Brands including McDonald’s, Global Pride, Grab and OREO have defied COVID-19 to deliver rich digital customer experiences.

Different organisations and business sectors have been affected in various ways by the lockdowns imposed to help control the spread of COVID-19. All, however, can learn lessons from the best digital initiatives and innovations brands launched in response.

The main challenge for retail, for example, was the forced closure of shops and restaurants – resulting in the high street experiencing the worst job losses for 25 years, according to a report from the Centre for Retail Research (CRR). Sales in pubs, bars and restaurants were down 57.6% over the same period, according to data from Statista. Meanwhile, events businesses had to translate real-world experiences to virtual offerings.

For many, such as car dealerships that went virtual, this required a re-imagination of their customer experience. For others – restaurants that switched from dining-in to home delivery, for instance – it meant redefining their entire business model.

Across the board, reaction wasn’t a question of choice but a matter of business continuity – survival, even. Now, with lockdowns easing, important lessons are emerging from those brands that truly ‘innovated’ and adopted practices that were genuinely novel. The principles behind these innovations can be adopted to help brands across a range of industries, in the long term.

McDonald’s: You name it, McDelivery services

Take McDonald’s and its initiative in Spain. With restaurants closed, McDonald’s turned digital OOH billboards into voice-activated ordering kiosks to drive awareness of the McDelivery service, in partnership with food delivery app Glovo.

This was a clever application of voice technology in an out-of-home setting. The fast food giant responded to safety concerns by enabling a touch-free customer experience. Moreover, by providing a memorable, branded touchpoint it overcame the risk of McDonalds’s control of the delivery experience – which, in Spain, is fulfilled by Glovo – being diluted.

Global Pride Crossing

Global Pride provided another standout digital initiative from the past year. Unable to stage its annual Pride events live, Global Pride needed to create a differentiated virtual experience to engage the LGBTQI+ community and increase wider visibility of the Pride movement.  

But how can you overcome the risk of losing key components of a real-world event – in this case, socialisation, interaction and immersion – in a transition to digital? Simply opting for Zoom would not have done the job. Instead, organisers went where audiences were already playing and socialising – Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

‘Pride Parade’ was delivered through this popular game and aimed to re-engage the community through an in-game island which brought signature Pride activities online, and also generated earned media that raised awareness and understanding of Pride and its purpose.

The activity provided a safe and inclusive space for people to come together, whilst also generating coverage through amplification from brands such as Nike and media outlets including Forbes and BBC. It also recognised the evolution of online games to social platforms in their own right. Consider the fact that, earlier in the pandemic, Fortnite had staged a concert by Travis Scott – generating more than 27.7 million unique views.

Grab: Delivering Bazar Ramadan to every Malaysian home

See also Grab, the Malaysia food delivery app which – with traditional food bazaars outlawed due to lockdown restrictions – created e-bazaars for Ramadan 2020. These replicated traditional street food fairs, simultaneously supporting micro-entrepreneurs and keeping Ramadan’s community spirit alive.

The innovation here stemmed from understanding human behaviour, and the traditional desire to break fasting by visiting bazaars to eat a range of foods from many small traders. Within the digital world, this customer experience was not possible due to dispersed restaurant locations and mounting delivery charges.

This meant that manipulating the front-end, digital element of the service that customers interact with was not sufficient – it was also necessary to change the back-stage, operational foundations by creating temporary shared kitchens that housed a range of bazaar stalls and enabled the customer to enjoy an experience comparable to the real thing. In this way, the brand acted as an intermediary, uniting communities.

Three important principles for brands

Being a connector of different groups and communities can be a powerful and compelling proposition for a brand – as OREO found with its #StayHomeStayPlayful network and playbook to celebrate playfulness and help communities stay connected during the early months of the pandemic. 

The point about all these examples isn’t just that they did well for their brands during lockdown, or that a number have won industry prizes. Rather, it’s the fact that all demonstrate at least one of three important principles every brand can benefit from as the world moves beyond the peak of the crisis.

Firstly, respond to customers’ demand for touchless interaction, which is likely to continue for quite some time. Secondly, connect customers to communities. Thirdly, go where your customers are.

Bear these three things in mind, and brand owners are better prepared for whatever lies ahead after the pandemic.