Jitender Dabas
Guest Article

To sell or not to sell: Should brand messaging move out of lockdown?

Can brands move on from empathetic, inspirational messaging and start ‘selling’ again? Or are marketers still afraid to hard sell?

The Government, this week, announced Lockdown 5.0, or as some are calling it, Unlock 1.0. After over two months since the nation went into a complete lockdown, gradual relaxations have allowed life to resume across the country. People have started to head back to work, production has resumed in factories, and merchant establishments -from shops to markets to malls, even- have been allowed to open for business, gradually. While the covid infections still haven’t started declining across the country, decisions to re-start the economic engine in a cautious manner have been taken.

So what does it mean for brands? Is it time for brand messaging to also come out of the lockdown phase? Is it time to move on from the empathetic and inspirational (thematic) messaging of the last two months? Is the time to start ‘selling’ again?

During the earlier versions of the lockdown, over the last six to eight weeks or so, I found people looking for recommendations/advice on social media about a range of things, from vacuum cleaners and dishwashers to spin mops, baking products and printer cartridges. Clearly, there are consumers out there looking to make choices and who need help.

Early in my career, I was told that ‘the role of advertising is to help people make (better) choices’. Consumers are already buying and they are making brand choices across a few categories. So what is holding back brands and marketers? One of them is the fear: "We don’t want to been as ‘selling’ in these times." It's the fear of being perceived as being transactional in a time of crisis.

This fear is not completely unfounded. According to a McCann Worldgroup Global Survey, nearly 25 per cent of people across the world thought that ‘it is immoral to carry on as usual in times of covid.’ So will resuming a selling pitch be seen in that light? Will any kind of transactional argument by brands be deemed immoral? And for how long? Can one be sensitive and still sell?

There is pressure on marketing teams and it will keep building. The lockdown had drastically disrupted production capacities and supply chains. As the supply side of things is getting fixed, focus will now shift on the demand side. The need to revive consumer demand is critical to getting businesses back on track and kick-starting the economic cycle. The role of brand messaging will not only be to drive brand choice but to get consumers back to some of the categories.

In such a scenario, why shouldn't brands ramp up the ‘selling’ pitch? What’s wrong in that? And what’s the right way to go about it? The big question is - is the consumer ready? When the lockdown was first announced on March 24, it pressed an emotional pause button on the lives of people. We all experienced something unprecedented in our lives. As restrictions are being eased, life has started coming out of the physical lockdown. But the key question to answer is - has the consumer come out of her psychological/emotional lockdown? Are we emotionally ready to receive transactional messages?

The biggest challenge comes from the fact that a lot of marketers/businesses had planned their 'revival in a post-covid world' strategy, a model that can perhaps be applied in countries like New Zealand and Taiwan. Planning for a post-covid world assumes a recovery phase with only traces of it in our memories and behaviour. Unfortunately, life is going to be much more complicated in a country like India, where we will need a 'with-covid' resumption strategy for brands.

Yes, consumers will start buying and they will need help to make choices. Brands will have step up to influence those choices. The question therefore is not yes or no, but how. How to resume the ‘sell’ in a market where consumers will still be dealing with covid at a physiological and emotional level, every day?

The answer lies in re-calibration at two levels - brands might need to re-look their positioning pitch as well as their messaging.

One of big shifts that we have witnessed as a result of covid is that consumers have moved down Maslow’s pyramid of needs. The fear of a pandemic has moved people down to the need states of safety (personal security, employment, resources, health, property) and belonging (friendship, intimacy, family, sense of connection), from higher needs like esteem and self-actualisation. People are worried about their safety/health. They are worried about their pay cheques and livelihoods.

To sell or not to sell: Should brand messaging move out of lockdown?
Saul Mcleod

This shift in need-states will only precipitate further and will have a huge impact on consumer behaviour. Consumers will spend more on brands that promise to fulfill the 'safety' and 'belonging' needs. This will have an impact on categories as well. Brands will need to acknowledge this and recalibrate their promise and role.

Some categories and brands will become more meaningful because of the promise they hold – of protection, health, immunity etc. But what does it mean for categories that don't address these need states? It would be incumbent upon them to re-think whether they can do so. This would require brands to re-define the role they can play in people’s lives. A car brand that pitched itself on luxury, might need to look at the safety it can offer. Some categories will need to justify their relevance in the lives of consumers who might re-prioritise their spends.

And yet, there will be categories that come with functional promises that might make it difficult to pitch based on these needs - what about a shampoo that promises silky hair and a confectionary that promises indulgence? Will it appear insensitive to talk about shiny silky hair in times of covid? In such categories the messaging would need to be re-thought.

One of the pressures on advertising storytelling in the last few years has been to become more ‘entertaining’ so as to compete better for the consumer's attention. Increased used of humour, for example, would make the selling pitch more memorable and engaging. Perhaps this isn’t the time to pepper your sales pitch with humour but at the same time advertising messages would need to drive optimism to revive consumer sentiments.

Revival of consumer demand is going to be one of the key determinants of our economic revival. Products and brands must play a meaningful role in people’s lives, in a 'with-covid' world.

(The author is chief operating officer and CSO, McCann Worldgroup India.)