Interviews

“There is no marketing playbook for a pandemic”

Meg Donovan, Global Director, Brand & Product Marketing at Uber on shifting consumer needs, driving positive change and why the brand pivoted to tell people to stop travelling.

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE

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Arguably one of the industries to have experienced the greatest upheaval since the Coronavirus crisis broke out earlier this year is travel, in all its forms. While flights were grounded and people confined to their homes, this also meant that for a company like Uber, the brand’s messaging had to shift overnight.

“When it comes to supporting our customers, so much of our focus has been around doing what it takes to ensure we have the right technology, policies and communications to keep people safe,” explains Meg Donovan, “even if in some cases that has meant telling people not to move at all.”

Donovan is Global Director, Brand & Product Marketing at the “ridesharing pioneer,” as she describes it, “which means we have a responsibility to show up like a leader”. In her role she oversees both Global Consumer Product Marketing, which is inclusive of the Ridesharing & Loyalty products and Global Brand Marketing.

Throughout the ongoing crisis, for Donovan and Uber, the priority has been about “taking the right steps to keep people safe,” she says. Uber’s rapid repositioning advised people not to travel and was indicative of a number of travel brands which had to pivot overnight. 

When we’ve all been a little stuck & stagnant, there’s a general inertia to drive positive change. Let’s not waste that.

Meg Donovan

Shifting consumer needs

“When it comes to serving customers, I don’t have to tell you how rapidly all our lifestyles changed in 2020,” explains Donovan. For many that has meant involuntarily grounding themselves, no long-distance business trips or even short haul mini breaks. The furthest many people have gone is the end of their village or city borough. “It’s hard to justify getting on a plane for work when you’re not even going into an office,” Donovan adds.

And with people no longer based in offices, travelling in foreign cities or coming home from a late night out, jumping in an Uber suddenly became a ritual of a carefree days gone by. The needs of people when travelling changed, believes Donovan, with people prioritising safety and hygiene over luxury and service; “there’s definitely a more pronounced consumer focus on the needs that would have been previously classified as ‘table stakes’, or foundational,” she adds. 

“People are much more discerning about their travel decisions today; that’s not going to go away until there’s a vaccine,” believes Donovan. This pervasive feeling of uncertainty is what she feels has been the most challenging thing about this year, and something that will continue through into next. “There is no marketing playbook for a pandemic”, she explains.

“Consumers are still living in the present, especially in regions like the US, where I reside.” It’s this present-day living which means it is next to impossible to encourage people to project into the future, a key trope of running successful research groups. For Donovan, this, she feels, “makes it quite hard for marketers to be customer-centric and ground their future decisions in insight.” 

Driving positive change

For Donovan internally, she has realised just “how much a solid, embedded team culture can sustain you, even in really challenging times,” she explains. This has been particularly important as the business has shifted to a working from home culture that was not in place pre-crisis. The company’s internal culture is something that Donovan has worked hard to keep alive throughout the ongoing pandemic.

It’s this spirit of collectivism and collaboration that has emerged as countries around the world went into lockdown, a spirit that Donovan, as a “serial optimist” believes isn’t going away anytime soon. “The great irony of 2020 has been that while we’ve been more physically separated than ever, I’ve observed more of a collective sense of empathy and responsibility for one another than I’ve observed in years” she says. “I can’t imagine a world in which this gets swept under the rug in 2021,” she adds.

In addition to the move to more collaborative action has been the step change in attitudes towards brand purpose. It’s a conversation that has been ongoing for several years now but something about the current crisis has thrown its importance into sharp relief.

“In the past, it was enough for a brand to use their reach & voice for good, to take a stand,” explains Donovan. “This is still important but coming out of 2020 it’s somewhat meaningless, or worse, performative, unless there’s real action & commitment that stands behind it,” she adds.

Donovan’s optimism shines through her responses as she adds with a smile that her advice to a world struggling in the face of new lockdowns and uncertainty is to not waste the moment we find ourselves in. It’s a mantra for change that feels ever more pertinent as we move towards the end of one year and begin to examine what the next will hold, for businesses, communities and individuals alike.

 

Meg Donovan, Head of Consumer Product Marketing at Uber will be speaking at the Festival of Marketing 2020. Visit the event’s site to turn into the session.

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