As one of the key players in the digital transformation space, IBM has adapted quickly to the new demands and needs of its COVID-impacted customers. Gill Zhou (Chief Marketing Officer of Asia Pacific, Chief Marketing Officer and General Manager of Digital Sales for Greater China) speaks to WARC’s Jenny Chan for the Marketer’s Toolkit 2021 about being agile in a crisis, delivering digital experiences and the importance of presence and empathy in marketing.

How have the developments of the year, from lockdowns to changing consumer habits, impacted IBM’s marketing operations?

In such a turbulent year, the most valuable asset in marketing has been the ability to adapt quickly. Building teams around shared goals and working in defined sprints with focused ‘stand-up’ meetings have enabled us to move fast, and ensure we maintain our client focus through our marketing programmes. Beyond that, these practices have also kept the teams and our partners closer and more engaged.

As to what we’ve learned, there’s one interesting paradox. Whilst we have adopted a fantastic suite of technologies to enable our agile practice, when working remotely it’s become very apparent that the technology can create barriers to working in an agile way. Technology is brilliant, but it needs humanity in its application to really make it work.

What has been the biggest change made to IBM’s marketing strategy this year?

Key insights

  • Priorities should be flexible and change according to macro and micro contexts to enable the brand to remain relevant to customers.
  • Better engagement and results can be found via smaller, more intimate, and often shorter virtual experiences targeted at key client segments and interests.
  • Uncertainty might be daunting but it’s also a scenario that marketers, with their empathy for customers, should be very well equipped to navigate.

Whilst we were already on a journey to simplify our go-to-market framework before COVID-19 hit, and it has in many ways driven that change faster. Very early on in the crisis, we knew that we needed to shift priorities if we were to remain relevant to our clients. We were able to quickly zero in on six key pain points clients were experiencing and focus our marketing efforts on the conversations that they wanted to have, and where we could deliver the most value within their new operating context. And of course, all those marketing efforts are now almost 100% in the digital space given the current situation.

As an example, we quickly recognised an opportunity in marketing to align with a client pain point around customer contact centres that were being overwhelmed by demand because of everyone working at home. We built a narrative around a key Watson-based solution that supports virtual engagement, including dozens of client success stories from around the region. Working with sales, we’ve been able to speak to key accounts through digital channels, virtual events and direct engagement which has built significant demand for that solution.

Gill Zhou, APAC chief marketing officer, IBM

How has the company leveraged digital channels to stay engaged with homebound clients across APAC?

One of the larger hurdles we’ve had to overcome has been the sudden absence of events. In a typical year, events like Think (our annual client conference) are key opportunities to engage with our clients face-to-face and a valuable marketing tool. This year we’ve quickly pivoted to digital client experiences. But of course, they’re very different in nature to physical events, so we’ve had to iterate along the way to ensure they’re equally valuable to our clients.

We’ve quickly learnt that we can drive better engagement and results through smaller, more intimate and often shorter virtual experiences that we target to key client segments and interests. We’re conscious that ‘death by webinar’ has become a COVID reality! Working closely with our sales teams we’re able to pinpoint topics and content that will be most valuable to our clients and focus virtual events around their needs and realities.

Some great examples are the Security & Systems Summits in India where we changed our approach from previous years to suit the digital engagement model. Creating bite-sized stories and sessions, using data to better segment and target our attendees with more relevant content, making group sessions more interactive and adding game breaks.

Most importantly, we knew that the real value of events is often the networking opportunity, so we created virtual private rooms to allow clients and experts to have more informal and personal chats. All of which meant we far exceeded our targets in terms of attendees, engagement and sales leads.

Describe your approach to media choice and quality, especially as COVID has changed media consumption trends so dramatically?

Our media choices are always informed by our communications objectives and built around our audiences. Most important is the quality of the overall experience we provide in digital channels, and that must go beyond media placements. To give an example from 2020, we have invested in significant direct partnerships with NewsCorp in Australia, Economic Times and CNN in India and Harvard Business Review across a few APAC markets. These are the types of partners that we know are appropriate for our senior audiences, and with all of them, the deals go beyond just advertising space and into bespoke content and experiences to engage those audiences.

Clearly, the media landscape has changed dramatically as a result of COVID-19, and we’ve adapted in line with those shifting behaviours. Whether those changes are permanent or not is yet to be seen, so we’ll continue to monitor and iterate our media choices as we go forward.

Many brands are looking to China as a potential indicator and blueprint for how best to prepare for a post-pandemic situation. Is this also the same for IBM?

As yet, it’s not clear whether every market will emerge from this crisis in a consistent way. But there are lessons that can be taken from what’s happened in China, particularly when looking at the speed of innovation and transformation.

Many people see SARS as the tipping point that led to Alibaba’s rapid expansion, when consumers began to shop online at scale because they were afraid to go outside. COVID is having a similar impact, reinforcing the supremacy of digital in China and broadening its impact across more spheres of business and society. Everything is now digital, from head to foot. Chinese companies and consumers have accelerated their use of digital services since COVID started, for example, the number of registered doctors on WeDoctor grew 35x in less than three months since the outbreak at the end of January.

Those same sudden shifts in consumer behaviour are visible around the world, creating new requirements of businesses, and new demands of digital. China undoubtedly has a head start in this space which can help to inform other markets.

At the same time, China has a very different ecosystem to most of the world, so it’s not always easy to apply the same rules! We will continue to look to the macro and the micro context in each market, as well as listening to our clients, to set our agenda for next year.

How do you think the events of 2020 have changed the conversations and brand priorities around data and user privacy?

2020 has put privacy more squarely in the public consciousness; I believe that’s a good thing. Our focus as a business is to empower our clients to access and protect their users’ data regardless of where it resides in their ecosystem, enabled by hybrid cloud. From a marketing standpoint, we will continue to have the principles of trust and transparency at the heart of our approach to data and user privacy.

Earlier this year, prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement, we led the way in declaring that we would no longer offer general facial recognition technology or surveillance software, recognising that it had the potential for misuse in racial profiling and violations of basic human rights.

The pandemic has accelerated the growth trajectories of walled gardens and e-commerce marketplaces. How do you see the relationship between brands and platforms changing in response to this shift?

I think the balance of power has definitely shifted towards the platforms. But just as 2020 has grown, the general awareness of user privacy in relation to events this year, people are also becoming more conscious of the data practices of those large platforms. It’s a conversation that’s clearly penetrating popular culture.

That being said, brands are still a potent force, particularly when taking collective action. Whilst much of the platforms' revenue models are built on paid advertising, brands can still speak with their dollars if they see behaviour that doesn’t live up to the standards we set as an industry. Consumers will expect that, and both brands and platforms have to live up to the expectations of our customers.

What is your outlook for APAC, for the year ahead?

If only I had a crystal ball! The one thing we’ve all learned from 2020 is that the world can be unpredictable. That being said I’m very optimistic that this region will bounce back strongly. There are so many innovative and resilient businesses in APAC that continue finding growth opportunities even amid this crisis. That can only be good news for the industry as a whole.

What will be your key areas of focus for the coming year?

Ensuring we maintain brand presence in the market and don’t lose our focus on long term demand creation, whilst we continue to optimise and re-balance our performance marketing investment. We know we must focus on both brand and performance simultaneously to achieve sustainable growth, and we have to ensure that our brand narrative has relevance to our audience.

Even before COVID hit, we were already building our brand plans around the national agendas of our APAC markets; developing brand narratives that supported national interests and positioning IBM as a partner to the digital transformation journeys of those nations. When COVID struck we quickly had to adapt to ensure the brand remained relevant to nations and businesses and the challenges they were now facing.

As we move into 2021 we’ll continue to ensure our brand is relevant to the evolving situation whilst also supporting our key business and marketing pillars. Driving that integration, and delivering that balance, at every stage of the funnel will be vital to our success.

COVID -19 has created a burning platform for digital transformation, most businesses are now in a position where they must accelerate and make transformation central to their long-term business strategy if they want to maintain a high quality of employee and customer experience. That has created a significant opportunity for us as a business.

We will be increasing our focus on bringing the power of the hybrid cloud platform to life for our clients, through the lens of their business needs and ensure that we’re creating value at every opportunity.

What do you think will be the single biggest challenge that marketers from all industries and markets will need to grapple with in 2021?

Asia is a hugely diverse and fast-moving region, arguably more so than anywhere else in the world. There are markets like China or Korea with entirely unique platforms and ecosystems at a huge scale. That already requires marketing and marketers to be more adaptable and reactive.

Throw in the current situation with COVID and all the uncertainty that creates, then add a US election which is likely to have significant ramifications for trade between east and west, and it all creates huge potential for change. That’s just a reality that we will all have to handle next year. Whilst that uncertainty might be daunting it’s also a scenario that marketers, with their empathy for customers, should be very well equipped to navigate.