Innovative marketing in times of Covid-19

What should brands 'do' or 'not do'? These are defining moments that will determine the future of brands

Published: Apr 8, 2020 03:58:50 PM IST
Updated: Apr 8, 2020 05:52:01 PM IST

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“Necessity is the mother of invention”. Some of the finest innovations happened during crisis situations. Be it zippers getting mass produced during World War 1 to improve military uniform efficiency or Vitale Bramini inventing vulcanized rubber soles after six climbers were killed in the Italian Alps in 1935; tough times are always an opportunity (or may be necessity) for new ideas.

The pandemic of Covid-19 has led to tough times for brands. Plunging consumer confidence, loss of jobs, restricted mobility and falling GDP has led to recession like situation and falling consumerism. Well, definitely a scenario from action packed science fiction novel which probably is a lifetime event! Marketers are worried, brands are in dilemma and new launches have come to a halt!  But innovation happens when we look for bright spots in these dark days.

What should brands ‘do’ or ‘not do’ is hence important. These are defining moments which will determine the future of brands. Some tips which can come handy during this time:

1. Innovate & Adapt
Look for new opportunities of brand innovations. Expand your portfolio, address consumer’s pain-points and fulfil their unaddressed needs. Tough times force us to leave our comfort zones in search for new pastures. Dettol and Lifebuoy launched hand sanitizers during 2009 swine flu scare and Dettol launched disinfectant spray in 2019 during Covid spread. Dabur and Chik have introduced their range of hand sanitizers. Dominos has launched ‘touch free’ delivery choice promising safe pizza delivery to consumer homes. It’s your choice- whether you wanted to see collateral damage from Covid 19 or an opportunity for something better! Well! aren’t families spending more time together? Are people not living healthy with less traffic and pollution and eating healthy home food amidst the Covid lockdown? These are the times for planning relevant brand extensions and extending product category portfolios.

2. Build Brand Equity
These are sensitive times and brands can make or break destiny in these moments. Some brands could be desperate and resort to discounting and sales promotion to boost sales. However, consumers are locked inside and too unsure of tomorrow to fall for these promotions. They will stock necessities irrespective of price increase/ decrease to secure themselves. Infact using ‘virus’ as an anchor and moment marketing can lead to negative brand sentiments. People do not want to be reminded of things they are scared of or avoid. The marketing investments should hence be aimed at long-term brand building wherein brands understand the consumers and be their friend. Budgets are slashed and so brands have to use this money more effectively. Living brand values and caring for community will give brands an edge over competition. Lifebuoy is distributing free handwashes and sanitizers to consumers with limited resources. Asian Paint has beautifully integrated the message of #stayhome into their advertisement to enhance brand equity and how this is an opportunity to spend more time inside and with your loved ones. These are certain investments which could be ‘moment marketing’ but definitely go a long way in building strong brands.

3. Be Sensitive
Content marketing around Covid and the virus scare can cost heavy unless genuine. Sensitive moments can hurt sentiments easily and turn the brand perceptions to negative. Infact, marketers have to relook at their current campaigns and see if the tone and content is still appropriate. Consumers won’t look at the world the same way as they did a few weeks back.  It’s important that brands understand the fear and the concerns of the consumers and take a stand which can help build enduring relationships. Brands are like humans and these are the moments to build an emotional connect with consumers, an alliance where both can complement and support each other.

4. Care (for employees and customers)
Everyone is distressed. It is a tough time for many sectors including airlines, hotels etc. Companies have a choice to either lay off people or ask them to proceed on unpaid leave (read Virgin airlines) or retain their people, care for them and support them. Internal branding is not only on papers and through some campaigns or promotions. It is practiced through actions and behaviors of management, especially during crisis moments. People won’t remember companies and brands for campaigns they created but for those silent steps they took to prove that they ‘genuinely’ care. Influencers are critical at these times and they emerge from your employee or customer pool. Let influencers talk about your initiatives and work. Don’t be skeptical of this silence, rather find solace in it as it would help brands build credibility and trust in long term.

5. Have an Eagle Vision
Brand need to look at long-term gains. This is an opportunity for brands like Netflix and Hotstar to connect with people and expand their reach and clientele. Consumers are locked inside homes with limited entertainment options. Stress due to uncertainty and loneliness make people vulnerable and these brands can find a place in consumer’s life by offering free or subsidized entertainment options.  Online communication platforms like Skype, Blue Jeans, Google hangouts and Zoom among others are seeing an upsurge in demand. They can benefit from not looking at this scenario from classical microeconomic perspective but take a more humane approach by providing their services at less rather than more. Byju’s and Google classroom can ensure that learning doesn’t stop. E-commerce platforms can be innovative to help people stock necessities without the need to hoard yet maintain the social distance. Zoom which has suddenly seen the ‘hay days’ for business removed 40-minute restriction in its free plan. This is just a small step to ensure that people are hooked onto you and remain loyal to you even after times change. We all need to change the perspective and look at world with a different lens and we shall for sure see some green pastures.

Marketers always find it tough to change habits. But these crisis situations are the stimulus that nudge consumers to change the ‘routines’ and the habits. Now the onus is on brands as to how they can find a place in these new routines.

Well.. 2020 seems to be uncertain but one thing is sure that this too shall pass and when consumers are back on the streets, cafes and the malls, they would have left behind memories of dark days but would remember the brands that did not use these times to generate more cash but as an opportunity to find a place in consumer’s heart.  Great brands create strong brand equity if they handle these moments well. They stand out from others by living their core values, eschewing short term gains in favour of caring for their employees and customers. They know how to use the brand building media effectively to generate share of voice to emerge not just alive but a winner in such situations.

Dr. Ashita Aggarwal is a Professor of Marketing at S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research.

Click here to see Forbes India's comprehensive coverage on the Covid-19 situation and its impact on life, business and the economy​

[This article has been reproduced with permission from SP Jain Institute of Management & Research, Mumbai. Views expressed by authors are personal.]

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