Louise Barber, Global Vice President of Marketing at DHL Supply Chain UK

At a time when delivery and supply chain has become crucial to brands and consumers alike, DHL’s marketing leader is doubling down on trust.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director


“Trust is not a transient moment in time. It's about finding out where you want to be in business, not just in these moments of crisis but in five years’ time.” Louise Barber, Global Vice President of Marketing at DHL Supply Chain UK is sharing how the global brand responded to the coronavirus crisis by supporting their customers and responding to their needs in real time. An unprecedented marketing response for a brand which was reflected in Barber picking up the Best Leader in Marketing (Brand) award at the Women in Marketing Awards.

The straight-talking and warm Barber, who is speaking on the now obligatory Zoom call directly from her front room, did not even know she had been entered for the award. The fact that it was her team that put her in for the accolade, makes the achievement all the sweeter. She notes that working with her team in the midst of the crisis has been one of the proudest and most rewarding experiences of her career.

DHL employs over 550,000 people around the world and the business has outperformed the market in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. Fuelled by the explosion of e-commerce and express deliveries, the group achieved its highest ever operating profits in 2020 at €4.8 billion. The group has had a key role in the crisis, not just in helping customers navigate supply chain issues, but the company is also currently focused on distributing the COVID-19 vaccine across the globe.

Relationships matter: you remember the people who help you out.

Louise Barber

Flex in the face of crisis

When the coronavirus crisis first hit, Barber was in the midst of her rounds of global travel. Returning from a trip to Ohio into a deserted Heathrow marked the moment ‘business as usual’ ground to a halt. In its place sprung the brand’s crisis response strategy. Barber was part of the corporate board heading up the communications workstream which was in place to ensure that the brand was proactive and customer-centric in its response to the crisis. This focus on the customer translated to daily check-ins across the team, busy dealing with four thousand different requests, comments and customer needs in a matter of weeks.

“We very quickly resourced up,” explained Barber. In practise this meant the creation of ‘flex teams’ which enabled teams to scale up quickly by accessing talent directly based on knowledge rather than traditional business hierarchy. “In a virtual environment you can very quickly bring those skills together, with everyone working from home in a global team,” explains Barber.

The demand for the expertise, insight and assets from the global marketing team was huge but the method of delivery shifted. “We are an organisation that loves a global conference,” laughs Barber. Yet while the group’s supply chain conference usually has 250 face-to-face attendees, this years’ virtual event saw 2,000 people attend. “We will move towards a more hybrid model [and] take advantage of those economies of scale,” she adds.

Customer centricity

For an industry which all too often confuses ‘customer-centricity’ with attempting to be all things to all people, Barber has a refreshingly simple and focused approach to putting the customer first. “The customer experience really can be about being honest with your customer, on being focused on their needs for the long-term,” she says.

Across the business world the coronavirus crisis has repeatedly demonstrated there are alternative, creative and commercially valuable ways of working, from removing the myths that surround flexibility to revolutionising delivery times. Businesses won’t simply be able to put that genie of change back into the bottle anytime soon.

She points to the way in which the team got a fully functioning ecommerce offering up and running for a retailer in just 24 hours as shops were forcibly closed. A project which would usually take three to six months. “There are lots of examples of where we have played our part in keeping shops open through ecommerce,” she explains. Underlining the fact that this really lies at the heart of business-to-business marketing.

“I believe marketing is about understanding a customer's needs and fulfilling it,” she explains, pointing to the industry focus on the ‘top of the funnel’ and customer acquisition. She believes the crisis underlined why playing the long game is vital.

“Relationships matter; you remember the people who help you out,” she adds, pointing to how the DHL supply chain team stepped up to get products moving for one of their biggest supermarket clients at the start of lockdown. “People came from across the country. It really was a case of all hands to the pump,” she adds.

COVID has stripped away at bureaucracy and allowed us to really push the boundaries.

Louise Barber

Consistent communications

Barber is clear on the importance of Digital Customer Relationship Management programmes. She notes research which shows that 68% of customers say they have made a decision on buying before they meet a person.

“The role of marketing is to really focus on consistent communications and how the digital and physical customer journey interacts. You really have to think about channels and be omnichannel in a way that is open architecture,” she explains.

Barber has a firm grounding in the art of communications. After completing a degree in communications, she joined Sun Life where she trained as an accountant. A chance meeting with the CMO led her to apply for a communications role. When she found out five weeks later she was pregnant he supported her to take on the role. “This was 23 years ago, and things were very different then, but he made it very easy for me to return to work and I was lucky that AXA has an onsite creche,” she says.

After progressing within AXA, she joined GE Capital, before leaving to join in house marketing specialist Williams Lea Tag. “I’ve always loved language. The challenge is how do you apply that language on a one-to-one basis in a dynamic publishing model?” she asks.

Bringing your whole self to work

The segue into the impact of the crisis on diversity and inclusion is neatly, albeit noisily, delivered via my seven-year-old son who makes an impromptu appearance on our Zoom interview to procure my mobile phone. Barber doesn’t skip a beat, explaining: “Imagine if your son turned up a meeting in the office, it most probably wouldn't happen. The bonus of remote working is that it has really enabled us to properly get to know people as people.”

She shares how the leadership of DHL’s Chief Information Officer set the tone of the business: “He started every meeting with asking people how they were and really listening.” When the company lost its first employee to COVID, the company’s CEO Frank Appel immediately communicated with the entire organisation. This focus on people has been key to the company’s resilience in the crisis.

“It really is about how we care about our people, and I truly believe that. I don’t think I ever want to leave DHL and it's the response to COVID that makes me say that it has really solidified our culture,” she says. While she shares she is naturally cynical, the company really has delivered on its values. As she explains: “I trust the people who lead me to make the right decision and despite being cynical naturally, I really believe they are focused on doing the right thing.”

It's a focus that has not only led to an increase in operating profits but record net promoter scores amongst customers. Yet the achievement wasn’t simply down to just pushing harder or running faster. Barber points to the “operational excellence” of DHL, the fact the company had a COVID taskforce up and running so quickly and the continued focus on business continuity and planning for risk as key to its ability to thrive amidst the crisis.

For Barber, the legacy of the crisis lies both in the strength, commitment and loyalty of her team and also the disruption to hierarchy. As we come out the other side of the crisis it is clear she is focused on keeping hold of this silver lining. She explains: “I could live without some of the urgency, but the innovation and the sprints that we have achieved I want to hang on to. COVID has stripped away at bureaucracy and allowed us to really push the boundaries.”

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Louise was the winner of the Best Leader in Marketing, Brand at the DHL at the Women in Marketing Awards 2020