Abhinav Anand
Planner's Journal

"Don't go silent, don't indulge in tokenism": Ankit Singh, Leo Burnett

In a new series 'Planner's Journal', we explore what the world looks like from the perspective of those in charge of mining consumer insights every day.

Here's what Ankit Singh, senior vice president - strategy, Leo Burnett, has to say:

"When the word ‘unprecedented’ is thrown around unprecedented number of times, the expectation is that we will wake up one fine day and find ourselves in a new world. No doubt the pandemic will bring some big behavioural changes. But the basic human needs and desires, shaped up over millions of years of evolution, don’t change overnight. Fulfilling the existing human needs and desires in the context of the emerging behaviour would define the effective marketing practices in the post-Corona world," says Singh.

If theres one piece of advice you could give all brand marketers now, what would that be?

The way the pandemic has turned the markets upside down, marketers would need much more than one advice to tide over (the crisis). I have three inter-related strategic principles.

First, don’t go silent. A brand invests years to forge a close relationship with the consumer – a relationship of being a friend, mentor, caregiver, partner, saviour, etc. Difficult times are the true test of any relationship. This is the time when a brand needs to stand up for its consumers, comfort them and do everything possible to help them navigate the tough times. The longer a brand is out of sight during challenging times, the longer it will take to rebound.

Second, do not indulge in tokenism. People know that they need to stay indoors. Your brand being the hundredth brand telling them ‘stay home, stay safe’ won’t help them in any manner. When you act, act with compassion and add genuine value to people’s lives.

Finally, act swiftly. When you identify a relevant brand opportunity, don’t wait. Speed is everything. The reality is changing every day. What’s true today won’t be relevant tomorrow. Don’t waste time to find all the answers. No one has perfect answers. Just ask simple questions: Am I adding real value to people’s lives? Do I have the equity and credentials to deliver that value? If you have answers to these questions, act.

What are the top 3 ways in which the Indian consumer has changed? And, how will these changes affect the way brand managers will sell to them (the consumers) in the days ahead?

A lot has been discussed on the emerging need for hygiene, digital solutions and conscious spending. While these changes will drive business transformations for many brands, there are two big socio-cultural changes that will define consumer preferences.

Decline in trust: The pandemic has put a big question mark on social trust. We are in times when one can’t trust fellow people to not infect her, can’t trust governments to contain the pandemic-induced damages, and can’t trust the global economy to support one’s aspirations. Today, trust is the most sought-after, yet scarce, value. To get any future share of consumers’ wallet, a brand will need to exude unquestionable authenticity, transparency and sincerity.

Unpredictability: No one knows what the future holds. Thus, everyone is preparing themselves for the worst-case scenario, which won’t come true for the larger set of population. People will buy in to the brands that will provide cushion against the unpredictability. Brand managers need to get into scenario planning and risk-benefit analysis for their brand – not from company’s point of view, but from the consumer point of view. This is the time to introduce bold product innovations, offers and schemes to mitigate the consumer risk. For example, all big ticket purchases, like cars, real estate and luxury fashion, could consider rolling out buyback plans to safeguard consumers.

Which product segments will have the toughest road to recovery? And, which categories will bounce back faster than others?

It’s a no brainer that travel and tourism, restaurants, live sports and entertainment events will have the toughest road to recovery. The sectors that may see faster recovery are FMCG, insurance, automobiles and electronics goods.

But it’s myopic to look at the recovery from the category lens, we need to look at the recovery from the brand lens. Every sector will have some brands that will emerge stronger, while others will find it difficult to bounce back. What will separate the winners from the losers, is an eye to sense changing reality and swiftly adapting to it.

"It’s a no brainer that travel and tourism, restaurants, live sports and entertainment events will have the toughest road to recovery. The sectors that may see faster recovery are FMCG, insurance, automobiles and electronics goods."

Are we headed towards a world in which consumerism will become a bad word? What will happen to marketing in such a world?

In common parlance, consumerism is always used as a pejorative term, but that never deterred people from consuming products. Social scientists, egalitarian progressives and environmentalists have always been vocal that we are buying too many things. But you ask an end consumer and she will have a justification for her every purchase.

Consumerism is highly ingrained in our culture. Till we have capital, consumerism is not going away. Consumerism is like energy, it can’t be destroyed, it will only change its form. Today, consumerism manifests itself in the form of hoarding toilet papers under the garb of lockdown, tomorrow it would be for buying personal vehicles under the pretext of social distancing and day after, it will emerge as a desire to buy a bigger house with personal office space in the name of the work from home culture.

Marketing is all about timely sensing and smartly answering these emerging needs.

Do you see purpose-led brand communication increase, or decrease, in the days ahead?

During times of crisis, brand purpose can guide marketers to act compassionately, and not sound opportunistic or detached from the reality. Defining a larger than life brand purpose is easy. But what’s more important, and also difficult, is to action that purpose. Consumers would be more cautious while spending in the coming times. Thus, any purpose that remains only at the level of communication would fall flat. So, good that you have a purpose for your brand, but the big question is what are you doing about it?