Sanjeev Kotnala on how consumers expects action, not intent from brands

Updated: April 5, 2020 4:18:04 PM

With the coronavirus pandemic, brands who commercially exploit or milk the pandemic might just end up losing customer confidence

Brands are walking on thin ice as they stretch tactical activation disguised as brand purposeBrands are walking on thin ice as they stretch tactical activation disguised as brand purpose

The values and ethics of a person get tested during the crisis. Similarly, the degree of brand strength and alignment with the purpose gets tested in the period of crisis. One such period is now. The time of lockdown. The fight against Coronavirus.

Recently, we have seen brands walking on thin ice stretching tactical activation disguised as Brand purpose. They forget Coronavirus and the resultant Covid-19 is a pandemic and not a probortunity for marketing efforts. However, this period can be used to forge a better relationship with the consumer. Today in the world of hyperactive social media, everyone scrutinises, comments and involuntarily amplifies brand actions.

This is not the time for brands to play with tactical oriented, empathy loaded communication. The brands must act. This is the time when BBDO philosophy of ”ACT, not ADS” seems to be the best approach brands can follow. Ads and communication will come and go, but the actions of the brand will be remembered. Moreover, if the brand can reach deep inside and touch the consumer life, it will be an indelible moment.

In reality, no organisation is going to remain untouched by the Coronavirus. No human life will remain untouched too. In turn, no brand and its impression will remain untouched by the Coronavirus. No one was prepared for such an emergency. No one still knows what the solution is or when it will get resolved. That we are playing it by ear, one day at a time is absolutely acceptable. The consumer too understands and doesn’t expect brands to solve this or every problem in their lives. However, they will hate brands during coronavirus cheating and commercially exploiting them.

Re-establishing Brand Purpose

Getting back to the brand and its purpose. Brand purpose is not a slogan or a catchphrase or the tag-line that many confuse it with. It is not even the social activism and social responsibility the brand could engage in. Brand purpose is the soul of the brand. The purpose for which it exists. The brand actions get defined by the brand purpose, not the other way round.

Brand Possibilities

In coronavirus probortunity space, a brand can take one of the following.

  1. Brands can amplify existing brand purpose if the situation supports it. This should be alright if the purpose is relevant to the situation. The brand always has the option of Status-co. Remaining loyal to the current brand image. Not doing much other than providing the right information and empathising with the situation consumers are in.
  2. The brand can tweak or re-align the brand purpose to the current situation for a tactical commercial gain. The brand must take such open-eyed decisions very cautiously as they can backfire at a later date.
  3. The brand can now discover its purpose. Discovery is okay, but the brand should get into this territory, only if the current brand image is in alignment with the newly discovered purpose. Maybe the brand image allows for the brand to amplify the new purpose, and the audience does not find it jarring. But, before taking it on, the brand should check if the newfound purpose is going to remain valid for a more extended period.
  4. The brand can go silent. This will be acceptable, but it is a mistake. When the situation improves in whatever time frame, the brand that was engaging the employees and the customers will take off faster on the rebuilding curve. Brands at all times must keep an open line of communication with employees and customers.
  5. Brands can take the stage by offering donations or products and services individually or pairing up with other organisations, and in-process provide some tactical solution.

If the brand is listening to the ground realities and truly empathise with the consumers, the reaction will be self-guided. The brand actions will be relevant and have the desired impact. This is not the time to sell but to contribute and re-establish the brand purpose stated or otherwise.

Consumer Aperture For Messaging

On the other side, media consumption is showing spikes for TV and Mobile. Even then, it is only working for the brands that can engage the audience and can connect with empathy. The aperture of the communication camera in the consumer mind is currently open for information and act around Coronavirus. But, it is closed for the rest of the things. So, only the media spends in-sync or out-of-sync with the coronavirus issue gets a reaction.

The UK discount retailer Sports Direct had to change their stance after getting criticised in social media. They kept their shops open when the Government was asking all non-essential shops to close. They justified their decision by presenting their case as essential service. The consumer read it differently, and they had to back down.

Subtle Brand Efforts

Some brands are using this opportunity by becoming a carrier of critical information. This is the silent, subtle brand engagement, far better than remaining silent or crafting a tactical brand purpose or proposition. Nike telling people ”If you ever dreamed of playing for millions around the world, now is your chance, play inside, play for the world” is a good example. Ikea telling people to stay home and be safe. Dinshaws, the dominant regional Milk and dairy products brand, is differentiating between myths around Coronavirus hygiene. Some brands are providing safety, and hygiene information and some are giving you training on 20-second hand wash.

Brand Acts

Some brands are finally acting instead of merely speaking. Dior and Givenchy in perfumes and Diago in alcohol are using their resources to make sanitizers. Gap is making masks and Nike operation gowns. Maruti making ventilators. IITs working on creating multi channel ventilators. JetBlue allows replanning of travel. Indigo not charging for rescheduling. Rebook customising workouts based on equipment at home. Zoom is offering schools its video conferencing tools for free, with no time limits for video chats. Spicejet making aircraft available to the Government for any emergency. Indian railways converting coaches into hospitals and Pantry cars into kitchens. The soap brand is talking about cleaning hands with any soap as the first line of defence. These are some excellent examples of brand acts. Most of these acts will be remembered by the consumer.

Many unknown NGO’s have come forward to provide meals for migrants and other people in town. Group of people are delivering daily needs and groceries for elderly people. They are touching lives in a much stronger way and hence will be remembered most.

Tactical Acts

On the other side, McDonald’s arches were separated, and the letters on Dainik Bhaskar masthead gained space between them. All to communicate the need for social distancing. However, many brands tried doing the same thing leading to chaos and confusion. Was it the brands or hyper-creative people in social media who were creating these messages. Volkswagen, Coca-Cola, Audi and Olympics all had social distancing as the theme on their logos. However, if these remain one-off interventions, it will seem like an act dedicated to creating a buzz. The consumer will read the signals right, and the brands may, in fact, lose equity in the process. To reap the benefits, the brand needs to be active consistently and frequently engaging the consumer in the right way. Looking for opportunities to commercially exploit will be the worst mistake a brand can make.

Are Some Brands Missing Opportunities

Whirlpool ‘share the load” is one example of brand communication that is just right for the situation. However, I am not seeing much of them in various media. Gillette and Beared could have gained by working out self-trimming-cutting-grooming communication beyond facial hair.

Organisation And Individual Brand As Donor

The brand purpose may be stated to make sense. However, it is best when the consumer filters your brand purpose through the brand actions rather than voicing it in a way you express it. This is true for an individual as much as it is true for an organisation.

Look at a donation to the PM relief fund to fight Coronavirus. Aziz Premjee giving 50,000 crore, Tata confirming 1500 cr and Akshay Kumar giving 25 crore set benchmarks. They were already known for such acts. In fact, Twinkle Khanna tweet where she shared Akshay Kumar’s reaction added to Akshay image. It put pressure on other corporates, Bollywood and cricket celebrities. Moreover, when the Kinner’s head donated 1 crore, the 50-70 lakhs of celebrities became questionable.

Unilever announced a contribution of €100 million in the fight against COVID-19. It was in the form of soap, sanitiser, and food. Their official statement was “Our strong cash flow and balance sheet mean that we can, and should, give this additional support”. Now related to Akshay Kumar saying, I came to this town ( Mumbai ) with very little, and now I must give back. They sound similar, and both the brands stand to gain.

Brands that work with empathy and remain in touch with their customers, be transparent in their communication and engagement will gain at the end of the day. Brands who take the silent approach, fail in their responsibility may lose customer confidence.

Not everything is fine, Not everyone is moved by the situation, and that is absolutely understandable. There is still the fight of jurisdiction and SOPs. There is confusion about what is allowed and what can not be done. However, these are the usual business constraints and brands wanting to play a more significant role must find ways and means to do so.

Remember at the end, a small little invisible virus has made the world rethink. It is impacting social behaviour and expectations. It has checked on the emergency preparedness of every country. The impact of Coronavirus is going to be long-lasting and is laying down the guidelines for ”Life after Corona”, the new normal. Maybe it is time that the teams should be strategically more worried about the new normal and evaluate what the brand purpose will be in the new scenario.

The author is brand and marketing consultant.

Read Also: Nestle launches new campaign promising to bring Maggi back in market

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