We are in the midst of a digital revolution. According to Gartner research, the pace of technological change will only continue to accelerate, “forcing organizations to invest in acquiring the skills necessary for digital transformation.”(1)

The coronavirus pandemic has seemingly served as a catalyst for digital transformation by forcing many day-to-day business operations to incorporate remote work accessibility to the workforce. With the pandemic came a recession; one the World Bank predicts to be the worst since World War II.

A retrospective

While there is no historical precedent for today’s exact state of affairs—a global health crisis shutting down the economy—these periods of recession and cultural change can serve as an opportunity for companies to adapt to customer needs in real time, define what the brand stands for, and work on customer centricity.

How Hewlett-Packard got its start

Entering the Great Depression of 1934, Hewlett-Packard (HP), presently a household name, was started by two Stanford graduates. Based in Palo Alto, California, HP, won their first major contract with Walt Disney, another California-based company. They produced audio oscillators for the movie Fantasia. By 1942, the company was still small, but World War II changed everything.

Bill Hewlett was called back into the Army during World War II and HP had become well-known enough to start producing audio oscillators used in proximity fuses and microwave-signal generators used in radar and counter-radar measures.

Employees wages were reduced to war-time wages, but HP created incentive plans allowing for profit sharing, which later became a model for “people centered” practices. It was practices such as these that allowed HP to keep their strong workforce despite reduced wages.

HP focused on innovation and achievement. They rewarded employees for new ideas and allowed them to take ownership, which helped to earn trust and loyalty. Over time, HP’s focus on fostering innovation contributed to the company’s success and prominence in the technology industry.

During the recession in the 1970s, HP again reduced wages across the board by 10%. After six months, everyone’s wages were returned to pre-recession numbers as the company weathered the storm together.(2)

Lesson learned

Employees can often serve as the eyes and ears of the company for what the customer needs. By encouraging employee innovation and collaboration, not only can internal teams, including engineers and customer service teams, work together to create solutions, but can evolve a product to better serve the needs of customers over time.

Customer needs

Netflix is a company that hit its stride during the 2008 recession. It started as a by-mail DVD rental company in 1997. By 2007 it began its streaming services and was expected to fail when the economy crashed one year later.(3)

However, with more people at home due to unemployment and the low subscription cost of $8/month (at the start), Netflix thrived and is continuing to do so.

Through strategic partnerships with Roku, Xbox (Microsoft), LG, and other streaming services, Netflix was able to adapt to the digital landscape and use streaming technology to provide convenient access to a wide range of entertainment content. As customer demand grew, Netflix began to produce original content, while traditional production studios were cutting budgets. Once again, Netflix disrupted the entertainment industry by focusing on evolving customer needs and preferences, using data to continuously improve both content and user experience.(4)

Strategic commonalities

What HP and Netflix seem to have in common for weathering the economic storm is customer centricity. HP was able to meet the needs of the time and Netflix, coming of age during the rise of more sophisticated digital technology, was able to use algorithms and user data to enhance the customer experience.

Although HP may have lacked such digitally savvy tools, through investing in its workforce, it was able to build a company around what its brand stands for as a pioneer in the Silicon Valley tech industry.

According to Gartner research, 2020 was predicted to be a year of great digital transformation for businesses. New technology, such as artificial intelligence and advanced analytics, are set to arrive. It won’t be enough to simply add these tools to current strategies.

Centering customer’s needs will be a large part of adapting marketing and technology. And, unless digital business transformation models focus on customer experience and use empathy to build these new strategies, the sole use of new technology will not cut the mustard.

Customer centricity

Focusing on what the customer needs means that, as Gartner notes, “organizations are under pressure to drive digital business transformation while maintaining a focus on customer experience under the new and existing business models.”(5)

Chances are, current environments have forced companies to go fully remote with their employees. Not only has this enforced an upgrade in digital environments for company communications, but employee experiences similar to what Hewlett Packard employees might have faced during World War II.

With this sudden shift in infrastructure, comes a change in business thinking. “What does it mean to keep the customer happy despite current limitations? How to deal with problems quickly? How to understand the context of a customer’s needs?” (5)

This is where continuous collection of customer data becomes critical. Businesses can analyze customer data and make strategic decisions, big and small, by looking at what types of products and services customers purchase at any given point in time, how often, and where.

In a time of crisis and post-crisis recovery, customer empathy can set businesses apart from competitors, help build long-lasting customer relationships, and sometimes even establish/strengthen a brand. Similarly to how HP ran their operation, employees working at home may also have some insight into customer empathy during the coronavirus pandemic.

Gartner suggests the following for building customer empathy:

  • Channel convenience for the customer
  • Timely response to feedback
  • Deep knowledge of the customer’s problem
  • Proactivity in customer engagement
  • Being helpful and friendly
  • Fairness
  • Honesty

2020 and beyond

In the 2019 Gartner CEO and Senior Business Executive survey, 82% of CEOs said that they have a management initiative or transformation program underway to make their companies more digital.(5)

Going forward, businesses need to ensure they are delivering value to customers and improving their lives in some way, which can work hand in hand with keeping employees engaged and aligning with the brand mission.

Technology alone will not help businesses to withstand and evolve through social, economic, and other disruptions, unless they pay adequate attention to their customers’ needs and digital journey with the evolution of their products/services. Looking back through history and how certain brands evolved by meeting the needs of a changing world, businesses have an opportunity to use this uncertain time to make a positive impact and grow.

Read more like this:


  1. 2020 Planning Guide Overview: Building Skills for Digital Transformation, Gartner 2019
  2. Hewlett-Packard, Silicon Valley Historical Association
  3. Netflix Thrives Despite the Recession, Forbes 2009
  4. Netflix: American Company, Encyclopedia Britannica
  5. Digital Business Requires Organizations to Focus on Customer Centricity, Gartner 2019