How lockdown became one chocolatier’s springboard to digital maturity

Arnould de Wasseige, Chloë Apostolatos / October 2020

Being online has long been a necessity for many retailers, but for others, like 163-year old chocolate brand Neuhaus, it was never as important as their offline stores — until now. The Belgian retailer had already started shifting towards digital since 2017, mostly to drive customers to their physical stores, but as soon as lockdown became a reality, they knew something had to change, and fast.

Having to shut their doors just weeks before Easter — a key moment for any chocolatier — prompted Neuhaus to connect with digital agency Grava to set up a new game plan straight away.

“We don’t believe in three or five-year plans,” says Ignace van Doorselaere, CEO of Neuhaus. “Just two dates matter; tomorrow and eternity. If you can survive the first, you can strive for the latter. Because of this approach, the pandemic didn’t change our business goals, but rather how we went about achieving them.”

Neuhaus lived in the “digital stone age” until the current management team took charge, admits Van Doorselaere. Their first order of business was to source the right people. And that’s exactly what put them in prime position to accelerate their digital growth at a time when many of their competitors stood still.

We don’t believe in three or five-year plans. Just two dates matter; tomorrow and eternity. If you can survive the first, you can strive for the latter.

Follow your customers and automate for their changing behaviour

While many brands wondered how to react to an unprecedented situation, Neuhaus found guidance in their customers. “Having traditionally focused on their offline activities and outsourced their e-commerce efforts, Neuhaus had no choice but to follow their customers online,” says Dennis Kenis of Grava. “This involved a much more hands-on approach.”.

But Neuhaus found that their online audience wanted the same thing as their in-store visitors. Van Doorselaere explains: “What changed is how we reach the customer and how we facilitate their online purchases by allowing them to personalise the presentation of what they buy, for example.”

Automation also played a very important role. With Smart Bidding — which can automatically predict how different bid amounts might impact conversions or conversion value — they were able to focus their marketing budget on customers at a later stage of the shopping journey. “Search and Smart Shopping also gave us an incredible boost in performance while working with the return on advertising spend (ROAS) bid strategies,” adds Van Doorselaere

Adapt your assets to reflect changing circumstances

Messaging has always been a priority for Neuhaus, and always reflected the behaviour of their customers. Because of this, the brand knew they had to adapt their digital assets to make their advertising sympathetic to the shifting circumstances of their customers.

As well as information about the product, they added messaging around free delivery and offers of personalisation; features that had become more important during the pandemic as consumers were looking for new ways to share surprises and treats with friends and family.

“In our acceleration,” adds Van Doorselaere, “the main role of Grava and Google was to provide us with great examples of how to do digital advertising, whether it was showcasing our brand through tailored advertising, connecting to our customers with empathetic messaging, or directing our customers to the next touchpoint by inserting the right image at the right time in a video.” Together, the teams adapted all Neuhaus’ creatives to match this advice and the results — a 13X higher ROAS than Easter 2019 — proved that was the right choice.

Have the resources in place to match increased demand

It wasn’t all plain sailing for Neuhaus, however. Production and fulfilment was still set up for offline stores, and after moving online, demand for chocolate at Easter was 12 times higher than what they could sustain. “Our logistics provider couldn't handle twice the demand,” says Van Doorselaere, “never mind 12 times. Our own people, including the management team, went out to help fill boxes, but even then we couldn't keep up with the volume.”

But that’s all part of the journey, and shouldn’t stop brands from moving quickly when they need to. “It’s far too easy for brands to get bogged down in processes and systems, but dead time between decision and execution must be avoided as much as possible,” Van Doorselaere affirms. “You might make a decision today, but it could be 100 days before you can do anything. To accelerate real digital change, you need to find a way to turn that 100 days into 20, or a 20-day turnaround into five. That’s the only way you can accelerate when it matters the most.”

And a recent BCG study of companies over the past four downturns found that there really is no time to waste. Of those surveyed, just 14% were able to increase their profitability and accelerate growth. Those that did acted early, balancing short-term actions with longer-term initiatives to drive advantage and resilience. By investing in growth, and not just cutting costs, business will achieve longer-lasting performance gains.

3 ways to accelerate your digital marketing transformation

  1. Focus on your customers and adapt your messaging to their changing needs and behaviours online.
  2. Use automated tools such as Smart Bidding to make even faster decisions to stay ahead of your competitors.
  3. Have the appropriate resources in place to meet the demand caused by accelerated digital growth.
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