This is the time for marketers to do their bit as citizens of a country in need
What’s going on around us is not celebratory by any measure. However, that doesn’t mean we have to be suspicious of everything else that remotely alludes to a normal life. Imagine all visual stimuli around us to be related to Covid, and I am sure we will see a further spike in mental health issues, domestic violence, and so on. We are in a pressure cooker situation, and there is a role for things that act as release, as much as for things that build support at the time of this crisis.
I think there is merit in the consumer economy to carry on. Of course, everything will be compromised and calibrated by the fact that people are not going out in hordes (hopefully) and offline retail has been limited. Yet, people need food, clothes, kitchenware, entertainment, music, skincare, payment services and so on, to carry on with life. Besides, the consumer economy also supports a sizable number of jobs and livelihoods. Hence, even if the category you operate in comes under non-essentials, but you are able to fulfil customer needs, it is fine to continue with your marketing. That’s not being tone-deaf.
Being citizens first
Consumers are smart enough to compartmentalise consumption and crisis. It’s not important for everyone to re-shoot their TV ads with people wearing masks. The needs on the ground are so stark that showing people wearing masks in your ads won’t help at all; it will merely be tokenism. Unless, of course, your advertising promotes mass-revelry and super-spreader events — unlikely that you would have shot such a film in the past 12 months. For all practical purposes, your marketing campaign built around your product advantages and your brand platform is as good as it was last month.
What we do need from brands, however, is for them to play their role as responsible citizens. We must be able to have a socio-capitalist view of brands. In today’s times, a brand is what a brand does. As marketers, we obsess too much about what our brands say — our advertising campaign, social media strategy, etc. While all of these are very important, what’s more important is that we back our concern with real, on-ground action. You could have a high-decibel, entertaining advertising campaign running, and that’s alright, but you should also be able to help with the current crisis on the ground.
Walking the talk
Brands must come out and help with whatever they can — oxygen, medicines, food, quarantine, and so on. We have seen brands participate in Navratri and Durga Pujo by sponsoring local-level celebrations; it’s time for brands to divert their sponsorship to local-level Covid support. For example, companies like the Tatas, Amazon, Zomato and Cred have risen to the occasion, and are doing their bit to help with the crisis. If you are a significant player in this country, and you aren’t playing a real role in helping the situation on the ground, that’s being tone-deaf.
Now, if you are in a category where you see no uptake at this point in time, say leisure travel, you don’t have to be present in the media. The time to run ads asking people to wear masks, use sanitisers or get vaccinated has gone. Brands should not be under pressure to have a share-of-voice for the sake of it. If you are not in demand right now, conserve your resources; you will need all of that once this is behind us, because there will be revenge-demand for everything that we currently are not able to do.
Essentially, this is the time for real action. What will count for brands are their acts. Tweaking of their advertising can do nothing to make them appear sensitive or insensitive to the current situation. Because the real solution to the situation doesn’t lie in advertising, it lies in the availability of critical resources on ground. It’s okay for brands to continue their marketing as usual, as long as they are playing their role as a citizen of a country in need.
The author is CEO & chief strategy officer – South Asia, Leo Burnett.