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Innovation Is a Mixed Bag in the Time of COVID-19

3 min read
Apr 28, 2020

Marc Andreessen recently criticized Western businesses and governments for “our widespread inability to build. A titan in the venture capital world, when he speaks, business leaders tend to listen. So whether out of necessity or fear of missing out on the latest trend, many companies have started to celebrate their newfound agility to innovate in tough times. The word pivot, already popular in the startup world, has found new fans as even multinational corporations steer their enormous ships in a new direction.

Nike already had experience with the effects of COVID-19 in China, so when the crisis moved to other countries, they had a head start. In China, they were able to shift focus to online offerings to help offset lost retail sales. In the US, they were able to do the same and even added popular home workout videos to their marketing plan.

Microsoft recently announced their intention to move towards an open data ecosystem. This is a big change for a company that used to be firmly in the camp of guarding and profiting from data, a walled garden approach similar to that of Facebook and Google. The plan is for better rules and infrastructure around data sharing with other businesses, governments, and the general public.

The list is long: companies switching to remote and finding new ideas in new environments, food distributors retooling supply chains, and widespread adoption of digital business tools.

A big question is how revolutionary some of these changes really are. Many of the changes go along with trends that were already evident, but only slowly taking hold. Could COVID-19 have been just an accelerating factor? For Nike, the wider adoption of ecommerce must have already been on their minds. For Microsoft, they already lost the consumer data battle with Facebook, Google, and Amazon. A change in Microsoft’s data business model seemed inevitable.

There are also a few unsuccessful pivots, mostly in marketing. Many companies are decreasing spending at a time when many marketers say that at least maintaining the marketing budget would be the smart move. The marketing that is happening has become generic and predictable. Many businesses have stopped trying to sell us things and instead are trying to convince us how much they care. This video montage shows just how indistinguishable many brands have become.

The reality is that among the flurry of changes hitting us, it will take a long time to sort out the winners from the losers. The competitive landscape seems set to change, but it’s still not clear exactly how. As the example of current marketing shows, if all innovation goes in the same direction, it quickly stops looking like innovation.