Abhinav Anand
Planner's Journal

"The hygiene narrative will impact the way consumers make choices, across categories - airlines, taxi apps, at-home services..."

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 Ajeeta Bharadwaj, national planning director of Wunderman Thompson, India has to say about brands, marketing, consumer habits, and the post-lockdown world.

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

I would say, let’s put our energies into moving from brand speak to brand do. Consumers are going to come out of this crisis with some very real concerns. There will be health anxieties, hygiene concerns, social distancing-related frustrations, new work routines to adjust to. To top it all, new financial realities. So, more than ever before, consumers will require brands to be on their side.

They will value the brands that understand their new needs and take concrete steps to provide for them. What those steps are, will change per context. For some, it could be about incorporating more stringent health standards, for others, it could be about creating easy finance schemes, or about creating innovative, out-of-the-box solutions. But one way or the other, this is a good time to invest in actions over just words.

"At the most basic level, the Indian consumer has become hyper hygiene-conscious and this is impacting not just immediately relevant categories like personal hygiene and home hygiene, but also far-removed categories. So it’s not just about hand wash and hand sanitiser sales shooting up, we are also seeing delivery platforms bringing in more stringent hygiene standards."

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?

Let me talk of two changes and one constant that, I feel, will keep Indian consumers on track.

At the most basic level, the Indian consumer has become hyper hygiene-conscious and this is impacting not just immediately relevant categories like personal and home hygiene, but also far-removed categories. So, it’s not just about hand wash/sanitiser sales shooting up. We are also seeing delivery platforms bringing in more stringent hygiene standards. We are seeing retail stores changing their structures and screening staff. Going ahead, relevant dimensions of the hygiene narrative will play a pivotal role in the way consumers make their choices in a wide variety of categories, from airlines to taxi apps to at-home services.

"Some categories start off with a natural advantage: staples and essentials for instance or OTC medicines, both of which are seeing offtakes. Similarly, some categories start off with a natural barrier because they classically fall under the dreaded discretionary expenses and have to work that much harder to retain their place in the consumer basket."

Second, the Indian consumer’s interaction with digital platforms has increased manifold, and in many diverse ways. Take e-commerce, for instance. The strictly offline ‘I have to touch and feel what I’m buying’ folks have had more digital interactions today than before. And while it is possible that they will revert to buying offline in some categories, the digital channel may not completely exit their life. Then there are the TV viewers, who are discovering OTT content. Or, just the sheer scale of engagement that we are seeing on social media. I think lockdown has played a huge role in the digitisation of mindsets and we will see this reflecting in marketing and media choices.

But through these changes, I think the Indian consumer will spring back a lot faster than she would have a couple of decades back because we have moved away from the ‘simple living’ culture and there will be no backsies on that. We have got used to a certain way of living, to certain products and experiences. So sure, some of these will take a hit in the short-term, but bit by bit and with the right value propositions, the Indian consumer will be back.

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

Some categories start off with a natural advantage. Staples and essentials, for instance, or OTC medicines, both of which are seeing offtakes. Similarly, some categories start off with a natural barrier because they classically fall under the dreaded discretionary expenses, and have to work that much harder to retain their place in the consumer basket.

At a broad level, I think that categories that cater to certain motifs, will find a natural appeal. For instance, categories that make you feel safe will find people listening to what they have to say. This could be financial safety, health-specific safety, or some third dimension of safety. There will be other such motifs… understanding these motifs with empathy and an open mind can go a long way.

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

Consumerism was never a good word to begin with. I don’t think consumers ever saw their spending as consumerism. They spent because they saw value in spending that money - whether it was utilitarian value, status gains, experiential gains, or simply because it was fun! Going ahead, though financial realities will change, these fundamental needs won’t go away.

What will change is that we will see a move from mindless consumption to mindful consumption, for want of a better word. The fundamental challenge before the marketer will be the same, which is to demonstrate the value of the brand. The only thing is that now, we will need to work harder than before, to do that.

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

I would definitely like to see more purpose-led communication. I think that as the fundamental context of categories changes, many brands will need a rethink on their existential logic and role in their consumers’ lives. In the absence of a unique purpose, particularly in the days to come, categories will becomes a discount market, each brand trying to out-shout the others with deals and discounts.

The addition of a relevant purpose gives anything that the brand says or does, a unique character… including value propositions, which may be the need of the hour.