Ashwini Gangal
Editor's Note

‘Covid Consumerism’: Good for business, bad for marketing?

As multiple categories add germ-kill to their selling propositions… product promises, advertising codes, and usage rituals get complicated.

I first came across the word ‘consumptive’ last year, while reading an old novel, titled ‘Crime and Punishment’ by Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, first published in 1866. In the context of the plot, the word meant diseased, but as a chronicler of marketing strategy and consumer behaviour trends, it was the other definition of the word, the one relating to the using up of resources, that stayed with me. Misanthropes, or people who harbor an intense dislike for humankind, use this derogatory term frequently; ‘humans and their consumptive societies...’ – that sort of thing.

Move along the temporal and linguistic spectrum a little and one encounters a similar, yet less extreme, version of the word; 19th century economist Thorstein Veblen critiqued “conspicuous consumption”, which he defined as the act of ‘spending money to buy goods and services for their own sake’. In more recent times, philosophers like Alain de Botton have used the term as a far milder adjective for modern society, while cautioning against materialism.

Of course, not all derivatives of the word are negative. In fact, in the modern world, consumption is good. And in a covid-induced economic slowdown, it is consumption that will salvage both, the corporates that produce goods and the people who buy them.

Marketing veteran Dr. Philip Kotler writes in an article titled ‘The Consumer in the Age of Coronavirus’, (April 6, 2020, moneylife.in), “Businesses aim to make consumption our way of life. To keep their productive equipment and factories going, they must ritualize some consumer behaviour…” and, in a different paragraph about the way covid has changed the game, “If more consumers decide to be anti-consumerists, they will spend less.”

So consuming is good. Over the past six months, though, I’ve observed the rise of a new kind of behaviour, one that I believe merits the coinage of a new phrase – ‘Covid Consumerism’. As marketing companies across segments implore us to buy more products, their selling propositions have collectively pivoted towards a common promise – protection against deadly germs. While there’s nothing wrong with this per se, it’s the long term impact of the trend that’s worth pondering.

Corona-killing promises have pervaded the advertising storyboards of many a product segment. While this may boost consumer demand in the short run, won’t it hurt the art of marketing in the long term?

"While brands promise to kill germs, are they also killing marketing?"

The other day, in a YouTube pre-roll ad for a food delivery brand – or was it a car ad? – there was a slo-mo shot of sanitiser liquid dramatically flying out of a nozzle on a bottle. These sorts of stylised 'spray shots' used to be common in perfume and deo ads in what now seems like another lifetime. Some of the changes 2020 has brought about in the world of ads are amusing.

And this is different from the whole Siyaram's and Centuryply wave, where microbes spontaneously bounce off or self-decimate on contact with the product. Those are downright suspect. But what I'm talking about is a different kind of 'Covid Consumerism' that has come about, making existing categories more nuanced, textured and complicated. A germ kill layer has been added on top of otherwise reasonable promises.

Whirlpool's washing machine has an in-built bacteria destroying heater. Panasonic refrigerators now claim to "deactivate 99.9 per cent bacteria". I want the former to tell me how the heater will dry my load of washed clothes, sparing me the “kapdey sukhao” hassle. I’d like the latter to tell me my week old tomatoes won’t shrivel. But instead, both are wooing me with the confidence of a covid vaccine. I understand why it’s happening, sure. But is it sustainable?

Then there's the extra layer for consumers to incorporate into established routines: Lifebuoy markets a 'laundry sanitiser', a "kapdey dhoney ke baad" wala step; add a capful of special liquid to washed clothes, in a bucket, to kill germs your detergent missed. That's one step too many, especially if you're also adding a capful of fabric softener separately. Wash. Soften. Sanitise… Rinse. Repeat.

Hazarding a definition for the term ‘covid consumerism’, Jitender Dabas, COO and strategy head, McCann Worldgroup India, describes it as, and I quote from his comment on my LinkedIn post on the same subject yesterday, “a cycle of consumerism triggered by consumer needs resulting from fear of covid. A behaviour exploited at times by brands by opportunist launch of products and brands to fuel this fear and sell more.”

Business consultant Prashant Iyer reacted to the same post with: “…right from soaps to eatables everything suddenly is becoming an antigen for covid…” Brand consultant Rajesh Lalwani likened this strain of consumerism to “Largely fooling a gullible, fearful consumer”.

I’m not as incensed as them, no. All I’m saying is… Is it okay to buy a mattress because it’s masquerading as an antidote for covid? Sure it is. If ‘covid consumerism’ helps sell more products, that’s good. But if we buy a mattress because an advertisement convinces us it’s a damned good mattress, that’s great.