COVID-19 Pandemic, The Accelerator & Illuminator

Ashley Shuey

How many articles have you read that kick off by stating the obvious: “COVID-19 disrupted our “normal” in a big way both personally and professionally.”

Sure, that’s true, but I decided to explore how the pandemic pushed brands to be better, bolder, and more agile. How COVID-19 acted as an accelerant for brands to illuminate issues, reprioritize their offerings and adapt to the “new” normal.

Let’s start with everyone’s favorite at-home cycling machine, Peloton.

Remember just a year ago, when Peloton was on its way to being canceled after criticism arose from their “dystopian & sexist” 30-second holiday video? Well, now the brand had a global membership surge to 1.63 million, with revenues forecasted to hit $3.9 billion in 2021. Outside of the increased need for in-home fitness options, how did the brand differentiate itself and become a must-have household item?

“At a time when we could not be together, Peloton united us in a sense of community, inspired us to show up and encouraged all of us to stay healthy both physically and mentally. The result, members advocated and endorsed, passionately encouraged others to join in and proudly celebrated the brand spirit.” — Andrew Graff, CEO of Allen & Gerritsen & Resident Peloton Enthusiast

So, What Worked?

  • Cultivating Personality: Even Cody Rigsby gets amped up by Cody Rigsby.
  • Human Connection & Online Community: We’re home and starving for interaction, Peloton encourages a healthy lifestyle & connectivity during a time when we need it the most.
  • Premier Customer Service: Access to 24/7 customer service reps to receive real-time feedback to improve features & maintain agility based on consumer needs — The dream!
  • Consistent Content: The brand continues to refresh its services for members who bore quickly to repetition in workouts.
  • Strategic Partnerships: During the peak of the pandemic, Peloton partnered with Beyonce to promote togetherness amongst Black and Brown riders.

Quantifiable Success Measurement: Ensuring their metrics and goals had a clear and concise outcome to measure.

Next up, Calm (ahhhh). How mental health became part of the conversation (finally).

The pandemic has increased the normal stressors adults have in their daily lives and virtual mental health outlets became a necessary tool for many during the year in quarantine. Brands like Snapchat are providing resources, as well as insurance companies, and other brands playing in the mental health space. Michael Phelps let us know even a 23x Olympic gold medalist has bad days and needs support to stay afloat.

Originally founded in 2012, the Calm app saw a HUGE spike in new user downloads this year. First-Time Calm downloads jumped to 1.6 million in April of 2020, up 36% from the previous month.

What Worked for Calm to Set Them Apart From Competition?

  • Strategic Brand Partnerships: Partnership with Kaiser Permanente giving more users free access with their health insurance vs. $69.99 out of pocket
  • Strategic Media Placements: The night of the 2020 Presidential Election Calm ran :30 TV spots that featured the soothing sounds of rain falling onto leaves. These spots were an immediate social media hit resulting in 9,700 mentions compared to their weekly average of 500 the week before.

But what about the tourism industry? Surely you can’t come up with a positive accelerant for this industry, right? Wrong. Let’s talk about loyalty programs & pivots brands made for their frequent flyers.

Loyalty Programs are no longer a small piece of the financial puzzle for airlines, they’re actually a primary revenue source. In 2019, MileagePlus had over 100 million members, with $5.3 billion in cash flow, making up a cool 12% of United Airline’s total revenue. MileagePlus and loyalty programs alike have been the safety net against major revenue loss during an unapologetically slow travel year.

What Changed For Consumers?

  • Customer Support: Elimination of cancelation or flight change fees
  • Extension of Services & Perks:

- Extension of expiration dates on rewards points

- Higher rewards for new credit card members

- Appraisals of loyalty programs used as collateral to fund loans

- Consumers supporting their airlines with co-branded loyalty credit cards

Strategic Partnerships: Capital One letting its card users use their Venture Miles towards food delivery and streaming services

Another less obviously affected industry that found itself rewriting the playbook during the pandemic was Rent the Runway.

How a Brand Centered Around Dressing its Customers for Group Outings Plans to Bounce Back

After discovering 90% of their retail sales were pick-up/drop-offs transactions, COVID accelerated Rent the Runway, a subscription fashion service’s decision to close retail locations and expand their footprint in the pick-up and drop-off space.

In addition to that discovery, Rent The Runway CEO, Jennifer Hyman said this of her employees: “We found that during COVID, when our team went fully remote because they had to, our customer service scores actually rose to the highest levels that they’ve ever been in the last 11 years in the business. This happened during one of the most difficult times for the business. At a time where people are more likely to complain, we’ve had the highest customer service satisfaction that we’ve ever had. Our customer service team is more productive, happier, and has a more flexible lifestyle. That also means we’ve been able to ramp up hiring now from anywhere and everywhere expanding the pool of talent.”

What’s Next Then?

  • Broader Membership Options: More customizable memberships to control pricing ebbs & flows as needed
  • Customer Service: Fundamentally changing how they think about customer service
  • Inclusion for All: Prioritize supporting women & diversity through their partnerships

Even Red Roof Inn got in on the fun and started offering day rates for remote workers and college students looking for a quiet, clean, affordable workspace.

What Changed?

  • Lean into Convenience: The company’s new “Work Under Our Roof” program costs $39 daily and lets people rent a room from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
  • Longstanding Resources: The rooms have free wifi, free local and long-distance calls, faxing, flat-screen TVs, a workstation, as well as free coffee AND your fur friends are welcome to join.
  • Financial Support: Red Roof is also offering a program for displaced college students by offering them a 30% discount at selected Red Roof Inns.

And last but certainly not least, Higher Education.

The pandemic has forced institutions to reckon finally with the fundamental issues of the true value of higher education from a student’s perspective, so what does that mean for the future of higher education?

  • Adapt to Student Expectations:

- Colleges and universities must understand and deliver on students’ evolving expectations.

- Expect students to demand a learning environment that removes the barriers of preventable harms and creates an inclusive climate that enables them to fully succeed in their academic and extracurricular pursuits.

  • Financial Support: Tomorrow’s students will be more financially and behaviorally risk-averse, socially conscious and activism inclined. Institutions must invest in missions that resonate with student morals and values related to social justice.
  • Community Relations: Students will ask their institutions to be equipped with the resources they need to cultivate the communities they desire to live and learn in.
  • Transparent Leadership: Proactive leadership visibility and meaningful investments are strongly connected to institutional outcomes like retention and university growth.

I’ll leave you with one of our favorite student communication campaigns from Boston University. What will 2021 bring for brands? We’ll be leaving our assumptions behind, that’s our only definite.

This campaign geared to students was an unconventional approach to COVID safety communication.

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