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From shock to survival: COVID-19 and what is spells for the future of business and finance

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From shock to survival: COVID-19 and what is spells for the future of business and finance

By Alberto Lopez Valenzuela, Founder and CEO, alva, and author of The Connecting Leader

As companies slowly transition from shock to survival during what is arguably history’s biggest peacetime crisis, it is becoming increasingly clear that the coronavirus pandemic has the potential to completely transform how the world does business, with huge impact on the financial markets.

During an initial ‘Shock Phase’, which started around the middle of March and ended towards the middle of April, we saw a flurry of initiatives from businesses across many sectors, under the banner of “we are in this together”.

Initiatives ranged from employee job reassurance, CEO salary sacrifices, donations, and support for healthcare professionals and vulnerable customers, to the manufacturing of PPE and mortgage holidays.

Indeed, alva revealed in our Business and the Pandemic: What the Data Shows report that actions focused on the production of medical equipment and employee health protection were the most likely to impact positively on a business’ reputation. The impact of executive pay reduction schemes and vulnerable customer support was also very positive for those launching them.

Alberto Lopez Valenzuela

Alberto Lopez Valenzuela

Emotional touchpoints of solidarity, fairness, responsibility and compassion have resonated. As has the belief in ideas such as human ingenuity and pulling together in times of crisis.

The highest ranking initiative in terms of impact was the electric car giant Tesla’s announcement that it would turn over its production facilities to building ventilators. This was seconded by French luxury brand LVMH’s announcement that it would manufacture hand sanitiser, followed by Facebook’s $1,000 bonuses for all of its 45,000 employees. Other high-ranking initiatives included Apple and Google’s joint contact tracing app, and Lidl’s checkout protection screens.

All of these activities were designed to avoid the immediate damage to those most at risk such as front-line workers, the elderly and the unemployed – almost at any cost.

But as communities began to feel safer, our research shows there has been a shift in corporate attention away from philanthropic announcements and support for communities. Businesses are seeking to gain a better understanding of the impact of the pandemic and are making more pragmatic decisions. We are calling this the ‘Existential Phase’.

Businesses are beginning to juggle different competing demands on resources and financing, as they seek business survival while preparing for future dynamics. This is forcing companies to ask themselves some fundamental questions.

In this Existential Phase, we may see businesses moving away from the belief that companies must maximise shareholder returns at all costs. There are already loud voices acknowledging the flaws in our current model of capitalism.

When 93 percent of profits at the typical listed company are devoted to either dividends or stock buybacks to enrich shareholders and executives, questions of fairness will proliferate against a backdrop of government bail outs to minimise unemployment.

Another dominant theme we expect to see more discussion of is the threat of ‘Big Government’ to society. Many voices have already warned that the combination of the emergency Coronavirus Act and existing far-reaching powers to gather data creates the risk that new contact-tracking technologies could be used as a means of social control.

Last month, for the first time in history, the price of West Texas Intermediate – the benchmark standard for US oil – became negative. The outbreak has come at a time when globalisation was already under serious threat from trade wars and protectionism.

COVID-19 is being seen by many as an accelerant to many of the paradigm shifts already under way, such as deglobalisation, the rise of populism, and the demise of shareholder capitalism in favour of a stakeholder model.

These are big themes that will not be answered overnight. In the coming weeks and months, we are likely to see that as businesses are forced to do more with less, many will find better, simpler, less expensive, and more inclusive ways to operate.

We will see new models to tackle what are likely to be the next big themes: global healthcare, global equality and global climate change.

Firms unwilling to adapt, are unlikely to make it; and the economic implications are huge.

Business

AI for Marketing: Regaining Business Traction During a Pandemic

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AI for Marketing: Regaining Business Traction During a Pandemic 1

By Kelly McKeown, VP of Reve nue Marketing, conDati. Lincoln Merrihew, Independent Consultant

Businesses are often caught off-guard by major disruptions to their markets, or to the market overall.  Some things can be planned for, some cannot. In both cases the winners are those that can size up–and adapt to–those disruptions the quickest. That’s where Artificial Intelligence (AI) came in for a maker of non-slip shoes that needed to navigate through the fall-out from the COVID-19 pandemic. While this may seem like an uninspiring product category, the trends were dynamic: demand fluctuated wildly as hospitality and restaurant service industries shut down and then re-opened then shut down again in some cases. What was inspiring was how quickly they were able to rebound and the competitive advantage they gained thanks to AI agility. As a result, they quickly pivoted their marketing strategy, leading to much greater ad spend efficiency while simultaneously setting new records for revenue.

The Shift to Digital Marketing

COVID-19 has disrupted the world like few natural disasters have both in breadth and duration. One of the major fallouts was a huge change in consumer spending patterns[1], which led to a global recession. And because the pandemic lacks any recent baseline it’s been challenging for businesses to predict how, when and if their business will recover. Impacts in the USA vary by State[2], further disrupting business tactics and requiring regional precision. And the latest spikes of new cases suggest that there could be several waves in the recovery curve.

Independent of starts and stops associated with the recovery is the extent to which consumers return to pre-recession products, categories and brands (also known as “consumer elasticity.”[3]) That means that even as quick service restaurants and other businesses that need non-slip shoes re-open, there is no guarantee on the volume of business they’ll get, making demand planning even more difficult.

All in all, COVID-19 one of the most unpredictable and diverse disruptions in business ever. The only confirmed variable is that–with stores closed and consumers quarantining–companies turned more than ever to digital to drive business.[4] Therein lies a tremendous and unique opportunity to gain market share with tools that provide agility and the right insights.

Analytics-Forward Companies are Best Positioned to Thrive

Companies that will gain share will do so by leveraging science and analytics. But not all companies will have that foresight. We see businesses falling into one of three groups:

  1. Hope and Pray: These are companies that are generally risk averse. They’ll wait on the sidelines or perhaps play follow the leader. Or get left by the wayside.
  2. Risky Business: Here we have businesses that take chances but ill-informed ones. That may be the result of no data, stale data, incomplete data, or mistaken cause-and-effect connections.
  3. Strategic: These are the fast movers that will chart fluid and dynamic responses by leveraging intelligence layered over rich datasets, moving from data to insights to action.AI for Marketing: Regaining Business Traction During a Pandemic 2

Leveraging Digital Data to Drive Strategy

Kelly McKeown

Kelly McKeown

The strategic companies, like our non-slip shoe manufacturer, are positioning themselves to not only survive but thrive in these times. A significant portion of their marketing budget goes toward their digital presence – paid media and providing a great web experience. These companies unify their web analytics, ad spend, and revenue data into a single data asset that then has advanced marketing analytics applied to it. In this case, they used conDati’s RevenueLift™ platform – providing data unification, visualization and application of AI and machine learning in one solution. With accurate, complete, granular, well-organized, real-time data at their fingertips they have the confidence to make smart decisions at high (e.g. channel) and low levels (e.g. micro-segments such as geography and income within ad groups) and speed up decision cycles.

Getting off on the Right Foot

Even before the pandemic, the non-slip shoe company had already successfully used the conDati RevenueLift AI engine to optimize it’s spend on search. Like many companies, as soon as the pandemic really hit they cut back sharply on spending.  Search volume immediately collapsed as did revenue. They knew they had to act so initiated a two-phased recovery strategy with the help of conDati.

Phase 1 began about a month in, and entailed spending much less than normal but focusing heavily on campaigns with the greatest ROI. That also included learning more about how, when, and where the market reacted to their efforts.

Phase 2 was where it got interesting: As the economy began to show signs of recovery, they applied the learnings of Phase 1: Rather than just restore search spend to prior levels they focused on the paid marketing campaigns that generated a 4x or more return on ad spend (ROAS), and doubled down on campaigns with ROAS above 10x. They dropped the underperformers. They gained these insights using conDati’s RevenueLift Optimizer.

RevenueLift Optimizer’s multi-step algorithm approach focuses on diminishing marginal returns and the statistical significance of conversion rates. It does this by analyzing targeting variables such as demographics, geographics, timing, creative, and device across campaigns and combines that with saturation levels for every ad group. That many variables means there may be 100s of thousands of combinations—far too many to manage and action without AI like RevenueLift. And this processing happens in hours or days, not weeks or months.

The output is a recommended set of high potential microsegments that will generate the greatest return as well as clear bid adjustments to capitalize on those. The recommended bid adjustments reallocate spend from lowest to highest potential microsegments without the need to increase spend. Clients–like the non-slip shoe company—easily upload the recommended bid adjustments into their ad platforms in minutes. AI also means new optimization recommendations can be activated every few days. This means near-real-time responses to intelligence and the greatest opportunity to dynamically drive revenue lift.

Lincoln Merrihew

Lincoln Merrihew

So what happened?  Client revenue increased in both phases with accelerated growth from Phase 1 to Phase 2, and rebounded incredibly in less than 60 days. In fact, revenue reached a 2020 peak and was up 20% year-over-year in June. They did that following a basic construct: do as much as possible with AI alone (i.e., optimizing without spending more on ads), saving time and money. You only up marketing spend when the marginal returns on optimization alone start to show.

AI Every Day

AI’s best application is for solving complex problems and when the volume of information available is simply too much for standard tools to process. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is likely to be the AI poster child for months to come. But it’s not just natural disasters; it’s everyday business turmoil: The business environment is constantly being disrupted by new players, new platforms, updated regulations and changing consumer tastes. AI helps you ride out any storm giving you confidence to make decisions and action on them quickly to adapt to whatever comes your way quickly and efficiently.

Interested in hearing the success story directly from the non-slip shoe company? Watch the webcast.

[1]https://www.whitehouse.gov/articles/depth-look-covid-19s-early-effects-consumer-spending-gdp/

[2]https://tracktherecovery.org/

[3]https://www.quirks.com/articles/unpacking-consumer-elasticity-in-a-covid-19-world

[4]www.nbcmiami.com/news/coronavirus/consumer-spending-is-already-rebounding-in-these-states/2239346/

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Four years of digital transformation in four weeks: UK lockdown puts pressure on brands to digitally deliver

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Four years of digital transformation in four weeks: UK lockdown puts pressure on brands to digitally deliver 3

Nearly a third (32%) of consumers would switch providers if a brand’s website is unavailable for more than 24 hours

A study released today reveals the scale of omni-channel pressure brands now faced as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, as consumers flock to apps and websites to as the priority destination to transact with brands.

The UK has experienced a huge leap in use of online services thanks to lockdown, with the public appearing to have less concern for the availability of a brand’s physical location. Research by Sungard Availability Services (Sungard AS) uncovers a “window of availability” that UK businesses now have before consumer loyalty changes:

  • If a brand’s website is down for 24 hours – 32 percent of consumers would switch provider
  • If a brand’s app is down for 24 hours – 28 percent of consumers would switch provider
  • If a physical store is closed for 24 hours – 20 percent of consumers would switch provider

The results by industry paint an interesting picture of the availability timeframes brands are expected to adhere to:

  • For online retailers, excluding grocery retailers – 23 percent of consumers would switch provider if they could not access online services for 12 hours, rising to over a third (34 percent) after 24 hours
  • For financial services and entertainment streaming platforms – 21 percent of consumers would switch provider after 12 hours, rising to 33 percent after 24 hours
  • In the case of online grocery shopping – 20 percent would switch provider after 12 hours, rising to one third 33 percent after 24 hours

The findings also highlight that as digital reliance increases, so will consumer expectations towards availability in the future. Over the coming two years, a third (33 percent) of consumers expect online financial services to always be available, rising to 35 percent for streaming services.

“UK consumers have become reliant on the constant availability of online services, and lockdown has only served to heighten this,” comments Chris Huggett, SVP, EMEA at Sungard AS. “What used to be a choice between physical and digital has now firmly accelerated into digital environments across various industries. As online worlds continue to outpace bricks and mortar as the face of businesses, ensuring constant availability and clear communications on downtime will be key for brands to build trust and loyalty.

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Does the pandemic prove that the dollar is always king of the currencies?

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Does the pandemic prove that the dollar is always king of the currencies? 4

By Lee McDarby, Managing Director of corporate foreign exchange and international payments at moneycorp.

The Covid-19 crisis has seen erratic market behaviours throughout the world. Banks and businesses alike have had to adapt quickly to a dynamic global pandemic that has created new market challenges on a daily basis. As the most liquid and widely accepted cash denomination, the dollar is seen as the lifeblood of business transactions. But the pandemic has seen it fluctuate, showing that even the ‘king of currencies’ can weaken in exceptional circumstances.

In a normal financial crisis, we would expect investors to take their money out of equities and put it into traditional safe havens, such as gold and treasury bonds. However, at the onset of the pandemic, regular safe havens fell in price as investors have tried to liquidate assets into cash because of impending margin calls. Many borrow money to invest, and if the value of their investment slips below what they have borrowed, they get a margin call and have to stump up the cash immediately, which has put added pressure on the dollar.

We saw the initial ‘grab for the greenback’ as the reality of Coronavirus dawned but over the last quarter the dollar’s strength subsided as the new, hopefully temporary, status quo of a world in lockdown with increased fiscal stimulus became a reality.

A peak after an initial flight to safety?

In Q1 this year, the US Dollar’s share of currency reserves soared to 61%, the highest among all currencies, putting it in a strong position. However, with political factors in the US such as the widespread protests, Sino-US tensions due to the origins of the virus and WHO funding, as well as the start of the election campaign trail, compounded by the resurgence of the virus in swing states ahead of the November election have since destabilised the greenback.

For many, there is a belief that the dollar peaked in March as part of an initial flight to safety, and is now seeing pause for profit taking. However, if the pandemic re-emerges in a second wave, then the dollar could once again become flavour of the day, in a desire ironically analogous to a war time reaction which was embodied by the Bretton Woods Agreement of 1944 which sought to bring order to the instability of the currency markets after the Second World War.

Think fast, keep money moving: the Fed response

The Federal Reserve was quick to act, after being harried by the President to keep the economy moving and introduce a plan of fiscal easing. This is especially true in light of the moves by European banks. The Fed cut interest rates by a full percentage point to zero in March, as part of a coordinated action plan, with the central banks of Canada, England, Japan, Europe and Switzerland. Fundamentally, this was to help increase the availability of US Dollars via swap lines and keep liquidity moving in the markets and prevent global dollar shortage.

However, the Fed’s fiscal stimulus package was late to the game to prop up the US economy. The Republicans and the Democrats remained at loggerheads as unemployment rates soared to 3.3 million a day in late March. Congress and the White House eventually compromised on a $2 trillion stimulus package soon after the devastating unemployment rates, bringing home the precarious nature of the US economy. Since the dollar reacted well to a lift in economic data, we saw provisional services and manufacturing indices improving to 46.7 and 49.6 in June. Although still shy of the breakeven level at 50, both are appreciably healthier on the month and a cause for modest applause, although the dollar remains weaker against the euro.

The slashing of interest rates, and stimulus packages around the globe present the most serious measures ever undertaken in fiscal history. But these actions are now the new normal, with surprises no longer surprising. The Vice Chairman of the Fed has said that, “there’s more we can do [with monetary stimulus] and we will”. This is the climate we are operating in and it means all is to play for in the international markets, as each country seeks its own security.

Do emerging economies remain beholden to the dollar?

The dollar’s power can be often be showcased in relation to currencies more risk sensitive than itself. Interestingly risk sensitive currencies have recovered, as the US dollar has struggled in the period from April to June since the initial wave of investment in March, but this is by no means indicates an abdication of the throne.

In general, a strong US dollar is bad for emerging markets’ currencies. We saw this in March with currencies such as the Brazilian real and South African rand weakening 17% and 25% respectively against the dollar. Perversely, the strong dollar is normally a sign of higher interest rates in the US attracting more buyers of the currency, which would make emerging market debt repayments more expensive. However, we have seen that this is simply not the case in hand, as throughout the Fed was delivering a programme of fiscal easing. Once again, this confirms the unusual times in which we operate, where currencies don’t always respond to market data and politics in a predictable way. But where markets are increasingly unpredictable, US dollar remains king.

Businesses are beginning to look outside of their existing supply chains to keep goods moving and sourcing from new countries, and emerging economies are very much on the table. This could diversify currency risk outside of the dollar and euro. We have seen more of a shift away from the US dollar recently, as many countries start to come out of lockdown and re-open their economies to international trade.

While some are on the road to recovery in terms of the number of Covid-19 cases, the US is still seeing major spikes, and that may hinder confidence in the country’s ability to weather this storm, and in turn, their currency may show signs of struggle.

Signs of struggle are certainly not the sign of defeat

Ultimately, the dollar is the most traded denomination in the world, even in the new normal. It will always be a ‘go-to’ currency for investors. Indeed, the dollar’s value depends heavily on risk appetite and it is highly liquid by nature. But during times of crisis, people tend gravitate to what they know and what they can rely on, which is why during Q1 the US dollar had the highest share of currency reserves.

When it comes to buying gold, funding margin calls or simply getting cash to stick under the mattress, it is difficult to see beyond the dollar being the world’s reserve currency any time soon. What will be interesting is watching its highs and lows in the run up to the presidential election this autumn and how further waves of Covid-19, mutations of the virus or potential vaccines may dovetail around that pivotal point.

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