Carolyn Corda, CMO, ADARA: On empathy as a marketer – with Covid-19 hitting travel hard

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Carolyn Corda, chief marketing officer (CMO) at data co-op ADARA, notes the importance of empathy in marketing. This is not just in terms of campaigns, but also in becoming a better marketer.

“What’s really worked for me is I understand the business not just from the marketing angle,” Corda tells MarketingTech. “I’ve been deep in the different elements of airlines.”

For Corda, who prior to becoming CMO at ADARA was managing director for digital travel and hospitality at Accenture, this ranges from knowledge around how jet fuel gets delivered, to baggage carts, to how the planes park. Alongside understanding the remit of other business units, it’s all about understanding the limitations; if there’s something the marketing team wants but operations pushes back, for instance.

“When I speak as the CMO and put forward the ADARA brand I can position a way that’s more empathetic to what our clients are going through,” says Corda. “We all travel, we all buy things, and it’s easy to get a little bit of arrogance as well. We’re selling you this product, why are you using it, here’s how I should be doing marketing differently – and I think there’s a bit of arrogance in that.

“And I combat that by really having a deep understanding of what their business is about,” Corda adds. “I think there’s a lot of complexity that, as consumers ourselves, we don’t always appreciate and I think as a marketer, it’s important to embrace those and be empathetic.”

ADARA’s various products, from real-time traveller information and data visualisation through search and customer experience optimisation, are aimed at three types of customer. The company previously aimed its focus at travel brands, but now looks across travel, luxury, retail and finance to increase customer value, for agencies, and for the destinations themselves, to drive visitors and ramp up ROI.

These are, however, uncertain times to say the least. British Airways is reported to be making up to 12,000 job cuts, while Virgin Atlantic is exploring the possibility of a government bailout. Airlines, and airports, are also going to suffer: the chief of Heathrow Airport, John Holland-Kaye, warned last week that social distancing in such a scenario would be ‘impossible.’

Corda says that it is an ‘incredibly challenging’ time for its travel clients – and with this in mind, the company is looking to help wherever it can. ADARA has launched a travel trends tracker tool, which aims to tap into real-time data to help travel brands understand current consumer behaviour and, more importantly, understand “when signs of recovery indicate that it’s time to change the focus of their communications from ‘stay safe’ to ‘let’s travel’,” as Corda puts it.

“By understanding consumer behaviour and by tracking changing demand patterns, travel brands give themselves the best chance of capturing a greater share of the market when travel does begin to re-emerge,” she says. “For many, it’s hard right now to think about the future, but it’s key to ensure a plan is in place to leverage behaviour data and help boost sales when appetite returns.”

Make no mistake, Corda certainly believes it is a case of when the travel industry recovers, rather than if. But there will be some difficult times along the way, as structural changes across travel – mergers, bankruptcies, and ultimately new entrants – will form part of the adaptation process.
Hence the importance of empathy – noting the restrictions on travel and consumers’ health concerns, but also noting a light at the end of a very long tunnel for those working in the industry. “People have an innate desire to travel – to explore and to connect,” explains Corda. “There’s no doubt that we’ll recover – there may well be pent up demand that creates opportunities for the travel sector.

“The focus for travel organisations should be two-fold,” she adds. “First, keep a keen eye on market-level demand and respond to opportunities quickly. If you’re too late, you’ll lose out to your nimble competitors. Second, use this downturn to address long-standing deficiencies. Some companies are using the time to improve technology infrastructure, clean up customer databases and test new data sources.

“Undertaking these two tracks in tandem will increase the chances of not only making it through this downturn, but also prospering in its aftermath,” Corda adds.

Many industries which have been stood down amid the Covid-19 pandemic are doing similar naval-gazing right now, and for the travel industry – in particular the way that it communicates with customers – there is plenty to ponder. As Corda notes, being an empathetic marketer also means empathy for what your customers are going through – and what they know.

“Consumers are becoming much more aware of their data,” says Corda. “I think specifically it’s expected to evolve to a better awareness of the value exchange.

“I’d wager that a lot of people were using Google and just thought it was a wonderful free resource – and in many ways it is free,” Corda adds. “But the idea that for Google, for tons of other companies, Facebook, Amazon, that information you’re getting as a consumer is their way of collecting information about you – I think consumers are beginning to better understand that and other models may develop over time.”

Corda cites Under Armour as an example of a company doing things the right way when it comes to sharing data and sending notifications. “They’re gathering information in a way that’s helpful for you,” she says. “You can understand it through the various apps – what your nutrition’s been like, are your runs getting longer? – and so they can make recommendations. They’re being relevant and helpful in a way that I think consumers embrace.”

As far as the wider industry goes, Corda certainly believes more can be done. She describes the day to day experience – at least before Covid-19 took hold – as an assault, before softening her tone, but using the travel industry as an example, the thrust is the same: why did I get that message that I already know?

“I think it chips away at the trust and chips away at the potential for a really fruitful relationship between the consumer brand and the consumer,” she says. “I think there’s a lot more we can do there to understand their needs.

“A lot of targeted marketing comes across as ‘we want to sell you this because it’s good for us if you buy access to the lounge, or upgrade.’ We need to frame it in a way that’s more relevant and is really coming from the consumer perspective. You’re giving them that information and I think it is a more human way of managing interaction.”

Understanding what your customer wants, and understanding you are just one cog in a hugely complex supply chain – it all goes back to empathy. “When you see a bear dancing, you don’t criticise the choreography – you’re amazed that a bear dances at all,” says Corda. “I think that’s true for the travel industry and in some ways of retailing with the supply chains and those complexities. Sure, we want to help them be their best but don’t be arrogant to think that you understand all the challenges they’re facing.

“I think being an empathetic marketer just makes you 10 times more effective.”

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