One step forward, one step back during COVID-19

The Singapore MD for Weber Shandwick on why this period can be used as an opportunity for brands and organisations to strengthen relationships with consumers and stakeholders.

In China, consumers had grown accustomed to focusing on their daily skincare routines while stuck at home, causing beauty brands to shift gears. Source: Getty Images
In China, consumers had grown accustomed to focusing on their daily skincare routines while stuck at home, causing beauty brands to shift gears. Source: Getty Images

COVID-19 continues to push us away from the routines of our past. But in response, many of us have embraced new hobbies and passions: home fitness, gardening, drawing. In Singapore, the rise of a hero familiar to many of us was the amateur chef. According to Google Trends, cooking staples like "rice" and "noodle" shot up in keyword popularity, while "flour" and "egg" reigned supreme.

In China, newly minted home chefs flocked to Alibaba's Tmall, which saw a surge of home electronics and cookware during lockdown. Yet, even after restrictions lifted, sales of kitchen appliances bucked expectations and continued to grow robustly. It appears some stay-home survival activities might become long-lasting trends.

For other industries, COVID-19 recovery bounced back—but not in the way we expected. When China began to recover from COVID-19, its beauty sector saw a quick rebound. But it wasn't makeup that was flying off the shelves—in fact, cosmetics were down more than 20 per cent from a year ago. Instead, consumers had grown accustomed to focusing on their daily skincare routines while they were stuck at home, and the momentum on these products continues to soar in the 'new normal': a trend now believed to be here to stay with agile beauty companies shifting gears to put their best face forward.

We've heard it throughout COVID-19: the world has changed. Now in phase two of recovery, Singapore has lifted restrictions and relaxed its circuit breaker measures, taking measured steps forward. In the process, it has joined many markets in APAC in cautiously re-opening businesses and economies following the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brands, companies and consumers alike don't know what to expect, simply because no one has been in this situation. A good place for us to start seems to be that, to move forward, we need to take a step back into what we know.

Getting to know our audiences again

From the moment Phase 2 was announced in Singapore, there was a buzz in the air as people realised that for the first time in months, they could see their aunts, uncles, friends, colleagues. There was an enormous desire to reconnect and re-establish relationships after a long period of social hibernation.

As we entertained the possibility of seeing each other for the first time, we wondered: We've changed. They likely have changed too. With everyone's shifted perspectives of the future, of safety, of 'normal' life, and of social interaction, how would this affect relationships?

The change in context can be disconcerting, but it doesn't have to be daunting. We have an opportunity right now to catch up and get to know each other again. Beauty consumers weren't saying 'no,'—they were saying 'yes' to something different. Meanwhile, a fresh class of home cooks may extend their circuit breaker hobby into a new way to bond with those close to them.

For brands and companies, not only have we returned to a changed business environment, our consumers and customers have fundamentally changed too, and this includes their needs, wants and priorities.

So rather than start running again from where we've stalled in the rush to regain lost ground, we need to go back to the starting blocks. Re-learn what customers need and how to meet them where they are now.

Finding your starting line

While our movement has slowed during COVID-19, the world is racing to catch up with opportunities lost. Brands and companies need to find out where exactly their new starting line is, and the best way to do that is to delve deep into data trends and listen intently to consumers. Brands need to adjust expectations; and the starting line could be farther back than one thinks.

Brands need to build consumer insights anew; companies need to redefine what customers' value. We should set aside pre-pandemic assumptions to re-chart the route ahead. There are no shortcuts to winning this new race.

Playing the long game

For a business, that means relying on its most valuable assets: its people, culture, and reputation. Even amid this volatile, unpredictable pandemic, those anchored in these strengths have continued to grow.

Conversely, if a business neglects these, it may find itself exposed to significantly higher risk in challenging times. Many brands worldwide, for example, have faced consumer boycotts and backlash in response to their treatment of employees during the COVID-19 crisis.

In a recent Weber Shandwick report, the majority of global business leaders attributed more than two-thirds of their company's value to reputation. Similarly, our Employer Brand research found that a talent base aligned with company values results in greater productivity and business results.

Throughout the pandemic, we've witnessed merit in the ability to adapt and respond to changing circumstances. It's clear that quick fixes will not pave the way to Singapore's recovery. Businesses need the brightest talent to transform, solve, and reimagine the future. And they need a resilient reputation to garner trust when they take to market in a post-COVID economy.

Vanessa Ho Nikolovski is managing director, Singapore & chair, client services, APAC at Weber Shandwick

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