Opinion | 15 December 2020

Why active strategy is the answer to 2020’s questions

James Bloor 800

James Bloor

CEO and co-founder

Tags: Digital Strategy

Neon sign on a brick wall

2020 was the year that planned strategies were ripped up and thrown in the bin. In our review of the year, we explain why active strategy will help your business thrive, no matter what’s round the corner.

It’s not a wild assumption to speculate that 99.9% of strategic plans that were meticulously worked on from November 2019 to February 2020 went through the shredder by the time March rolled around. No one was prepared for what was about to happen to the world and subsequently their business. The ongoing pandemic is forcing brands to adapt quickly to the situation by redesigning and repositioning their products and services. Some have even created new ones to respond to the demands of millions of people in various stages of lockdown around the world. In this article, I’ll take a look at 2020’s winners and losers and show you how active strategy will help your business stay firmly in the winners' camp through 2021 and beyond.

The right brand response in a crisis

As the first flurry of government briefings took place and people scrambled to work from home where they could, there was an onslaught of ‘A message from our CEO’ emails, blogs and social media posts. The fact is, this was way too internally focused and of no help to anyone. No one really cares what the CEO of your brand has to say, certainly not your customers. They want action and help relevant to their own personal circumstances and answers to all their questions. Brands missed the clear opportunity here to connect with customers on a more personal level, let them know how they would be operating and reassure them that though things might change, you would adapt accordingly and go the extra mile to make sure customers stay happy. During times of crisis, business leaders should instead sit down with their teams and think about messaging that stays true to their brand values.

While most marketing comms strategies in recent years have focused purely on conversion as the end goal, the pandemic shifted most of these to pure brand building. Brands recognised the pandemic was not a time to push, although some have done extremely well out if it either by circumstance – white goods retailers, garden centres, etc. – or because their convenience throughout the pandemic was more accessible. Amazon tipped over to a trillion dollars in value during 2020. Brands approached the brand building angle in two ways – protection and enhancement. Brands following the former approach chose to lay low, cease advertising spend, and distance themselves from the negative news. Those that took the enhancement route had the bigger picture in mind and focused on offering solutions to their customers, recognising this was needed in the midst of a global crisis.

Given there are hundreds of articles out there about brands that did well in 2020 and those that made poor decisions, with the FT even publishing a whopping 100 strong list of such winners, I want to look at some alternative brands that have pleasantly surprised me and those with whom I interacted most this year.

The alternative brands that got it right

With big brands like Tesla donating ventilators to London-based boutique liquor brand 58 Gin changing its manufacturing to make sanitiser, the responses have been wonderful to witness. However, I thought I would give some shout outs to some brands closer to home.

Go Dine

Nottingham local business Go Dine, a restaurant booking platform, and Go Dine Digital – offering social media service to restaurants – decided that with work dropping off due to COVID-19, they would tackle the issues of feeding vulnerable children, the elderly and NHS staff during the pandemic.

And so Open Kitchens was born. A newly founded not-for-profit venture that is overseeing the scheme, where restaurants pledge the use of their kitchens to cook simple, nutritious meals. The aim is to raise £1.85 million to get one million meals to those most in need by re-opening closed restaurants across the UK. A wonderful initiative that keeps restaurants going and their chefs in work while bringing the communities together with local ‘delivery angels’, making sure thousands of meals a week make it to those in need.

Some things are more important in life and the faster we get through the pandemic together, the quicker it could be over. That might seem like sentimental fluff but a brand’s true values tend to come out and be proven or disproven during hard times.


It’s nice to see that this bank not only seems to always get their comms spot on by being on the right side of ‘reading the mood’ of the room but also that they signpost their financial support and help on the homepage as soon as it’s loaded. NatWest, Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds and other major high street banks just seem to have handled this by either dropping ‘help’ below the fold which makes it easy to miss or by not mentioning what they can do to help at all. It’s a simple statement but one that stands out to me as they recognise that repayments on loans and financial breaks are top of the agenda for a lot of people. Money worries are one of the biggest causes of poor mental health so any bank that acknowledges this and takes accountability for their customers’ welfare gets my vote.

Read the room! Gauge what is bothering your customers the most and tackle it by addressing it head on. Staying quiet is the easy option. Be disruptive by taking a stand but always with your customer at the heart of your message. Brands that did so emerged from hard times in a stronger position. Some household brands have a long tradition of staying true to their brand values during times of crisis; M&S gained a loyal following post WWII as they recognised how they could help the nation.
Head of African deer with large ears

Listen to what your customers are saying

Nottingham’s Universities

Nottingham has made the national news a lot recently. A lot for the bad, but it must be remembered that both universities really pulled out all the stops near the start of the pandemic. The two big institutions contributed over £1 million worth of equipment to support national testing for COVID-19, allowing for up to 20,000 people to be tested per day. They were also among the first to roll out their own contact tracing programmes and have been outspoken about the welfare of their students.

As Education Secretary Gavin Williamson commented in April,

The city of Nottingham really goes to shine a light on what an important role higher education institutions play in terms of our battle with the coronavirus.

Gavin Williamson
Brands must know and accept their role and not shy away from responsibility. I could point to a number of brands (ahem, certain airlines) that have acted without a hint of irony when asking for bailouts despite paying over £100 million out in dividends. Brands have a duty of care for their workforce and their customers so, when a crisis like this hits, they must be ready to act appropriately and change their plans quickly to help lead the fight against it.
Globe with face mask on held by surgically gloved hands

Brands have a duty of care for their workforce and their customers

Bonus mentions

  • All of these local heroes make me proud to live and work in Nottingham.
  • The Nottinghamshire Police and their annual ceremony being turned into a wonderful ‘Operation 2020’ video highlighting how much other s**t they have had to deal with this year, as if a global pandemic wasn’t enough!
  • My son’s local nursery and their attitude all year! They’ve not asked for money at the right times, asked for support other times and have acted, in my opinion, in the absolute right way and gone a long way to assuring me that my son’s welfare was their primary focus. They have helped us identify early onset asthma, bronchitis and really helped calm my wife and I when we were worried about everything else. I won’t name them but they have been true superstars. Especially when it’s no secret that childcare providers – nurseries, pre-schools, after school and holiday clubs to name a few – have been under inordinate amounts of pressure to keep their own businesses afloat this year.
Cut out words do good on worktop

Local businesses as well as global brands have done the right thing this year

Why adopting an active strategy will help you win in 2021

Successful strategies today involve speaking up, humanising content, and taking a responsibility-first approach. Coronavirus has given the world the opportunity to pause and reflect on what’s really important. What was important to your customers yesterday, is no longer important today, or tomorrow for that matter. The shift seen on a day-to-day level has been from sales focused conversion to conversation. Social listening, sentiment analysis of audiences and truly understanding the lives of customers has become imperative. This pandemic has disrupted all past data trends on customer journeys and prompted a renewed need for brands to listen.

This isn’t a case of huge brands with endless budgets being able to make the headlines, it’s a case of those that are agile enough to stop what they are doing, think clearly, quickly and collaboratively and come up with the right path to take at that time. From restaurants entering the grocery market and commercial airlines offering cargo only flights, to a SAAS business opening a gift baskets company so that its employees could stay in full time employment and maintain a healthy cash flow (which is precisely what one of our clients did).

We call this active strategy. At Distinction, it’s our way of working and helping our clients achieve unreasonable progress. Every business needs a plan but one that can flex quickly enough to seize opportunities immediately they arise and overcome the inevitable challenges and obstacles along the way. And that plan needs to remain customer focused, no matter what external factors are at play.

If there’s one thing that 2020 taught us, it’s that rigid and planned strategies don’t work, but adopting an active strategy for 2021 and beyond will help you act fast and first – ahead of the competition.

To find out how your business can adopt active strategy and thrive in an unpredictable world, download our report now.