ICF Next Says Learning to Pivot is What’s Important for Brands

Some may see 2020 as a year of disaster in the retail market, but ICF Next Senior Partner Tom Madden sees plenty of opportunities for businesses to learn and grow in this challenging time.

“There are plenty of industries that are doing exceedingly well thanks to the change in behaviors during COVID,” Madden says. “With more people being homebound and saving money, this is a chance to learn from what is happening and capitalize on it.”

Take for instance the grocery industry, which has seen an almost 40% uptick in business from consumers who are not eating out and need to stock their shelves with food and supplies.

“It’s extremely important to capture the data from these customers — some of whom may have never been in the store before — and encourage them to join their loyalty program so they can better anticipate their needs going forward,” Madden says. “There’s a good chance to keep them for a year or two until people are back out at restaurants and on the road again.”

Madden, who recently sat down for a lengthy video interview with Loyalty360’s Mark Johnson, is a seasoned veteran in the customer rewards and loyalty industry, and has seen his share of ups and downs in the markets.
ICF Next is a global consulting services company that brings over 1,700 creatives, communicators, strategists and technologists into a single, integrated team. The agency supports a growing portfolio of public and private sector clients worldwide with a full range of capabilities grounded in behavioral insights, creative engagement and technology.

Taking Advantage of Changing Habits
To validate Madden’s theory on changing times with a personal touch, he says that neither he nor his wife has been inside a grocery store since March, relying instead on shopping online and then driving to the neighborhood store and having the groceries loaded into their car.

“It’s a great example of a brand that has pivoted on how they deliver services to customers, and have taken advantage of it,” he says.

And despite all that has happened in 2020, Madden says there are ways for brands to take advantage of opportunities that might have been looked at originally as a hindrance. With ICF Next heavily involved in the travel and hospitality sectors, their team has been paying very close attention to new and trending buying habits of consumers.

“Those are the most damaged industries at the moment thanks to Covid,” Madden says. “We understand the pain these companies are feeling; we focus on the customer first, and that’s what drives how we partner with our clients to help them achieve their objectives and to drive the strategies we put together for them.”

Ultimately, Madden says, the goal is to retain and grow their clients’ customers; at least that was the goal coming into 2020. The No. 1 item on the list centered on helping their clients give the best customer experience and to continue to drive transactions.

COVID, however, brought much of that to a screeching halt, forcing most everybody at ICF Next to pivot to focus on client needs during the pandemic.

Customer Comfort and Assurance
“Since March our focus has been on customer comfort and assurance, plus their well-being and security to maintain the loyalty for when they’re ready to get back on the road and transact again,” Madden says. “We know that, once they feel comfortable and they’re getting their most basic Maslow needs met from a psychological, health and safety standpoint, they can start to be interested in what we can bring to them in terms of offers that are most fitting and most helpful.”

For example, Madden says that many loyalty programs extended a customer’s current status through this year and well into or through all of next year. They also saw cleanliness initiatives on airplanes, hotel rooms and car rentals grow to meet customer expectations. Hilton partnered with Lysol and the Mayo Clinic on setting clean standards, a message that resonated well with customers.

“These are the gold standards in cleaning and health care, and it alleviates some of the angst of some customers,” Madden says. “Customers will soon come back and start thinking ‘I want to stay with these folks because they’re taking care of my basic needs.’”

As the last few months have demonstrated, brands need to take a hard look at their core business and see where they can grow certain segments when other areas are flat because of the pandemic issues. Madden says he applauds Uber, which saw a 70% drop in their business when ride-share demand dropped significantly, but then pivoted quickly to increase their food delivery service Uber Eats when that demand grew, resulting in a 113% increase in that part of their business.

When things do begin to normalize again, Madden thinks the most successful brands will have an even greater view of customer loyalty programs than ever before.

“I think there’s going to be a greater focus in loyalty, and especially on the most valuable segments,” he says. “It’s not that we don’t pay attention to all customers that transact with the brands, but there are going to be spending limits in marketing technology, so the focus is going to be wickedly sharp on ROI. It’s going to be about obtaining, retaining, and growing their best customers, or their customers with the best potential.”
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