One mans poison

Written by Kisore Chakraborti | Updated: May 19 2009, 06:34am hrs
While the world keeps its fingers crossed and World Health Organisation declares the swine flu or H1N1 virus attack as pandemic, a piece of news attracted attention:

Win swine flu game by infecting others: You have only one sneeze. Use it wisely. Stop Swine Flu is actually a new name for a game released this year as Sneeze. Sneeze was created with the best of intentions: To subversively teach kids healthy habits. It was commissioned by the Welcome Trust, the worlds second largest charity.

Is this a new marketing trenda la reality TVmerging the deadly issues of the real world with the games of the digital world

It is not that we havent experienced a pandemic before. The SARS and bird flu are recent happenings. The deadliest one, the Mexican flu, is of course a hundred year-old catastrophe. The pandemic of 1918 killed more than half a million and infected a billion, half the world population at that point of time. The staggering number of infected people was more than the combined number of casualties brought about by two World Wars.

And this happened when global connectivity was at its primitive best. Today with huge aircrafts carrying loads of people, the virus has free passage to countries across the globe. The virus mutates from country to country and with the indiscriminate use of antibiotics it becomes more deadly. As per experts, what looks like an innocuous infection among stray population in some far-flung country can, in no time, build up a critical mass to create a tsunami-like effect. Suddenly it is everywhere and with equal intensity and depth. Todays swine flualready an evolved virusmay be just a precursor to some future disease that combines all of these potentially deadly components.

Does it sound sufficiently alarming to wake us marketers up Most probably not. We in fact refuse to take cognizance of anything that does not directly affect us business-wise or financially. We are more worried about the global economic meltdown. Look at the sheer number of articles we have written and read, number of seminars being organised every week where experts, marketers, brand managers are advising us to change our strategy and our tactics. And rightly so because it is threatening to wipe out the bank balance of many consumers and slowing down economies.

Death is not a dampener for us. People die everyday in fights, accidents, wars and disasters. As businessmen we have time and again found opportunity to make money despite death and disaster.

And we continue to sell our video games.

If disappearance of money is a reason for panic, now is probably the time for all of us to realise that a severe flu can jeopardise the entire economy. Imagine flights being cancelled and airports shut down for days. Shops and markets are on indefinite lockout because people are afraid of getting the infection. Mexico has seen such days. If the markets disappear what are we going to do with brands World Bank economists had estimated last year that a pandemic with the death rate similar to that in the Spanish flu that swept the world in 1918-19 could shrink the global GDP (gross domestic product) by 4.8%. A severe pandemic would be like post-war recession.

Do the champions of branding and marketing have a role to play here Can we put the problem squarely at the doors of the government and go on with our business How many companies are selling germicidal in the form of toiletries and personal care products How many gadgets are reassuring us that we are living under a world filtered and protected and bettered by them How many food additives are tom-toming that they are working from inside our body to give us strength to face the hostile world of germs and viruses When real-time threat is conspiring to wipe out a big chunk of the global population can we really hide behind government initiative and action

This is not a war that is fought at the borders. It is worse and more deceptive than a terror attack. It comes under the garb of seasonal flu and catches us totally unaware. The chances of spreading and contamination are far easier than say AIDS/tuberculosis or malaria. The fight has to start at an individual and community level. Here comes the role of the brands. Brands are in a more vantage position to talk to people than the government notifications and advisories. They talk at a more personal level, they talk nonstop, they are ubiquitous, they are friendly and sometimes frivolous, yet they manage to gain our trust. We are somehow programmed to listen to them. They change our opinion; tell us what is cool and hot, what is in and what is out and make sense to us. Most of the time they appeal to our common senses and work.

In the end, the best protection may still be common sensebasic hygiene like washing your hands or covering your mouth while sneezing. In some ways brands have been advocating this for ages for our personal care. A brand like Dettol has made a property out of it. The Lifebuoy commercials have started playing in the same direction.

So wake up, brands! This is your opportunity to talk to school children. Let your brands talk hygiene, issue advisory, explain safety practices. Corporate social responsibility will no longer be just another way to improve brand value. Even consumer promotions will likely toe the line of public safety. Wash your hands and get a discount. (Just like cast your vote and get a 15% discount at Haldirams!) You gotta make hay while the flu rages!

The author is vice-president, consumer insight and HFD, McCann Erickson India