There are some undeniable challenges that brands and businesses have faced in 2020, thanks to COVID-19. But before it became a global pandemic impacting most of the world, we kicked off The Marketing Challenges Project. The project aimed to understand better the significant issues that marketing teams are facing in 2020. So over the first quarter of the year, we sat down with 21 senior marketing executives (both clients and non-clients of YS) to get an idea of what was going on from their point of view.

The goal was to reset and zero in on the challenges in front of us at the beginning of this new decade – new opportunities, new hope and exciting new projects. Well, it didn’t entirely turn out like that. Instead, we’ve got the new COVID-19 world – a locked-down, disrupted and alternate reality – but change does bring with it new opportunities as well.

The project also got disrupted for a while, as we reconfigured YS to a remote agency. However, as we neared the end of Level 4, we dusted off the interviews and went back to clarify a few things in light of what we were all facing. The result is a view of the key marketing challenges that lie ahead, from those living them every day.

“A big part of my job right now is to understand what’s going on and what can we do about it? If that takes an innovative lens then great, but often it just means focusing on the right thing, and being pragmatic about dealing with it”

Jason Clapperton, Head of Marketing, Suntory Coffee


We interviewed 21 senior marketing professionals across different sectors. Overall, we covered finance, food & beverages, supplements, fashion, retail, services, fitness, auto, utilities, manufacturing, and education. Each contributor was asked to detail their three most significant challenges. We have then used this first-hand intel to pull out the consistent themes. This has then enabled us to develop the overview of challenges that we have below.

Overall, it’s clear that we’re all needing to find our way through this new world. However, we were already in the midst of a period of uncertainty. As a result, the biggest challenges noted focussed on how to deal with change and how to respond strategically (both before and during COVID-19). Following that, the next challenges centred around implementation – ‘how do I develop my digital and online capabilities and strengthen my brand.

The Big Challenges

1.  Change and Innovation

One of the most significant themes to come out of the conversations was the need to better manage change. There was a recognition, even pre-COVID-19, that we are moving into a period where culture and technology are rapidly changing business and how we connect with customers.

There was a desire for more innovation, to be agile, faster and not bound by process. On the other hand, there was an acknowledgement that we haven’t embraced some of the new tech and tools that have promised so much, but haven’t delivered the step change we expected.

“We are living in a world where all of a sudden, drones, robotics, AI, automation and space colonisation are becoming reality at a pace we would not have imagined just a few years ago. We need to reset our mindset on what is possible today.”

Mark McCutcheon, GM Sales & Marketing, Rinnai

02.  Strategy

There is a clear desire for change. But there is also the challenge of how to create clarity around the strategy to move forward. This was combined with a desire to understand customers better, to change business models to adjust to new market realities (very top of mind now) and to develop better value to avoid category-wide discounting.

Also noted by a quarter of the participants, was that they were attempting to do too much. They discussed needing to focus more on what was important, to move the dial. However, a lack of clear agreed strategic thinking was holding them back.

“We need to be thinking at a macro level, the face of education is changing. What will university education look like in 20 years' time?”

Shelley Winsor, Senior Marketing Manager, University of Otago

03. Digital and Tech

There were three key themes within this category. Overall, nearly two thirds (62%) of the participants listed at least one of these challenges.

  • There was an overall acknowledgement that marketers need to improve their digital capabilities. While we have seen a significant improvement over the last five years, there is a realisation that this is about constantly upskilling to meet the demands of new tech.
  • A need to improve the customer experience, and COVID-19 has only made this more important.
  • Challenges around how to use data to develop more personalised experiences that result in strong loyalty and drive better acquisition and retention programmes.

“We’re transitioning to a digital first world. There’s always a new tech solution, the options are changing so quickly, but we need to be more strategic about what to invest in to meet our long term goals.”

Natalie Allen, Marketing & eCommerce Manager, Kings Plant Barn

04.  Brand

40% of the participants identified a brand issue. They ranged from long term erosion from years of under-investment, to developing a robust, distinctive brand in the top ten global brands for their category. There was a real desire to prioritise brand issues, as the group recognised just how critical a strong brand was for the long term health of the business.

“Group fitness provides connection. We need to harness that, both physically and digitally, and create a brand that is in the top 10 global fitness brands.”

Anna Henwood, CMO, Les Mills International

05.  Capability

Although only specifically mentioned by three people, this came up as a theme throughout many of the conversations. While some people were talking about specific marketing skills, there was also an underlying need for more capability around commercial and strategic marketing. Several participants recognised that their team needed better skills to handle conversations around return on investment and performance, to credibly help others in the business understand the long term investment benefits, while delivering on short term objectives.

“[We] need to continue to demonstrate value, understand short and long term benefits, and keep agitating change that drives continued growth and behaviour change.”

Simon Hofmann, GM Brand and Marketing, Kiwibank


After analysing the results, the overarching key message from the interviews is that marketers have a real desire to get stuck in, create change, innovate and make a difference. However, perhaps that needs to be tempered by slowing down and deciding what is strategically essential first. We need to ensure our plans support the broader business goals and address underlying issues that are holding the brand back. If we can do that, then we might also address the busyness that creeps in while we’re not paying attention.

Slowing down and focusing on the strategic priorities may also help build credibility and get the CFO on side, creating the space to establish long term digital and brand projects that will deliver real value.



Duncan is the Managing Director at YoungShand. Before starting YoungShand, Duncan worked client-side in finance and marketing roles across technology, telco, travel and biotech businesses.

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