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Why Marketers need to “Genuinely care” in the times of COVID19

Brand Vani Covid19

The world is an ever changing flow of events around us, the timeline of which is dotted with wars, natural calamities, tragedies and embellished often with celebratory events of human creation. Successful marketers, in our short history, have been able to make the most of any situation, and emerged on top with great brands and inspirational stories.

Today is one such day, when we face a global threat: one that has thrown the world, as we know it, into disarray. Covid19 is a disease which has struck us quite unprepared and all of our leaders have been put to test to cope with and overcome this virus trouble. A few months into the chaos, most of the countries which have been heavily hit are now under complete lock-down, a situation hitherto unknown and hardly imaginable. But that’s now a fact. We are under lock-down.

Millions or possibly billions of people who depend on daily wages are struggling to make their ends meet. Thousands of people have already died of Covid19 and about million more recorded infected. People are stuck at homes in panic and cultural and religious traditions are being shunned to avoid close contact with anybody. Under such circumstances, where do we fit in? Where do brands fit in? Do brands have a responsibility during such times? If they do, then how are they supposed to conduct themselves in these times?

In this post, I am going to do my best to elucidate my thoughts regarding what brands should or should not do under Covid19 like conditions.

Brands are like Idols, brands are like celebrities

Iconic brands are like idols. People follow what iconic brands say or do. That’s why brands create content online. Brands look to create conversations with its audience and maintain engagement. We need to keep the conversation going and connect with people. That is what keeps us on top of their minds and creates an impression and a bond.

All brands are fighting in this space to capture maximum equity. That’s why you’d see many brands trying to come up with some content or the other to fit the brand message to the current news. Whether its Coca Cola and McDonald’s spreading the letters in their brand names to represent current social distancing, or brands donating or slashing prices, it is a part of showing responsibility towards its audience.

An active brand communicating to its audience during this time of Covid19 crisis is inevitable. But what should the communications be like? What should the brands talk about? How should the brand conduct itself publicly?

Learn to genuinely care about people

Lets start with some research data from a survey done by Kantar using a sample size of 35,000 consumers.

Brand Vani Covid19 post:

If you think about how the people chose to respond to the questions, it is evident people want to see that brands care. They want that assurance from brands that they will do what is right and to genuinely care about all the stakeholders, by ensuring their health and well-being and adopting measures like flexible timings and ‘work from home’ to ensure reduction in likelihood of disease spread.

The people who participated in the survey conveyed that it is important for brands to lead from the front and take responsibility. Large organizations must try to give back as much as possible. Most responsible organizations have already done that and are going to do more. For instance, Microsoft and many others have declared that they will continue paying their daily wage workers despite reduction in man hours or operations. Large manufacturing companies like Coca Cola have set up world class cleanliness and hygiene measures for production workers. These are the bare minimum brands can do to show that they care.

Those who were slow to react or hesitant to let employees work from home, and unprepared with no Business Continuity Plans (BCP) in place, they should do some amount of introspection and think more long term.

Advertise, but exercise sensitivity

I found it surprising that just 8% of the respondents thought brands should stop advertising. It was counter-intuitive to me that people are in support of companies spending money on marketing their products. But wait, there is more to that research. People do not have a problem with advertisements, but they do have expectations from these companies.

It might be true that over 92% respondents claimed that they do not mind the brands advertising, but marketers have to always be careful of reported versus observed behavior. It is highly likely that respondents here answered the questions with full rationale and a reasonably practical approach. But in actual scenarios, sentiments play a huge role on how people behave, against how they claim to behave. So, I would take this statistic with a pinch of salt and be careful of where and how I advertise.

Brand owners of KFC removed their “Finger Lickin’ Good” slogan from their ads, because it doesn’t represent the right behavior right now. Even Coors Light and Hershey’s pulled their ads due to inappropriateness to the current situation.

I would also be extremely careful of the tone and the media and channels where I would place my ads. The Kantar research further adds that 41% of the responses suggested brands avoid humorous tones, which, I think would really put the brand in a bad light. Some people might get the idea to lighten up the mood and try to cheer up people who are depressed due to the circumstances. I have only one thing to say to those people: there is no need to be the joker out there. Under grim situations, people expect brands to be mature, and not childish.

Some of the valid examples big brands using their billboards for messages on social distancing have been received with widespread appreciation. Coca Cola and Nike showed us how to do the messaging right, as shown in the pictures below.

Credit: The Coca Cola Company
Credit: Nike, Inc.

The third research insight above, about companies not exploiting the situation, corroborates the point that this is not the time to be opportunistic and sell your products. It would be the worst thing for the brand to be perceived as profit-mongering and opportunistic. So, leave aside the aside the heavy selling approach and focus on where you fit into helping people.

Whatever be your target segment, look out for the little guy. Use the money for doing things right. This virus is going to leave the economy turned upside down. Most of us will survive with a little less money than we had, but still we would be standing on our feet. But the devastation that it would create among the lower socio-economic classes is unimaginable.

When creating any artwork, don’t use heavy branding. Forget about all the norms that you are used to because this is not about your brand. Brand logo overshadowing the message will be looked at as self serving. If you want to talk about the brand, then do so in a supportive manner to the consumers and the govt.

And most importantly for the brand, communicate to the consumers of the steps you are taking to help. This is what consumers would expect of a responsible brand, as the 3 research points indicate.

Slashed prices could be of good intent, but not necessarily perceived to be beneficial

A few brands do that to express an eagerness to help by making their brands more affordable. This might be a good gesture, but there is also a chance that some naysayers accuse the brand of being opportunistic and trying to take market share by undercutting price. Although, many could be happy about it, it is still a double edged sword.

The Kantar report anyway says that only 30% respondents want to see brands offering discounts and promotions. So, that’s not really on the top of everyone’s minds. But 40% respondents expressed desire for companies to donate, especially in the forms of masks and sanitizers.

CavinKare, in our home turf in India, launched a sanitizer in sachet for Re 1 only. That’s quite a decent move to make it accessible for even the poorest of the folks down there. While, bigger FMCG players like HUL, Reckitt Benckiser, Dabur, ITC and Godrej slashed their prices by up to 70%, I believe CavinKare took the cake here with its thoughtful act. I mean, if you slash prices for an expensive product, most of the poor are still not going to be able to afford it, so, what CavinKare did helped breach a lot of barriers.

This is the time to show the humane side of the brand

These are extraordinary times when the world needs to express compassion and solidarity with each other. The factor for survival for humans has been the community, building together, supporting each other and pulling each other up to the next level. In this century, brands have taken leadership positions in many ways. Now it the time to set examples like leaders do, and show the path to others. Stand strong on your values, and share the same with your followers.

To add to it, brands are also known to be strong financially and enjoy a lot of stability. We need to be empathetic to those who are not as fortunate and help in supporting them with whatever means possible. Mark Cuban set a nice example there for his companies by announcing that all lunch and coffee purchases by his employees will be reimbursed if bought from independent, local, small businesses.

For those that are well endowed, donations to the COVID19 causes would go a long way. Coca Cola, Nestle, Kraft Heinz, Apple, Samsung, and almost all big names have committed funds to the cause. This going to go a long way to help re-establish our systems and sanity. And people will remember these brands for the goodness they displayed.

Plan well for the company services to continue

About 45% of consumers are concerned that the company services should continue and wants the company to give re-assurances and share plans of continuity. It makes sense, because many of those services or products could be critical for survival and on top of it, the continuity of their businesses ensures livelihood of their employees. So, instead of resorting to wanton lay-offs and supply chain shortages, brands are expected to plan better, get leaner and more efficient. In short this is the time for operational excellence.

There is also about 19% of those who want to see them setting up call centers to help with customer queries. The way I infer it, people are concerned about maintaining access to their essential brands, or for reaching out in case of any product related issues. In any case, all brands need to clear their stance and maintain a healthy, productive communication with the consumers.

Ethics is a marketer’s greatest asset

To end this post, I would like to conclude with my belief that marketers need to have solid ethics. We hold very inconspicuous, yet influential positions, providing content to the world, powering changes and transforming behavior. We need to choose the right words to speak and the right actions to take. In all our actions we need to be guided by our sense of ethics in order do the right thing.

Marketing is all about the long waiting game. Reputations build over time. Brands need their reputations to be created. Be clean, be honest, be ethical, your brand will be stronger than any other brand which is shortsighted and opportunistic.

Wash your hands regularly, maintain social distance and stay safe!

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