Abid Hussain Barlaskar
Points of View

Sympathy, Support, Silence… What’s the best strategy for a brand today?

While India is navigating turbulent waters, what should brands do? The COVID-19 crisis is uncharted territory and no brand has planned for it.

The rules of engagement vary with the playing field. With the country sailing through a three-week-long national lockdown triggered by the spread of COVID-19, what stories do brands tell their consumers. The ones who are facing immense hardships, either due to lack of access to amenities or due to limited mobility? There’s a high chance that a piece of brand communication could be perceived as opportunistic. On the other hand, to steer clear of the crisis, agencies and marketers would be trying hard to forcibly marry the brand to a prevalent social message, a vehicle. While both the scenarios are hazardous for the brand, do they ‘cork’ all communication? How do marketers walk the tightrope? Here’s what experts had to say.

Rohit Ohri, group chairman and CEO, FCB Group

It’s not a good idea for a brand to not advertise at all. In times of crisis, like this, brands still need to stay connected to their consumers. Very often, they provide goods or a service, which the consumer really needs. I’ll give simple examples - brands like BookMyShow or Netflix or Amazon Prime are using their network to help. Say, BookMyShow, which is known for out-of-home (OOH) entertainment, is doing live events on the platform, a form of in-house entertainment, free for users. This, in a way, would help people to tide through this time and that’s how you actually build loyalty and gratitude with your customers. BookMyShow, being an outdoor brand, could’ve just faded away for the time. Again, say Domino’s, the food delivery brand, is offering its fleet of delivery personnel to also deliver essentials, like medicines. These are the ways brands are using their strengths to help consumers, who, at this point, are feeling very helpless.

Rohit Ohri
Rohit Ohri

People need support, and brands should find ways to be that support system. At this point, if a brand gets it right, it can create customers for life, and that is significant. A brand can only help with what it does best. We are all in a tunnel, and we can’t wait for the light at the end of it. Brands can’t just keep quiet and wait till we emerge. The idea is to light up the tunnel for the consumers.

Chandrahas Panigrahi, CMO and consumer business head, Acer India

Chandrahas Panigrahi
Chandrahas Panigrahi

This is a time for all of us to stand together and fight the pandemic. The COVID-19 outbreak is having a substantial influence on consumer behaviour. And, as a result, these are times when advertisers need to find prospects that will help them build personalised and lasting relationships with their audiences from a safe distance. Brands must look for innovative, cost-effective and sensitive ways to communicate during this difficult time. Also, unprecedented times call for adjustments to online advertising. At Acer, we do not believe in trying to milk the situation.

Lucky Saini, VP digital and marketing Solutions, Dentsu India Slingshot

Brands need to stop thinking consumers, and start thinking people. The behaviour change is humongous, and is something no one has experienced before. We need a clear understanding of the codes that apply today. The personality, tonality, the way they behaved, marketing, social media codes, engagement, offers - all the good times techniques have to be forgotten. The new codes would be empathy, understanding, cooperation, empowering, informing and helping. People are looking for help and support.

Lucky Saini
Lucky Saini

First of all, brands need to stop looking for ways to sell a product, unless it’s an essential commodity. Anything which is not essential and doesn’t add value in today’s time, that advertising and marketing needs to stop. Media spends, which have already been outlined along with plans for sales and new launches, need to be paused. Brands need to be able to use all touchpoints, right from logos to warehouses and manpower, to make a point and be helpful. This is also a time to be cooperative, many brands can come together and launch joint initiatives.

A lot of brands have put a pause on their media spends and gone dark. It is something that I won’t advise, since these are the times when one needs to step up. Going dark is like saying, ‘I don’t want to be a part of this.’ But if you really don’t know what to do and what to say, it’s better to stay mum. But they need to figure out how to play an active participatory role. The brands that do it right will be remembered for long. Previously, brands used to complain about short attention spans since the consumers were busy. Now, people are looking for brands, the right content, information, and so on.

Sanjana Desai, executive director, Desai Foods (Mother’s Recipe)

In the present crucial situation, it is our responsibility, as a brand, to strike a balance in promotional advertising. And, Mother's Recipe has always been at the forefront in raising awareness and addressing social issues. Currently, brands in India should concentrate on spreading awareness and promoting precautionary tips related to COVID-19. We've already initiated a series of awareness campaigns across social media to educate the public about how to keep themselves safe from Coronavirus.

Sanjana Desai
Sanjana Desai

Another major concern is around the demand and supply of basic essential commodities, such as food. And, we are trying our best to ensure that sufficient food supplies are provided in the country so that there's no shortage of our products on the shelf. We are facing a lot of issues in supply chain, as well as factory operations, but we will continue to try our best.

Sumit Sehgal, CMO and business head – e-commerce and new channels, Sheela Foam Limited (Sleepwell)

A ‘brand being’ has a personality, feelings and its own identity, how can it not speak up during these tough times. Just like every person, who is concerned about the current situation is speaking up, a brand is no different. It becomes the responsibility of a brand to stand up with its consumers and the nation.

Sumit Sehgal
Sumit Sehgal

The last thing a brand can do in this situation is to be opportunistic. Those who do, are not brands, but commodities, and have not defined their brand for the long term. A strong brand should carefully listen to conversations and only then participate in them, be transparent and stay sensitive to make itself more relevant in this context. It should quickly change its communication to educate and support its consumers, as well as find ways it can offer any physical or emotional help.

Brands have the opportunity to come out weaker, or stronger, basis the affinity they are able to strike with the consumers during this time.

Peeyush Bachlaus, AVP – Marketing, Kansai Nerolac Paints

Peeyush Bachlaus
Peeyush Bachlaus

A brand's role as an amplifier of important messaging is significant. The idea is to accurately understand your stakeholder's requirements and needs, subject to any situation. Whether it is a regular day, or challenging times like these, one needs to be careful in communication. In our case, painters and dealers form an integral part of our stakeholder community and it is imperative for us to stay connected with them and understand their issues in such a situation. On the other hand, while addressing our consumers, we ensure that social messages are integrated in communication. As long as a brand stays true to its motives and understands the insights with which it is working, it can work