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Thriving in the New Digital Economy: For leaders, it’s all about balance

Paul Robson, President of International at Adobe
Leaders whose actions over the past 12 months balanced short term needs with long-term vision will succeed in the new digital economy

“There are opportunities for those ready to seize them, especially among brands whose leadership attitudes may be their only barriers to success.”

This quote from London School of Economics (LSE) academic Dr Alexander Grous from a recently published research paper into how businesses can thrive in the post-pandemic landscape, neatly encapsulates a key challenge that all business leaders have had to contend with over the past 12 months: How to effectively steer the business safely through a period of uncertainty, while also seizing the opportunities that loom on the horizon.

History tells us that periods of significant adversity, like those of the past 12 months, can also foster innovation on a grand scale. Those leaders that can find the balance between critical short-term needs and an aspirational long-term vision will set their business on a new trajectory that will propel them forward over the next 12 months and beyond.

As part of our New Era in Experience research with the LSE, we interviewed technology and business leaders from companies across Europe and categorised them into three previously identified archetypes based on their response to the pandemic: Survivors, who focused on consolidation and cost-cutting; Hiders, who invested in the technologies to maintain their market position; and Thrivers who took the opportunity to make big investments in digital technologies to transform customer and employee experiences that set them up for immediate and long-term success.

Thrivers make up 25% of European businesses and were present across all sectors and geographies – from luxury retail to healthcare. Despite having different customers with wildly different needs and challenges, they are united by a leadership approach that embraced adaptability, rapid decisions making and continuous learning.

Even in the short term, those decisions and tech investments paid off. Our research showed that the revenues of Thrivers were impacted far less than other categories. Two-thirds of Thrivers reported a fall in revenue, with an average drop of just 15%. The same proportion of Hiders experienced an average drop of 35%, and 70% of Survivors saw revenues fall by as much as 50%.

There’s a lot to learn from the stories of Thriver brands. Take Boots – one of the UK’s leading retailers and a staple of high streets up and down the country. Despite its stores remaining open throughout the pandemic, Boots poured investment into its digital offering; introducing a new online pharmacy and beauty service that increased capacity for digital sales, repeat prescription deliveries, and even virtual consultations. The retailer was already on its digital transformation journey prior to the pandemic, but its leadership quickly realised the need to fast-track its digital strategy.

At the other end of the retail scale is Asprey. One of the world’s oldest luxury brands, often handling bespoke orders for customers who favour in-person browsing where they can feel the quality and try on items. The pandemic closed almost all Asprey stores and the brand responded by creating the Asprey digital studio and investing in blockchain to provide an all-new type of digital experience for customers, where the provenance and journey of a piece can be followed from initial design through to final delivery.

In an entirely different sector, Vodafone Business was already digitally mature, but moved quickly to launch initiatives and tools to ensure its employees were engaged, supported and motivated as they shifted to large scale remote working. As well as introducing flexible hours, pulse surveys and courses for families, Vodafone also rolled out collaborative working apps and digital tools to help its people stay connected. Our research showed that investing in employee experience and wellbeing initiatives delivered productivity gains of around 20%, and Vodafone was also able to pass its learnings and on to customers to guide their own internal responses.

Cosmetics and health brand Sunstar faced a different challenge again. Its customers - healthcare professionals, pharmacies and supermarkets – were some of the most disrupted by the pandemic. To complicate things further, each customer group faced different challenges and restrictions depending on which country they were in. Sunstar’s leadership responded by giving greater autonomy to local marketing teams to execute campaigns, ensuring they had access to the technology and assets they needed to maintain a consistent brand while being sensitive to local nuances and audiences.

Four brands, four very different challenges and four unique responses. Each of them embodies the leadership approaches of Thrivers, and the ability to balance short term needs with longer-term ambitions.

Their success is as much down to the mindset they adopted as the actions they took. Adaptability, quick decision-making and continuous learning set their companies up to seize their opportunities and define the experiences that will shape the new digital economy.

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