Anil K Nair
Guest Article

"People aren't expecting clever, manicured responses from brands"

How should marketers reach out to their ‘high and fast’ spending consumers without coming across as callous and unfeeling?

Our collective experience, these last few months, has brought the world to a standstill. Bringing consumption to a near halt. Stopping consumerism in its tracks.

If there is one thing bothering Brand Managers around the world during this pandemic, it is this: To acknowledge or not to acknowledge? What to say and how to say it?

How have brands reacted to this pandemic of epic proportions?

Most Brands have playbooks. All Brands have plans. But almost all self-destruct in the face of such a ‘force majeure’.

Zero to little manufacture. Ever-changing supply chain scenarios. Shutting of advertising collateral production facilities. Breakdown of media and sponsorship opportunities, not to mention opportunity costs. And time slipping away.

What are consumers doing through all this?

They seem to have adapted to this lockdown – with WFH or whatever you may call it – pretty well (or at least that’s what their Instagram and Facebook feed seem to portray), even if sleep and meal schedules have gone awry.

People have quickly downsized. Adapted their routines. Adopted new hobbies. Invoked unknown technologies. Embraced family life. Learnt new life skills. Changed their pattern. But they have, more or less, ‘been real’ to the problem. The leitmotif has been to ‘hang in and make the best of it’ no matter where and which section of society they belong to. While there have been a few aberrations, it is still a miracle to get 8 billion to obey and to behave.

The locked-in populace is voraciously consuming content off social media walls, OTT platforms and what have you. With time on their hands, people have become prolific content creators themselves, leading to a sudden spurt in organic individual creativity.

This, in turn, has put added pressure on brands to communicate a smart and timely POV.

This has resulted in some cases of strong and authentic storytelling by some brands and other attempts that border on trying too hard. Many that suffer from the burden of sameness of messaging. There are some brands with a distinct action orientation while others have chosen to sit on the sidelines and wait for this nightmare out.

The question that is begging to be asked is whether all brands are mandated to post a response to this crisis? Is it ‘de rigueur’? Or is there an element of Brand FOMO?

Should brands follow the obvious support /empathy narratives?

And for those who have decided on a pandemic-period brand voice, how does one creatively differentiate, given zero production infrastructure (or, at best, home video assets)?

"The locked-in populace is voraciously consuming content off social media walls, OTT platforms and what have you. With time on their hands, people have become prolific content creators themselves, leading to a sudden spurt in organic individual creativity. This, in turn, has put added pressure on brands to communicate a smart and timely POV."

If your brand is an essential item like Pharma, food brands, delivery companies etc., it is important to communicate usable information, empathy, access to the products and show speed and urgency.

But Veblen brands have it tougher. The very foundation of conspicuous consumption has been yanked off. People have been forced into seclusion and introspection. These marketers fear that out of sight could soon turn into ‘out of mind’ or lead to a change of heart. How should they reach out to their ‘high and fast’ spending consumers without coming across as callous and unfeeling?

"The second endearing act that brands could do is to ‘walk the talk’. Consumers are suffering and they need help. Any help is welcome. From fee waivers to interest holidays, home delivery to WhatsApp support groups. Every small gesture is magnified in times like these."

To find an answer to this complex problem which is currently vexing many a Marketing Head/ Advertising Creative person, we could do well to revisit a vestigial item in many a brand book: Brand Purpose.

A brand’s reason to exist beyond the commercial and the transactional, Brand Purpose signals the brand’s intent on how it will change the world for better. It indicates the impact the brand intends to have on the larger environmental, cultural and social landscape.

Brands that are communicating well during this crisis are most often brands that are in tune with their brand purpose and therefore sound more authentic and less ‘straining at the seams’.

The second endearing act that brands could do is to ‘walk the talk’. Consumers are suffering and they need help. Any help is welcome. From fee waivers to interest holidays, home delivery to WhatsApp support groups. Every small gesture is magnified in times like these.

And thirdly, from an empathy perspective, brands need to understand and participate in the concerns of their customers, issues that they care about. If brands listen keenly, they will realise that there is a grounds well of sentiment floating around. On how people feel for the decisions that the authorities around the world are taking, for a return to equilibrium and ecology. For the health workers who are battling on the frontlines selflessly or for the economically unfortunate who will suffer in the aftermath of this pandemic. This sentiment is constantly evolving and cannot be taken for granted.

Last but not the least, it is important for large brands to start thinking ‘neighbourhood’ or local. This pandemic has rudely brought the world crashing down from a globalised mindset to a more ‘suburban’ one.

To sum up, a few keywords/ terms brand managers will want to add to their lexicon are ‘pivot’ and ‘new normal’.

How have you as a brand pivoted in response to this situation? I feel for the many brands that have already canned their comms for the coming festival season/World Cup/Olympics and are now having to fast track and pivot their new strategies.

Also, are you looking at your communication plan, messaging points, sponsorship opportunities, media mix, product delivery mechanisms and just about everything else through the filter of the ‘new normal’? Anything less could end up upsetting the very customer base you have painstakingly built over the years.

Most importantly, people are not expecting clever and timely manicured responses from brands during these times. They are dealing with the minutiae of their daily survival. They will respect the fact that you are real and honest about your problems as a brand. They will be pleasantly surprised if you do manage to reach out in a friendly concerned and human manner.

But I am sure they will notice you, and for not the right reasons, if they smell anything contrived or mechanical.

The purpose of this piece was not to be preaching to the converted but to take some pressure off the minds of those in the hot seat and their need to react in times like these.

Most times, executing a good act quietly is the best strategy and, sometimes, not saying anything at all could also be the right thing to say.

(The author is CEO, VMLY&R India.)