Readiness, resilience, and recovery: Lessons from a year of COVID

Marie Gulin-Merle / March 2021

In the last year, the pandemic has forced businesses to rethink everything. Companies have scrambled to figure out how — and even whether — to move forward. We all watched as talk of a “return to normal” gave way to “a new normal” and finally to, simply, “uncertainty.”

We all know good companies and strong brands that didn’t make it, through no fault of their own. And there are companies in industries, like consumer product goods, home goods, and technology, that have benefited from the at-home economy.

This has been a period defined by uncertainty. Yet the rapid pace of digital adoption has been unprecedented. People have had to live more of their lives online than ever before. Technology became a lifeline — for businesses and consumers alike.

This has been a period defined by uncertainty. Yet the rapid pace of digital adoption has been unprecedented.

That lifeline has helped some companies weather the storm. By embracing digital transformation, by doing things differently, companies have started to recover and even found ways to grow. Now, in a year of economic and social upheaval, I know it’s hard to imagine businesses undertaking such an effort. Budgets are tight. Hiring has slowed. And for many, digital transformation is seen as a nice-to-have, dismissed as a cumbersome, resource intensive project.

Yet, throughout this last year, we’ve partnered with companies that have embraced digital transformation as an essential and achievable value-adding process. You might be asking yourself, where do I even start? Or maybe you’re partway through your journey and thinking about what to tackle next. That’s the beauty of digital transformation: It’s an evolution — one that will pay dividends immediately and well into the future.

By embracing digital transformation, by doing things differently, companies have started to recover and even found ways to grow.

Whether it’s real-time insights, automation and machine-learning tools, or privacy-safe measurement approaches, Google has been helping businesses of all sizes succeed by implementing components of digital transformation. Here are some lessons from their stories.

3 line-drawn icons, a lightbulb, gear wheel, and server stack, that illustrate the ways Google helps businesses with digital transformation: Lead with always-on insights, respond faster with automation, and make data-driven, privacy-safe decisions.

Lead with always-on insights

Understanding what consumers want is at the core of all marketing. And the dramatic pandemic-driven changes in consumer behaviour highlighted how important it is for marketers to be able to decipher and act on those signals quickly, especially in a dynamic or fluid environment. But insights aren’t just one and done, and they’re not only relevant in turbulent times. Tools like Rising Retail Categories and Google Trends can help marketers be ready by understanding what people want and need.

Historically, online sales at Michaels, an art supplies and craft retailer, accounted for only 5% of revenue. But with most consumers stuck at home, interest in crafts increased dramatically.

Michaels partnered with Google and Camelot Strategic Marketing and Media and created custom dashboards to gather insights and keep a pulse on evolving consumer interests and needs. Consumer insights also led them to participate in Google’s Curbside alpha program. The results? In December, Michaels reported a 249% increase in e-commerce sales for the first 10 months of the year, crediting enhanced and expanded omnichannel capabilities, including curbside pickup.

Hand-drawn icon of a smartphone and shopping cart. 249% increase in e-commerce sales for the first 10 months of the year. Source: The Michaels Companies, Internal Data, 2020.

Respond faster with automation

In the deluge of data that defines the digital marketing era, only automation can unlock the full value of signals and insights by making them actionable in real time and at scale. Automation and machine learning tools free up time and resources for any brand’s most valuable resource — its people — to focus on being more creative, strategic, and impactful. Like digital transformation, automation isn’t a cost-cutting exercise. It’s an opportunity for growth and experimentation.

Louisiana Crawfish Co. is the nation’s number one shipper of live crawfish, and since the family-owned and -operated business began selling fresh crawfish and other Louisiana staples in 1985, revenue has primarily come from B2B wholesale deliveries.

But when COVID-19 shuttered most restaurants and other wholesale customers, the company saw an opportunity to shift its focus to direct-to-consumer sales. Using Search and Smart Shopping campaigns, the company pivoted the promotion of its products, relying on automation to make ongoing, near-instantaneous changes to messaging. As a result, even as its B2B business declined, the influx of new customers drove up sales 101%, and overall revenue jumped 31% year over year.

Line drawing of a bar graph with green price tag overlay. 101% increase in sales year over year.  Source: Louisiana Crawfish Co., Internal Data, 2020.

Make data-driven, privacy-safe decisions

No matter the business climate, data is critical to understanding how the environment around us is evolving. And it’s critical to have privacy-safe measurement solutions that enable you to see across consumer journeys that span channels and platforms.

No matter the business climate, data is critical to understanding how the environment around us is evolving.

At Eli Lilly, a pharmaceutical company that sells products in 125 countries, data became the litmus test for understanding shifts in consumer behaviour and informing decisions the company made. And for each data set collected, the company evaluates whether it should be using the data, how it is created, and if the consumer has given permission for it to be used.

As the company embarked on its digital transformation road map, it worked to identify which data sources were most helpful across the purchase journey, like search behaviours and website interactions. And it evaluated which skills and processes to bring in house and which ones to outsource to an external agency. For example, by bringing search engine marketing in-house and fully owning that part of the consumer journey, the brand acquired more meaningful data and drove over 12 million more patient connections on its website.

Digital transformation is a process, not a project

Digital transformation may sound daunting and expensive, with uncertain benefits. I promise you it’s anything but. And in these unpredictable times it’s essential. As these companies have found, each component of digital transformation can drive results today, while building resilience for tomorrow. And, even though it’s impossible to know exactly what tomorrow holds, digital transformation ensures your business will be ready.

The Update: How 2 brands adapted in the early days of the pandemic