VUCA was never as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous as it is during the pandemic. As marketers across sectors–travel, tourism, transportation, education, entertainment, and non-essentials–brace themselves for what seems like the second tsunami of infections and fatalities, anxiety and paralysis are peaking once again.
How is a marketer supposed to deal with volatility in this new context? For one, a marketer can create a vision that can help the brand and its customers brave the violent and uncontrollable situation thrown up by the second wave of the pandemic. In the current scenario, the brand vision must be built around universal values such as citizen safety, mutual respect, and concern for others. This brand vision must be communicated through brand experience interfaces to persuade and convince customers of the need to be responsible at all touchpoints. Brands have to aggressively educate customers about their role in doing everything possible to keep the predator virus at bay. For example, the theme of safety and dependability can be brought alive co-creatively by the brand and its customers through hard-hitting advertising, incentive schemes that promote mask-wearing, and storytelling about how some have saved the lives of others because of their dependable behaviour. Brands need to have a vision that inspires in such alarming times.
What is a marketer to do with uncertainty? As the pandemic rears its head more menacingly a second time, marketers are facing another spell of a future with no name. The uncertainty is unlikely to be short term. How should a marketer prepare for a mid to long term uncertainty period? The answer may lie in going back to the fundamentals–reliability, assurance, tangibles, empathy and responsiveness. These elements of a high-quality brand will protect both the firm and its customers. Being reliable means delivering on the brand’s promise consistently. In uncertain times, there is nothing more peaceful than a brand one can rely on. Creating assurance involves inspiring trust and confidence by being there as a brand that is cognizant of the worries and anxieties of customers during the new pandemic phase. Tangibles consisting of all physical products, retail outlets, delivery people, fulfilment vehicles, and marketing collaterals have to be designed for a safe customer experience. Empathy translates into providing customers with individualised and caring attention, which doesn’t have to be expensive. And responsiveness requires a brand to go the extra mile for the customer and be truly ready to help. If done well, these fundamentals will be the bulwark against the calamity that marketers are faced with in the mid and long term.
Complexities created by the pandemic are of course the most alarming. Supply chain disruptions on top of earlier breakdowns, differential access and barriers to local and regional markets as lockdowns come back haphazardly, business and health ecosystems stretched beyond capacity, the electoral cacophony of a massive democracy, vaccination regimes that are yet to meet full coverage or success, super spreader situations that have repercussions across multiple networks, and consumer sentiments bordering on despair. Brands may experience operational shakedowns, financial meltdowns, and marketing breakdowns. Or not. Handling complexities brought on by the new wave will require a calm frame of corporate confidence. Employees must be co-opted into the complex details of living the brand promise in the new world. Customers need to be co-opted into how value can be generated collaboratively. Other value chain partners–advertising agencies, banking institutions, insurance firms, third-party logistics firms, suppliers of raw materials, components and manpower–need to be co-opted into the realisation that these complexities cannot be fought and won except by collaboration and a shared vision. Tough but not unachievable. It is a matter of survival.
Finally, marketers are faced with the challenge of ambiguity and they must appreciate that ambiguity comes from the difficulty in identifying the root cause of a problem. The pandemic has flummoxed the medical fraternity for nearly a year now. And just as they were getting a handle on the situation by developing vaccines, the virus threw a few mutants at humankind. The source remains an enigma, the solutions remain a mystery and the behaviour of humans leave a lot to be desired. Hence, the ambiguity problem will be a long term one which will result in undesired outcomes. Brands will have to remain adaptable themselves and encourage their customers to do the same. New skills, habits, and mindsets will have to be developed. Industry bodies will have to work together concertedly to bring about the desired shift because even today the gravity of the situation is not very well appreciated. Brands need to employ fear tactics if need be to get their followers and users to align to the imperative of national survival.
In conclusion, the time for pussyfooting around the situation is over. Company and brand leaders have to show the way, call out dangerous behaviour irrespective of the perpetrator, constantly encourage and persuade citizens to embrace the requirements of the new world and augment (or fill the void) of governmental interventions. It will be about a lot more than mere digitalisation and cryptocurrency, data crunching and machine learning, though they could be useful in this war. It is about going back to the basics; and strategising, mobilising and implementing measures to save lives, create the right business sentiment and staying true to generating customer value.
Dr. Jones Mathew, Professor, Great Lakes Institute of Management, Gurgaon.