How to Innovate Through the Chaos of COVID-19: An Interview with Arvind Sethumadhavan

Post by 
Matthew Ryan
March 24, 2020

When Faced with Upheaval…Innovate!

The world is falling apart due to the COVID-19 virus that has swept from Asia to across the globe. Business leaders are looking at a very difficult time with very difficult decisions to be made. With all crisis comes great opportunity and it is a time for brands and companies to throw out the playbook and look to innovate out of the crisis. In this series of interviews, Re-Hub will be speaking to some esteemed names in corporate and digital innovation in Asia in order to garner their thoughts and insights on what brands should do in order to navigate this crisis.

In our first interview, we speak with Re-Hub key adviser, and Asia corporate innovation guru, Arvind Sethumadhavan. Arvind has over 25 years of experience in corporate innovation, strategy and digital innovation and has previously served as the Chief Strategy & Innovation Officer for Dentsu in APAC for over 8 years and more than a decade with WPP in various leaderships roles.

Can you introduce your approach to innovation and your experience?

I believe Innovation starts with putting in place new capabilities and partnerships which future proofs business success for the long term. I have led initiatives driving Corporate Innovation for MNCs utilizing innovation labs as a catalyst which empowers teams to experiment and co-create solutions to address business challenges. This has meant incubating new capabilities and service offerings as a growth catalyst in areas such as data management & analytics, customer experience and fast prototyping with new digital technologies.

I am a huge proponent of Asia’s Digital Disruption and the new business models which are emerging having lived and worked in India, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur and currently reside in Singapore.  I am an active contributor to thought leadership on the Digital Economy opportunity and have presented and participated in events such as the Smart Nation Singapore Summit, FUTR, CES China, AI Summit, WEF Tianjin New Champions Meeting, I-Com Data Start-up Challenge to name a few. On a personal note I am a cyclist, love listening to blues music and advocate building sustainable futures for our younger generation.

Due to the Coronavirus, this year is looking to be a tough one for retailers and brands in Asia. In terms of corporate innovation what advice would you give to brands who are worried about their bottom line this year?

The mantra for corporates this year should be “do more with less”. Leaders are going to be getting a lot of pressure this year from HQ’s to reduce costs. They will also constantly be faced with probing questions on scenario planning and be pushed to give optimistic and pessimistic forecast

However, in such a challenging year, it is important to not compromise on longer term business programs.This is the time to build an even stronger foundation for the future, develop and launch some proof of concepts which can deliver new growth opportunities, new ways of engaging with customers and new operating models for greater efficiency.

So to do more with less, I suggest focus on leveraging technology in two areas–  Operational Efficiency (OE) and Customer Experience (CX). If I had to get into more specifics, then I would highlight Business Automation, Chatbots and other machine-to-human technologies for staying engaged with customers and finally Predictive Analytics to forecast scenarios.

It’s also important for brands to not try to do it alone, instead try to work with proven technology startups. You need specific solutions to answer immediate problems and you need them fast.

Importantly, keep an eye on what shape you want to come out of this situation for 2021, this is a time not just of optimization but preparation. As we say, necessity is the mother of inventions and I really believe that this crisis year could be a tipping point for businesses to move to innovate on new digitally led business models.

The 70-20-10 rule for innovation needs to be modified in a crisis

On that note, I always preach the classic 70-20-10 rule, which posits that companies that allocated about 70% of their innovation activity to core initiatives, 20% to adjacent ones, and 10% to transformational ones, will in most cases outperform their peers. But in such tough times, I suggest to focus on the 70-20 and drop transformational initiatives for the time being. Let’s be serious, staff are going to be worried about losing their jobs, so it would be silly to discuss transformation during this time.

Whatever is your core, then put the focus of your innovation efforts on that. If you have already been branching into E-commerce, then this is the right time to delve deeper in developing new business models around social and conversational commerce.

In this difficult climate, what should brands avoid if they want to stay competitive?

I would say avoid over optimization or cutting costs at the expense of your customers. At a time like this, losing good customers is more damaging to a business than lost sales revenues. This is the time for brands to support their customers in truly meaningful ways. “Empathy” should be a key ingredient in all of their communications.

Brands need to stay away from predatory tactics during this period that could erode trust with consumers in the long-term. Stating the obvious here, don’t try to take advantage of the situation by either marking up products or marking down. The situation will not be like this forever and customers will remember forever.

It’s important to keep customers informed and keep communication clear. Even if you are not making sales in this period, you need to stay transparent and engaged. For example, airlines need to find ways to tell customers what’s happening and the best mode for a response leveraging technology, noting that call centers are jammed. As an example my daughter’s flight got re-routed and I got an email from the OTA asking if the change was acceptable and to call them if not. While they had a direct link response to accept the change, to not accept they wanted me to call-in which was impossible.

In 2020 what do you think will be the key digital innovation trends will be in China and SouthEast Asia?

From a Digital Retail perspective 2020 is going to be an interesting year. It’s important to keep in mind that offline sales across APAC still accounts for a significant majority of over 70%, and this is compared to around 50% in China due to the dominance of Alibaba and This year, partly fuelled by the Covid-19 virus, adoption of online platforms across areas like Commerce, Education, Entertainment and Healthcare will see a significant boost in onlines sales. Google estimates the SEA internet economy to hit US$240b by 2025, this is a real opportunity for businesses to take advantage of leveraging some of the best practices that we are seeing in China.

Specifically, the opportunity to adopt business automation using AI and machine learning will see a surge.

Conversation technology is an area I am particularly excited about this year. There is a huge amount of H2M (human to machine) conversations taking place and the technology looks to be getting more advanced. In SEA, many companies are already using Whatsapp to talk to customers.

UIB (,  a start-up which is well established is already helping businesses remote manage both their customer base and internal areas like workforce management and equipment management on factory floors. is one of the outstanding startups for helping businesses to manage their customer base and operations and have just announced a partnership with Whatsapp

In terms of corporate innovation and digital transformation, how would you compare SouthEast Asia & China? What are the main differences that brands should be aware of?

Asia is a two speed world with regards to the Digital Economy, one being China and the other being the rest of Asia. In this context I think SEA is about 5 years behind China, but has the advantage of having some of the fastest growing economies. The implications of this are that we are seeing faster adoption of new digital technologies and the platform economy.

That said it is important to recognize that SEA is quite diverse and brands need to cater for cultural imperatives in planning out their corporate innovation/digital transformation initiatives. When a brand is considering personalization strategies they need to pay attention to this diversity.

There is also a lot of diversity in terms of development and infrastructure throughout the region and brands need online readiness to deal with these challenges and differences in consumer preferences.

What do you think that overseas businesses can learn from Asia in terms of customer experience?

Asia is a mobile first world and is leading the charter on 24/7 customer experience which is in the palm of all consumers hands. In this regard countries like Indonesia are even more mobile-centric than even China as they have completely skipped the PC generation and have gone straight to mobile. I think the most exciting developments in terms of mobile-first business models will be coming from places like Indonesia, Vietnam, Phillippines and India.

Additionally, most of Europe and America have missed the rise of the ‘super apps’ that are dominating Asia right now, and are falling behind in this regard. Think about Wechat in China, GOJEK in Indonesia and Grab in SEA. These platforms have evolved into an ecosystem in themselves with various partnerships which has moved beyond mobility solutions to get people from point A to B into areas such as delivery, food, hotels, tickets, insurance and subscription services. Grab here in Singapore has launched a digital credit card in partnership with Mastercard and have partnered with SingTel’s HooQ for streaming entertainment services. All of these has made Grab a evolving fintech player with a digital wallet.

Image result for grab mastercard
Grab recently launched a digital credit card in conjunction with Mastercard

Anything else you would like to add?

Necessity is often quoted to be the mother of all inventions, we are witnessing great examples of how consumers and businesses are staying on track with their daily needs leveraging technology in the backdrop of the Covid-19 epidemic In China. Consequently we believe that 2020 will be the year for a significant boost in value creation from the Digital Economy and businesses which lean-in heavily on the use of technology to get around remote business management will come out stronger when the situation becomes normal.

Key Takeaways

Arvind gives some excellent food for thought. Nothing can take away from the almost insurmountable feeling of doom that many are experiencing this year, but through harnessing empathy with your customers and focusing on customer experience, companies can come out with this with deeper bonds with customers that will become fruitful in the future. By “doing more with less” and focusing on deeply innovative and local technologies, like those offered by startups, silver-linings can be found from this dire situation.

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