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Almost every industry has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in both expected and unexpected ways. 2020 has been a tough year, and business leaders everywhere are preparing for an uncertain 2021.

The Asia-Pacific region was the first to be affected by the virus and has therefore been the first to start operating in a ‘new normal’. Brands in Asia were among the first to get creative with customer support and engagement as they adjusted to the new ways people consume products and services, and there are lessons to be learned for the rest of the world about how they tackled this.

For example, in financial services, digital and contactless payments have been a shining light for the industry, which had to ensure business continuity while keeping people out of branches. China’s Ping An Bank launched its ‘Do It At Home’ campaign with its Pocket Bank App. Banks also had to think about how the financial impact of COVID-19 might affect the personal finances of customers. To this end, DBS bank in Singapore quickly offered insurance and home-loan payment relief.

Elsewhere, players in the hard-hit travel industry had to move quickly to keep the wonder of travel alive while people were mostly grounded. This meant a combination of promoting domestic travel while keeping travellers excited about future trips. The Singapore Tourism Board launched an SG$33 million campaign to encourage Singaporeans to enjoy the delights of the island, and China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines launched “All You Can Fly” deals for unlimited travel.

E-commerce and online retail providers realized they needed to make online shopping experiences as engaging as offline experiences, taking the best parts of physical experiences and bringing them to people at home. Japan’s Shiseido partnered with one of the country’s leading retail groups to showcase and sell products through livestreams, and US brand Benefit aligned with China’s communications and lifestyle platform WeChat for a ‘brow try-on’ program so people could see how new eyebrow styles might suit them.

These examples show that it’s critical that marketers stay in front of consumer needs and behaviour, which will continue to shift as we start to understand what living with the virus long-term will look like. Marketers must consistently meet their customers where they are, both physically and emotionally.

Appier serves many clients across Asia and beyond, and we have our own view on what’s happening on the front lines of business. As our clients react to support their customers, we’ve seen them respond, recalibrate and normalize across three main areas of concern: Budgets and Spending; Business Continuity and Digital Transformation.

Most if not all organizations jumped straight into survival mode and many are still there. Budgets were reviewed and distinctions were made between the most critical things and discretionary things- we saw many clients in the health and wellness and grocery spaces focusing only on activities that would generate immediate cash. Clients quickly became laser-focused on ROI, working to ensure every dollar is working as hard as it possibly can, and identifying ways to speed up sales and transactions.

Clients are realizing that survival means balancing two things- stabilizing existing business activities and identifying ways to take more business digital. More time at home is leading to more time online and our clients are feeling a sense of urgency to take traditionally offline experiences online quickly. This means brands are evolving the ways they typically engage with customers. For example, our customers in the property and real estate are finding ways to provide immersive virtual viewing experiences. Given the reliance on messaging platforms for work, personal and commercial use in Asia, we have also seen fashion brands use WeChat and WhatsApp to connect with customers stuck at home. Local stores are sending shoppers photos of items in their size worn by their own models (or even the store owners themselves) to show how they look.

While we do expect things to stabilize, things may never be exactly as they were before, and our clients are making changes necessary to keep their businesses going, including exploring new business opportunities. For example, a tech and science content provider we work with in Taiwan is planning to add live teaching courses in addition to just distributing publications.

The key to shifting to digital-first operations is to leverage AI to stay ahead of the game. There some critical steps to take to do this, starting with unification of data. Unifying multiple data sources and formatting and cleaning data is vital for AI and machine learning models to work and predict outcomes with accuracy. AI helps unify data from different sources such as apps, websites and CRM to provide a holistic view of customers.

The next step is to make the customer journey seamless. This means providing the most relevant, personalized content to the right people, on the right device and at the right time. Marketers can use AI to set trigger criteria, meaning that when someone takes an action (such as adding to cart), they will receive a timely and relevant message in the format of the digital environment they are already in, such as a video or pop-up. AI can also deliver the most relevant product recommendations. Beyond just ‘popular’ or ‘best selling’ items, AI can pull context from product descriptions and match people more accurately with products of interest to them.

AI also ensures brands and retailers can meet their customers wherever they are, online or offline, by connecting all available touchpoints. Effective omnichannel marketing remains the exception rather than the rule, as many marketers still struggle to unify customer engagement channels.

As organizations of all sizes and types race to future-proof themselves, AI will no doubt be a cornerstone of digital transformation. It will help businesses ensure flexibility at the core of their operations, allowing them to quickly adapt to any future business, economic or societal changes. COVID-19 has put technology such as AI that allows for adaptability and flexibility firmly in the spotlight in Asia, and we expect to see organizations across the world follow suit.

Alban Villani is SVP at Appier.