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When Covid-19 struck, every kind of gathering, from birthday parties to christenings to weddings to nights out, holidays, festivals, gigs, sports matches and roller discos, was cancelled overnight. Party dresses and high heels became joggers and slippers, while suits and ties became T-shirts and leggings.

And why not? What is the point in looking good if no one is there to see you? Although that does leave the question, how does an industry predicated on the idea that consumers will be seen survive such a troubling series of events?

The spring/summer 2020 ready-to-wear collection for planet Earth looked a little different than we might have imagined at the start of the year. Formal wear was out and pajamas were in, and instead of turning our attention to the catwalk in March, we turned and walked to the fridge for yet another snack while socially distancing at home in an attempt to stem the spread of Covid-19.

Nominations for this year’s Future 50 are currently open. If you’d like to nominate yourself, or a colleague, for our list of the best rising stars and emerging marketers in the world, follow this link.

The impact of the pandemic on the fashion and beauty sectors was unprecedented. Brands pivoted to manufacture PPE and hand sanitizer at the drop of hat, while sales on e-commerce platforms skyrocketed as everyone turned to retail therapy from the comfort of their homes.

Understandably, however, storefront retail and beauty salons were hit hard by the most severe lockdown restrictions. “At the start of the pandemic, we had no idea what the lockdown was going to look like and naturally, as a hair brand, we were very concerned about the shutdown of hair salons,” says Elena Del Boca, who looks after GHD’s digital, PR and consumer marketing from Florence, Italy.

The country boasts one of the largest shares of hairdressers and beauticians in Europe, with 1.2% of the population working in those industries. It was also in the front row when Covid-19 hit the European continent.

“GHD had to react very quickly to the new situation, which meant everything that had been offline had to move to digital. We were very prompt in changing our whole strategy, moving our marketing investment to digital overnight. We moved three times our usual investment into e-commerce platforms, performance marketing, social media investment and influencer marketing.”

Prior to the pandemic, Del Boca says GHD already had a strong digital presence. During the lockdown, however, it was inspired to reach new audiences by setting up shop on platforms such as TikTok and trying new content forms including Instagram Lives.

“We already had a strong investment in social media and were, of course, already on platforms like Instagram. But we suddenly had to change our plans and cancel or pull all our PR and launch events, so we had to find a new way to create the same level of engagement.”

Over in APAC, Miki Kim, the assistant vice-president of brand marketing and PR at fast-fashion brand Pomelo, also emphasizes how brands were forced to build on existing platforms extremely quickly: “As an e-commerce platform, we already had a big online community and were very lucky to have that in place when Covid-19 broke out – so much so that we actually grew as a company over the lockdown period.”

She says that much of what Pomelo does – “from tech and engineers to photoshoots, fabric sourcing, design and so on” – was already carried out in-house, so in that sense it was well positioned to adapt to what its customers needed.

“Of course, we still had to make a lot of changes. In March and April, we were supposed to be focusing on work wear as April is Thai New Year and after that, everyone returns to work. Suddenly though, we had to adapt to everyone working from home.”

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Pomelo’s most successful pivot, however, was the implementation of its Pomelo Cares scheme, says Kim. “In many more developed countries, the messaging around the threat from coronavirus was able to be communicated very quickly, but this wasn’t necessarily the case in Thailand. In the beginning, it felt more like a rumor. We really took it upon ourselves as a brand to portray positive messaging during this time, but also to spread awareness.

“As a fashion company, we realized we had this big team of over 500 people who could help us make a difference, from designers who could help design practical fabric masks through to marketers who could help raise awareness. In a little over a week, the team came together to plan the initiative, finding partner organizations we could work with to ensure it would benefit a good cause.”

Pomelo Cares included the production of anti-bacterial fabric masks and 100% of the profits from each purchase went towards crucial medical supplies for partner health organizations such as Thailand’s Red Cross and Singapore’s Red Cross Society. It also donated 35,000 surgical masks to Thailand’s Red Cross, and has plans to donate more over the next few months.

Both Future 50 nominees emphasize that a huge portion of their new digital strategies were centered on trying to make the consumer feel a bit better. Del Boca stresses: “I think brands had a huge opportunity, but also a huge role to play during lockdown. To engage and help consumers adjust to the new situation, as well as having an effect on their inner life, was, for us, very important.

“The power of good styling is that it is able to change your day, and that was something that definitely proved to be true during the lockdown. Off the back of that idea, we were able to create content for our consumers that was not only fun, but that was important to them during that time.”

Similarly, a substantial part of Pomelo Cares was the creation of uplifting content from ‘#PomeloGirlsAtHome’ – a social campaign aiming to spread positivity, unite communities and encourage social responsibility, which was launched across Pomelo’s social media channels, and was featured on the campaign site and as part of Pomelo’s weekly live stream shows.

Kim says: “It was really nice to send a positive message and to keep connecting with new people. That was something we never used to do in such a raw and real way – we were always doing campaigns and editorial that aimed to be inspirational.

“To create content designed to be relatable was exciting, and it really helped us connect with our customers.”

Unfortunately, however, it’s not all back to normal. Despite rocketing e-commerce engagement, retail sales were expected to drop some 5.7% overall in 2020. With a second wave of the virus over the winter, fashion brands will have to think ahead of the trends if they are to survive to see fashion week in the spring.

As Del Boca put it: “I think every brand and company has been deeply changed by the lockdown. We are keeping a strong investment in digital, 50% higher than it was before lockdown, because we can by no means consider this pandemic to be over.

“As things have opened up more, we have seen online engagement start to drop again, so the challenge now is to continue making high-quality content that finds a way to engage the consumer. We need to anticipate their needs.”

While money is likely to be tight for many, there is no denying the power of looking good to feel good and it is likely that brands that lean into those moments of joy and self-improvement are the ones who will go into 2021 looking polished.

Nominations for this year’s Future 50 are currently open. If you’d like to nominate yourself, or a colleague, for our list of the best rising stars and emerging marketers in the world, follow this link.