Why Becoming Master Storytellers Has Helped a B2B Brand Stay Open for Business
Matthew Gardiner was only a month away from his promotion as head of marketing and external communications at global freight brand IAG Cargo when the pandemic struck in March 2020.
An ambitious and confident marketer who joined the company in 2017 as a marketing manager, Gardiner had long planned what he wanted to do if he landed the top job. Instead, he found himself having to put his team into full crisis mode.
And, as if that wasn’t enough, his wife was in the hospital about to give birth. No one could fault Gardiner for feeling a little stressed, but looking back he really can’t remember too many panicked moments.
âIt was a leadership role that I was really excited to take on. I had a lot of ideas in my head and then Covid hit and the roller coaster did indeed begin, âGardiner said.
âI don’t think there ever was a time when we wondered whether it could be done or not. It was, ‘How do we do this?’ rather than “can we do this?” But yes, since I started work, I haven’t had a boring day at my desk.
The first thing to do was to make sure that IAG Cargo – which along with British Airways is owned by International Airlines Group – was able to deliver on its brand promise to get things done. Freight, especially in the UK, relies heavily on its passenger-based counterpart.
As Gardiner explains, some 95% of all air cargo entering this country ends up in the hold of passenger flights. Medical supplies, food, microchips, all the vital elements of daily life depend on these planes.
The company had to reinvent itself completely at high speed in a really difficult environment.
Matthew Gardiner, IAG Cargo
So when air traffic came to a screeching halt in March 2020, the air freight industry faced a serious capacity problem.
âOur solutions were twofold,â says Gardiner. âOne of them was quickly setting up a program of cargo flights only on a regular basis on passenger planes. Then the second thing was to charter IAG’s planes to different countries and governments as a tailor-made capacity solution. “
This meant making over 1,000 charter flights throughout the year, carrying everything from personal protective equipment (20,000 tonnes) to pineapples. Additional space has been found in upper lockers, dining galleries, and in some cases removing seats from aircraft.
It also meant having to navigate constantly changing conditions and regulations across international borders, as countries entered and exited various stages of lockdowns and flight restrictions.
Gardiner describes cargo as the âunsung heroâ of aviation and, by extension, the pandemic. âThe biggest motivation for everyone on the team was that there was a job to do,â he adds. “A crisis is the ultimate test for a brand and that’s when you need to increase your communications, so when the company turned to us to do it, it was quite a call to arms.”
The problem then was how to actually communicate all this activity and this goal to customers. âSuccess was not guaranteed. The company had to completely reinvent itself at high speed in a really tough environment, âsays Gardiner.
âWe had to do everything we could to communicate that we were open for business, that we had solutions to offer and that customers had the information they needed. “
To make matters worse, the marketing budget was cut completely after the passenger flights were brought to a halt. The solution was to develop as many hotlines with customers as possible, hosting live presentations and generally improving the communications game. One immediately obvious channel was the brand’s customer loyalty program.
âIn a world without paid advertising, we felt that marketing is fundamentally about telling great stories,â says Gardiner. “I encouraged the team to become master storytellers, to deliver compelling, business-oriented stories.”
Details like the use of space on planes to cram more cargo have become the focal points of these social media stories.
The results were impressive, with traffic to IAG Cargo’s website up 362% and LinkedIn followers up 73%, along with hundreds of bookings. The company just reported 2020 revenue of Â£ 1.3 billion, an increase of 18.5%.
Another vital source of engagement has been IAG Cargo’s database, growing 41% since the start of the pandemic. Gardiner estimates the additional revenue derived from email marketing in millions of pounds, which he attributes to data management and web analytics.
âI’ve always been a huge fan of data. The data relates to tests, tests, tests. It makes your organization more customer-centric, helps you become more efficient and achieve better results, âhe says.
It also allowed the marketing team to focus on smaller campaigns tailored to the more specific needs of the consumer base, which saved money and generated significant ROI.
Remote work was no obstacle, with Gardiner and his team regularly organizing meetings and bridging sessions around virtual activities. âIt really gave you a glimpse of the characters that make up a fantastic team,â he says. âWe have to share a bit of ourselves for emotional bonds to develop. “
Gardiner is clearly proud of the work his team were able to provide during such a traumatic time. âIt was a hell of a challenge, but what I appreciated the most was the team of people I work with, the resilience they have shown,â he smiles. âThere’s no such thing as necessity, I guess. “
Going forward, like many in the industry, Gardiner believes that the changes imposed in planning and strategy over the past year will now form a more flexible framework for future campaigns.
âWe have improved many ways of working and many of those ways of working will remain,â he explains. âThe pandemic was a daily challenge, it was us who said to ourselves’ What can we do today, how can we be better? It was almost a startup mentality.
The fundamentals of IAG Cargo’s message will remain in place and, where appropriate, will be strongly strengthened. âIn a crisis, let your brand be the anchor,â Gardiner emphasizes. “The crisis is not the time to move away from the brand.”