Like so many others in the months leading up to the pandemic, I had just joined a new company and was super excited to get started in my new role overseeing marketing and brand for a young ambitious start-up. I came from senior roles at the Financial Times, where I had been based in London and New York, as well as South China Morning Post, where I worked out of Hong Kong.
Now, I was joining a Singapore-headquartered company that had operations across Asia, primarily in Southeast Asia, but also in China and India. Entering the startup world was relatively novel to me, but I knew the company I was joining (Advance Intelligence Group) would offer entirely new challenges and growth opportunities.
Shortly after, having been in the new role for less than six months and starting to hit my stride, COVID-19 hit …
Now, over one year on, I can see the whole period with 20/20 hindsight and there are some takeaways for marketers and brand chiefs, but also startups in general, that I would like to share.
With the global pandemic forcing almost every economy into lockdown, operational resiliency and brand communications became paramount. This was true both internally (for employees and inventors) and externally (for partners, customers, and the wider market).
Brand-level responses to customers in a crisis
As we climb out of the pandemic and put the worst months behind us, it’s becoming even more important for brands to build a strong and lasting emotional connection with consumers – beyond just its product offerings.
Let me give you an example of how we approached this last year, in what were arguably the darkest days of COVID-19 for many. At Atome, our buy now pay later (BNPL) consumer brand where I spend much of my time and energy, we spent not hours, days, or even weeks, but three months speaking with dozens of customers in in-depth interviews and focus groups.
Why? Because we saw the pressing need to deeply understand their changing needs and preferences as the world was changing around us.
This turned out to be a key turning point for the Atome brand, and provided valuable insights in terms of how our customers thought about spending, money management, lifestyle, and much more.
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From a brand and marketing perspective, the result was a new ‘Triple A’ brand pillar around Aspiration, Access, and Advice that we introduced at the core of the business.
In addition to this, we underwent a complete brand refresh at Atome when many other businesses were still trying to pull themselves above the waterline.
Of course, a large part of our business is B2B, serving enterprises rather than individual consumers.
As such, it was important to also think about branding and marketing lessons from a B2B perspective over the past 12 months. Arguably it’s even more important for B2B businesses to make an effort for their customers and clients to feel the people behind the product.
During the pandemic, we made great efforts in this part of our business to better communicate how we were serving our B2B customers amid all the challenges. As well as this, we spent a lot of time thinking about how we as an enterprise business actually shared many of the same concerns as our customers – and how we could therefore explore solutions to address those issues.
This brings me to the next important brand decision we made: proactively listening to feedback and responding to requests and questions in a timely manner – day in day out through the pandemic.
As much as possible, but especially during a crisis, brands must reduce friction and hassle for customers while creating innovative features that improve their experience and delight.
This leads to what I call the ‘brand promise’ – delivering on the product or service as marketed – being experienced by the end-user as consistent across touchpoints (mobile, desktop, online, offline, etc.).
A good brand takes care of its employees
I’d like to now move on from the past and look more to our future in terms of where we’re heading as a company and brand, going from a regional startup to a global operation.
As of the time of writing, Advance Intelligence Group (under which we have brands like Atome, e-commerce platform Genie, and enterprise AI company ADVANCE.AI) is looking at expanding into the UK and Europe.
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Having come out of the pandemic stronger than when we went in, it is now exciting for us to look ahead to new global challenges. But, of course, there are still areas we have to be diligent about and pay close attention to.
As with any start-up that is rapidly expanding, it’s so important to maintain a cohesive and positive company culture. While in much of the article I’ve talked about our customers and our brand from an outside-in perspective, I want to finish by really hitting home the importance of brand power to a company’s own internal stakeholders – namely its employees.
Exercises such as Town Halls, Feedback Days, and ‘In Conversation With’ sessions have helped us build effective top-down and bottom-up communications throughout the brand over the past year, and these are initiatives we will continue going forward.
In addition, we have implemented various morale-boosting activities to address the challenges and constraints of COVID-19, even as many of our people are working from home.
For example, it was so rewarding for me to run a four-week campaign titled ‘For a Better Me’ to celebrate the company’s fourth Anniversary, as well as hosting New Year parties, which really brought all our employees closer together.
These events, which resulted in a company culture that everyone felt part of (even as we operate across 10 markets), were participated in by almost 1,000 of our 2,000 employees across the company.
I passionately believe that without strong women in leadership roles, most companies would not have been as successful as a brand during and coming out of the pandemic. It’s my hope that other business leaders reading this will take note and make changes accordingly, if they haven’t already done so.
Diversity in workplace builds brand resilience
Throughout this pandemic, I’ve discovered that a moment of crisis actually provided an opportunity for me as a woman, and my female colleagues around me, to help the company’s brand shine through the chaos.
I’d like to highlight that, despite all the progress of the industry over recent years, there still remains a great need for more diversity in the tech space.
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This absolutely includes the need for more women in senior leadership roles, including on the branding and marketing side. With more women in the workplace, tech companies can generate more innovation, growth, and revenue.
Moreover, women are often able to leverage resiliency, empathy, and strong communication skills to improve collaboration and build a more positive corporate culture. These have proven to be key ingredients for survival during the global pandemic.
Like many women, in the early stages of my career, I was surrounded by a heavily male-dominated environment and workplace. Today, I like to think of my experience in both Asia and the West has taught me important lessons on how businesses stand to benefit from increasing the number of women in their talent pool and leadership teams.
Especially in Asia, where men still hold authority and power in most business contexts, we really need to be laser-focused on increasing women in tech over the coming decade.
Female leaders help to improve not only the decision-making process but also make it more likely that a startup will be able to successfully overcome tough challenges while developing the business with a grand vision.
So what’s my advice to women aspiring to leadership roles at tech companies, but also in other industries (such as media, where I spent much of my career)?
My advice for aspiring female leaders
Don’t feel pressured into changing yourself to fit in the environment, especially if you are surrounded by mostly male peers in the workplace. There is no need to pretend to be tough and strong – you can show your vulnerability to build greater trust with others.
I’ve learned that women’s strong sense of empathy and compassion can provide you with unique values during challenging times.
Be confident and fearless
Women have the tendency of avoiding conflict or being perceived as aggressive, and this can lead to us underestimating our own competency and potential.
Stay true to your thoughts and be willing to express or even challenge others, which will help you build the confidence to influence others, make changes or take risks.
Tied to this is being less self-critical and understanding that when we make mistakes it’s important to focus on the present and future, rather than dwelling on the past.
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Lean in together and support other women
Throughout the years I have learned and benefited from many female managers, mentors, and coaches.
My hope is to see more women encourage other women to become leaders and support each other, especially in terms of helping younger colleagues to grow. When women celebrate each other’s accompaniment we’re all lifted up.
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