Unprecedented is the word we seem to be reaching for most when describing the Covid-19 crisis.

Certainly for a newly established business unit like Ice Cream Now (ICNOW), facing an international crisis of this magnitude has been, and continues to be, a huge challenge.

Tasked with providing home delivery solutions for Unilever's stable of ice cream brands, including Ben & Jerry’s, Magnum, GROM and Carte d’Or, ICNOW’s main focus is on establishing partnerships and collaborations with restaurants, food chains and delivery services around the world.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has meant we have had to learn fast and react with unprecedented speed,” says Rachelle Schuimer, Global Lead, Virtual Stores (DTC) at Unilever.

Here are five lessons the team has learnt… so far!

1. Learn from the experience of your global colleagues

“The power of being closely connected with the community across the world is incredible – there is so much we can learn from each other,” says Rachelle.

“As the first market to experience lockdown, our China team was able to provide us with important insight and advice very early on.”

Most notably, they were able to identify the different stages of responses to the virus within the country and how these affected consumer needs.

“In the first three weeks of lockdown, ICNOW in China noted a sharp drop in ice cream sales, which is understandable as people initially focused on home and food essentials only. Surprisingly, when people recovered from the shock of having to stay at home, they began to want to treat themselves with food delivery. And after just 2–3 weeks we would see orders picking up again, way beyond our initial baseline.”

Having this kind of concrete information to work with when everything seemed so unstable was invaluable to the teams.

“Being able to anticipate this initial drop and then the pick-up ensured that those of us at an earlier stage in the crisis were able to prepare ourselves so that we could better deliver what our consumers needed when they needed it – for example by ensuring more frequent restocking at our pick-up points (PUPs) and recruiting new PUPs to be available for more consumers.

2. Pivot to online work systems quickly

Sharing this type of actionable information was clearly vital, but with staff in lockdown, new ways of working had to be set up quickly to ensure action points could be communicated to, and implemented by, teams around the world.

For the ICNOW teams, platforms like WhatsApp and Microsoft Teams have become key in maintaining communication and momentum – allowing them to review resources and project workstreams while making sure everyone is on task and has the support they need.

The team stays closely connected with daily morning catch-ups over a digital cup of coffee on Teams and continuous conversations on WhatsApp with the full global ICNOW community. “Countries share examples of what they are doing and the results they are getting – which is super-inspiring and brings great positive energy. Keeping the right energy, embracing learning from each other and stealing with pride what we know works is crucial in order to be able to act with speed,” says Rachelle.

Ensuring that everyone could benefit from each other’s experiences was also the reason ICNOW set up ‘Share ’n’ Learn’ sessions on Microsoft Teams.

Focusing on sharing best practice and insights, these sessions have proved to be hugely influential, especially as regards crisis management and future planning.

Following a session on why the GroceryNow 30-minute delivery business model was becoming so relevant to consumers and with practical guidance on key actions for this space, for example, numerous markets were inspired to bring forward their proposed GroceryNow plans with delivery partners.

3. Ensure you are engaged in the right consumer conversations

Getting consumer communication right in such sensitive times has perhaps been the most important learning curve.

Whether adapting marketing messages to fit the new lockdown situation or getting involved with thanking frontline staff with ice cream treats, markets have had to be very much in tune with the needs of the consumer on the ground.

In Italy, the first country in Europe to impose a lockdown, for example, the team wanted to ensure people could still enjoy the small luxury of ice cream. So they partnered up with a ‘dark kitchen’ (a restaurant available only online for food delivery) and opened over 50 virtual stores in no time.

As the stores opened when the country had been in lockdown for two weeks, the orders poured in from the outset. These results exceeded any expectations and the team has continued this expansion into new cities and regions.

A similar response was enjoyed in the Netherlands when ICNOW took part in the Samen Uit, Samen Thuis (Out Together, Home Together) campaign encouraging people to support restaurants by ordering home delivery from them. Again the option of enjoying a sweet treat while supporting local business and adhering to safety guidelines offered a very popular win–win proposition.

4. Don’t forget to plan for a new kind of future

Although short-term goals have had to be the focus in this crisis situation, planning for what happens once normality returns is equally important.

“The future is becoming a reality at an accelerated pace. When this crisis passes, consumer habits will have changed and we need to start preparing for that new normality now,” says Rachelle.

With new players entering the food delivery space, existing players expanding the width and depth of what they are offering and impulse buying increasingly becoming synonymous with at-home delivery, these changes could potentially have a huge impact on the business long term.

“It is key we work together with our partners now, to shape that new normal,” says Rachelle. “Channels are shifting, and we have to shift with them to meet our consumers wants.”

Videos offer an opportunity not only to communicate what products are available, but also explain how they are delivered safely. Covid-19 hygiene precautions, for example, are emphasised in a recent video that ICNOW created with key partner Uber Eats. “This video is one of the many ways we bring to life the way our products now reach our consumers.”

5. Look after your home team

Of course, none of these lessons are worth much without a motivated staff, which is why looking after the mental and physical wellbeing of the teams has been so important. “People are our No.1 priority – their wellbeing is what we take care of first,” says Rachelle.

From daily morning check-ins and the sharing of funny memes to wellbeing and fitness advice, WhatsApp has again been crucial in keeping the ICNOW team feeling connected and grounded. This is not new for the team, who have always kept ‘fun’ as one of their nine key values. However, during the crisis this element has become even more important.

“Whether it is celebrating milestones, participating in learning sessions, or taking part in an ICNOW quiz, ICNOW is a true community. It is stronger than ever now!” concludes Rachelle.

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