Debashish Chakraborty
Points of View

Has brand marketing changed forever… or do the fundamentals stay unchanged?

We spoke to strategic planners at advertising agencies and heads of brands across product groups to gauge the impact of the crisis on the discipline of brand marketing.

As more and more literature around the impact of COVID surfaces on the world wide web, the narrative around brand marketing has, in a very short period, become fairly layered.

By and large, the opinions out there fall into one of two buckets: One school of thought believes the crisis has changed consumer behaviour for good, that we will never consume the same way again, and that brands will do well to device a whole new language to speak to this altered species. This view is rooted in the idea that the very fabric of consumerism has been altered, much like a gene mutating and impacting generations to come. An extreme version of this view predicts a large scale rejection of our former acquisitive selves and a collective swing towards minimalism, which, in many ways, is a marketer’s nightmare.

As adwoman Lyndsey Fox writes in a recent column in AdAge.com, “What does this mean for brands? It means that they just got a new competitor from a tertiary category: community. How brands choose to use that information is up to them, but my recommendation is that they embrace and react to what consumers will be asking themselves: Why am I spending this dollar? Who am I spending it with? And, what greater good will it serve? It is my belief that only then will any loyalty be gained in this new dawn of consumerism.” She works at an American ad agency called Allen & Gerritsen.

The other, contrasting, view goes thus – while consumer mindsets, behaviour patterns, shopping habits and biases have certainly changed, it’s all temporary. And that once the immediate danger passes, we’ll be back to our old selves. Which means, while re-tooling and re-skilling are necessary, the fundamental principles of brand marketing and consumer psychology are as relevant as they were in a pre-COVID market… and brand managers need not toss their old thumb rules out just yet. As Nestle India’s marketing director Rashi Goel writes in her recent essay, “This period of fasting will be followed by a period of feasting.”

We spoke to strategic planners at advertising agencies, who, typically service a variety of accounts at any given point in time, and heads of brands across different product groups, to gauge the impact of the crisis on the discipline of brand marketing.

Edited excerpts.

Neeraj Sharma, head of strategic planning, Rediffusion Group

Fortunately or unfortunately, right now, marketing is not about the 'message' - a striking visual and a smart line, it is about the 'acts'. That's why Louis Vuitton making sanitisers was better and effective marketing than McDonald's choosing to separate the logo, which invited a backlash. Ironically, for LVMH, the most basic P - the product itself was not a commercial one and, hence, it defied all the rules of marketing.

Neeraj Sharma
Neeraj Sharma

In the current situation, genuine effort is real marketing. Everything else is just lip service and people can see through the facade, no matter how clever it is.

Will the rules of marketing change forever, is a presumptuous question where we assume marketing is about boardrooms, and not about people on the street and, right now, at homes. Marketing is about people and for people, context is paramount. In times of fear, they look for strength, in times of despair, they look for hope and in times of recession, they save and also splurge on things which make them happy as they come to believe the fleeting nature of life. When things get back to normal, they come back to regular consumption. So, the fundamentals of marketing are about the fundamentals of people - which change every day and also don't change, ever.

In the current situation, genuine effort is real marketing. Everything else is just lip service and people can see through the facade, no matter how clever it is.
Neeraj Sharma

Amit Tiwari, vice president marketing, Havells

The principles of marketing will stay the same, but the application and the outcomes of the fundamentals will change. Between the ecosystem of above the line (ATL) and below the line (BTL), the dynamics will change, along with the content consumption patterns of the consumer. The approach to tap the audience won't remain the same and today, the fight will be whether to leverage a 32-inch [television] or a seven-inch [mobile] medium.

Amit Tiwari
Amit Tiwari

Under a macroeconomic challenge like this, every fundamental of the business changes. Because nobody really knows the face of the solution, the changes and challenges will be across every industry. The consumers for every sector will remain the same, but the patterns of consumption, for the product and marketing effort, will change. For example, the habit of newspaper reading has shifted and as a result, advertising on print will eventually shift to one on news websites on handsets. And that's where the marketers also need to evolve and reach out to their TG differently.

The principles of marketing will stay the same, but the application and the outcomes of the fundamentals will change.
Amit Tiwari

Digital will now completely reinvent its typical perception, approach and treatment. Brands and digital publishers/companies will now have a different approach and going forward, digital will not be just a medium, but a 'way of life'. During these unprecedented times, marketers have realised digital's gravity and within marketing, in the coming times, we will have a stand-alone digital pillar.

Abhishek Chaturvedi, vice president - planning at McCann Worldgroup

Today, everyone is trying to draw a working mechanism and no one really knows when things can resume back to normal. At this moment, there are multiple possibilities, since this catastrophic-like situation was unseen by Gen Z or Gen Y. Even the marketers are adapting to these unprecedented times and responding to each day.

Abhishek Chaturvedi
Abhishek Chaturvedi

Right now, there is crisis marketing at a global level and everyone – brands, agencies, media persons – are trying to learn. This will definitely bring a change in how a common man perceives, including customers. Post lockdown, for brands, availability will become a far more important concern than preference.

Post lockdown, for brands, availability will become a far more important concern than preference.
Abhishek Chaturvedi

Sandeep Shukla, general manager & head marketing communications, Jaquar Group

Right now, barring the companies dealing in essentials, others are in the survival mode. The fundamentals of marketing won't change, however, the rules of the game won't stay the same; how much and how soon is purely industry-centric. A sector like FMCG will see V-shape growth; which will face some recession, but also immediate bounce back. Others will take U-shape, and take some time to get on track. Businesses in the travel and hospitality sector will witness L-shape growth, where recovery will be difficult and long-term. Hence, generalising the impact and recovery across sectors, won't be possible.

Sandeep Shukla
Sandeep Shukla

The digital medium will now play a crucial role, both from a consumer and brand perspective. Digital, which was always a side dish in the marketing communication plan, will now take a larger chunk of the budgets, depending on the industry. Talking about the bathroom and fittings industry, e-commerce was not an obvious choice due to the consumer's dubious understanding and knowledge. However, now the online penetration in this segment will start to build up. Also, retail outlets will become delivery points rather than the final stop for brand or product understanding. The conversations in the future will be on the digital level.

... generalising the impact and recovery across sectors, won't be possible.
Sandeep Shukla

We could see companies indulging in barter, due to the lack of liquidity. For example, a non-moving product being bartered in exchange for a vacant-inventory slot with a publication. Also, because of the current crisis, the sheen in owning products from abroad will reduce drastically. And if the government plays it right and with substantial supplies, I see a nationalistic movement coming in; people will see pride in buying 'made in India' products. Brands will also be sceptical in importing products (fully/partly) due to both, the safety measures and reputation amongst consumers or clients/dealers.

Deba Ghoshal, vice president - marketing & key accounts, Voltas

The fundamentals of marketing will remain the same. However, marketers will need to have a different approach towards the marketing mix of their respective businesses. Consumer insights will continue to play a dominant role, as the fundamental ingredient of any marketing strategy. And post-COVID, these insights have become more critical. The product or the service needs to be more relevant and contextual to today's ecosystem.

Deba Ghoshal
Deba Ghoshal

Every product or service should carry the subliminal benefit of trust, care and protection, and will need to be positioned not only on tangible/functional benefits but also on the emotional benefit. Channel and network will remain critical in the new scheme of things, but dynamics and weightage of online viz a viz offline will change.

The fundamentals of marketing will not change, but elements of the marketing mix will become more skewed towards the present expectations of the consumer.
Deba Ghoshal

Pricing will need to play an important role in the decision-making journey of the consumer. It’s not a discount, but the additional value a brand offers, which will play a vital role. And finally, we will see more topical advertising and not stories which have no relevance with the present, or the immediate future. To summarise, the fundamentals of marketing will not change, but elements of the marketing mix will become more skewed towards the present expectations of the consumer.