Waitrose on why Covid-19 has bridged the marketing generation gap

marketing generation gap

Marketing generation gap: The Covid crisis has flattened the corporate hierarchy and bridged the generational gap between marketers with decades of experience and those just starting out, according to Martin George, director of account management.

The pandemic has undoubtedly had a traumatic effect on business, but don’t underestimate the positive effect on corporate culture.

This is certainly true at retailer Waitrose, where director of customer service Martin George has witnessed a dramatic alignment of hierarchy, as boundaries have been broken down and colleagues have gotten to know each other better as individuals.

Speaking last week at the Festival of Marketing: Fast Forward, George noted the differences in today’s corporate culture compared to how he started his marketing career at Cadbury in the 1980s.

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He recalled coming to the confectionery giant as a graduate student and appreciating the “wonderful culture” that gave young marketers the opportunity to help work on small brands like Star Bar and Chocolate Eclairs and then move on to work on big brands — in his case Wispa and Dairy Milk.

“In terms of work, it was probably very similar to the field of marketing that you encounter now, but of course the tools available back then were much smaller, and there was probably less accountability for results than there is now,” he reflects.

However, George believes that the younger and older generations of marketers have more in common than ever before. They agree, he says, on the importance of identifying target consumers and understanding what motivates them, as well as the value of creating competitive advantage and translating it into sustainable financial performance.

Waitrose’s director of customer experience believes that a sense of curiosity, data savvy, restlessness, customer centricity and the ability to adapt are common traits among marketers of all ages.

Nevertheless, he sees how the default marketing channels for “digital natives” may differ from his natural choice, given his formative experience in marketing. Moreover, George believes that young marketers act as a “constant incentive” for their senior executives to consider all the different incentives a customer faces, especially on social media.

Millennials are driven by a great sense of purpose, and they ponder the “why?” questions more than my generation.

We’re all on an equal footing now, and it’s okay if someone wants to work a couple of hours in the morning or a few hours late at night.

Waitrose’s director of customer service believes that the past year of working with Covid has fostered new ways of having “difficult conversations.” George pointed out how Brugognone’s generation has responded to global issues that have arisen over the past year, from the Black Lives Matter movement to the environmental crisis, provoking questions from upper management about whether they take these issues seriously enough.

Brugognone explained that marketers of her generation are not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom, and the fact that she and her colleagues feel more liberated to have such debates with their executives is a big advantage of the past year.

“Just because we’ve talked about something before, or we feel like we’ve talked about something before, doesn’t mean it’s already decided,” she said. “In fact, it’s a conversation that we need to keep coming back to and talking about in order to make a difference. We’re happy to challenge and say that’s what needs to happen.”

Bridging the Gap

George is proud of the way Waitrose marketers have gotten to know their peers better during this period of challenge. He believes that the pandemic, combined with the move to remote work, has removed the sense of hierarchy, and he doesn’t want that change to disappear once the crisis is over.

Another positive change in corporate culture has been a renewed focus on work-life balance. Brugognone noted that before Covid-19, everyone tended to work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., whereas the last year has “equalized everyone.”

“Now we’re all on an equal footing, and it’s OK if someone wants to work a couple of hours in the morning or a few hours late at night and still not interfere with their personal life,” she said. “It doesn’t matter anymore, and that goes for everybody.”

George explained that the change was dramatic, recalling the presentism of business culture in the 1980s.

“When I first started at Cadbury‘s, the place where you parked in the parking lot showed what time you were getting in. The people who stood closest to the front of the parking lot were the most ‘keen,’ and there was an obvious correlation between how many hours you worked and how good you were. It was almost a direct correlation,” he recalls.

“I don’t even feel comfortable bringing it up because it’s so far from where we are now.”

As the company shifts to a hybrid mix of working remotely and spending time in the office, George and Brugognone don’t want to lose that focus on trusting the team and prioritizing the quality they bring to the table over how early they get to work.

Over the past year, Brugognone has also appreciated how senior leaders have become even more interested in the people behind the job. For example, weekly internal emails sent out by George acknowledge the contributions made by various members of the marketing team.

“Sometimes it happens that you [senior executives] ask to do something and it gets done, but recognizing someone who plays a really big role is very important, especially for my generation, who sometimes has a pretty hard time getting into the marketing world and has to try a lot of things to find their way,” says Brugognone.

“Recognizing and understanding who you are makes a big difference.”

George thinks it would be a big mistake if companies revert to the status quo and forget the benefits of “easy leadership” when the return to normalcy happens.

In reviewing his advice for the next generation of talented marketers, George urged them to prioritize diversity of thought and experience, and to accept risk even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. He also urged them to never stop learning.

“When people are busy, and most marketers tend to be busy, sometimes we push personal development to the back burner, and I strongly encourage treating it as a priority. To me, there’s a certain irony in that: our primary ability is to create differentiation, and that’s actually what career development is all about,” George added.

“It’s about creating points of differentiation, because that’s what will help you in life. So I would say: never stop learning and create diversity in your learning and experiences. The times when you feel most uncomfortable are most often not the times when you learn the most.”

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