”.

For Ravi Sharma, head of marketing and PR at Hyundai Motors India, “we brought in important innovations such as ‘Click To Buy’, India’s first end-to-end online car buying platform curated to provide incredible future retail experience to customers, which really enhanced the overall consumer experience.”

For B2C businesses, innovation lay too in engagement with all stakeholders, even competitors, if that meant survival. According to Pooja Garg Khan, corporate communications head at Panasonic India, “frenemies have emerged and Covid has made competitive brands come together and find new collaborations to engage stakeholders.” To support customers, at LG Electronics “the focus was on keeping the field and sales force constantly engaged”, added Neeta Linz, DGM – corporate communications & CSR, leading to engaging employee families with the #LGKidsSaluteTheRealHeroes initiative.

For hospitality brand OYO, the solution lay in “going local” to “help asset owners address their fears”, explained global communications head Prasidha Menon, as the need was to “increase communication, engage more frequently and, if needed, get into one-on-one engagement”.

According to Sujit Patil, VP & head of corporate brand & communications at Godrej Group, the company responded through "hyper-agility in every aspect of the organization” leading to an increase in virtual engagement with media and consumers through new channels. As an example, Godrej's appliances brand embarked upon providing a video-based equipment service, while the company launched a wider #ProtektIndiaMovement to educate the masses on hygiene issues.  

Danone Nutricia India put the focus on helping their consumers, particularly young mothers, with credible information to cut through a deluge of fake information, through “voice of experts”; an initiative where “experts spoke and addressed concerns around women's health and wellness”, explained Shefali Sapra, director, public affairs & corporate communications.

B2B activities, on the other hand, shifted to the essentials segment for the most part, and these had to continue, no matter what. In fact, it was B2B brands that helped the country keep moving, while maintaining order and economic relevance. The focus here became the flanking of corporate messaging with social messaging. For B2B players, thus, engagement had to be inclusive and based on compassion.

Roma Balwani, director of communications and brand at Vedanta Group, India’s largest metals and minerals player, approached the situation thus: "Through compassionate communication and not crisis communication. We set up a special fund, a special task force and the three areas of focus were – the employees, the community and the migrant workers…and we also extended our circle to stray animals."

For Tata Consultancy Services, India’s largest IT services brand, "the top priority was to ensure the safety of our employees and their families and making sure that clients were not disrupted", added Abhinav Kumar, chief marketing & communications officer of global markets. “We needed to project it was ‘business as usual’ and we had a virtual AGM (the first ever) and financial quarter results” he added.

With continuity a key focus, leadership communication assumed a degree of vital primacy to inspire confidence and give assurance. For Gayathri Sharma, head of communications for India & South Asia at Rolls-Royce, “What was important was the role of our CEO in leading the communications.” Echoing this approach, Suniet Bezbaroowa, marketing, brand, and communications director at Deloitte India and South Asia, said that “a lot of communication has happened from the leadership, which has lessened the gap between leadership and people”.

According to Arpana K Ahuja, India lead for communications & programmes at Shell, the theme was to “lead with purpose, keep employees first and leadership in the spotlight, increase and expand in communication and communication must be hyper-sensitive in context.” At Oracle, the epicentre of innovation was products, while communication was narrowly directed at customers and employees, as “less is more”, said Deebba Ali, director of corporate communications and India PR lead.

Summing up, senior industry observers put it well. “Innovative or disruptive communication should have simplicity, effortlessness, and the ability to have global impact,” opined Senjam Raj Sekhar, communications consultant and former head of communications of now Walmart-owned Flipkart. “John Hopkins University is a good example of this where they became the one with the most reader friendly data dashboard on the pandemic and became more referenced than WHO. Zermatt Tourism also stood out, by displaying one country’s flag a day which countries watched out for and filled them with pride”, he added.

According to Rachana Panda, communications leader, and former chief communications officer & citizenship leader at GE South Asia, “This has been the time of business innovation. It is time for the unusual too. We have auto businesses getting into healthcare and the story-telling has been enhanced, which is really fantastic. Digital selling is a part of the B2B market and communicators have a lot to do."

Always, as evolution has proved ceaselessly, it is the bold who prevail. The response of media, corporates, of communicators and of business leaders during Covid-19 has once more proven beyond doubt that the will to seek, to find and not to yield is as hardwired into our DNA as is the enduring urge to craft our own destinies. This transformational innovation is not just a force of nature, it is the very nature of life itself. Truly, more power to the communicators who continue to harness the most intractable developments in these tough times.

Dilip Yadav is founding partner of First Partners, a communications consultancy based in India.