By Tony Agenmonmen
COVID-19 is undoubtedly the biggest happening of our lifetime. Its impact has been so profound that the whole world is virtually on self-isolation. It is a completely new experience for all of us. Even for well-known medical experts, this is an unchartered terrain. Nothing is sure, nothing is certain. Right now, we all live by the day, hoping and praying that tomorrow may be better. This is the definition of crisis. But marketing cannot afford to be in a panic mode, it should continue to think long-term and to build its brands. Even this shall pass.
At time of major economic turbulence, not even anything close to what we are experiencing today, marketing usually takes the first hit – the marketing team is immediately expected to cut its marketing budget by a humongous percentage and in many cases, marketing activities are suspended altogether. The current COVID-19 presents a completely different challenge. This is the era of self- isolation and quarantine. Most of the world is on lockdown down, the shops are closed, and consumers cannot even come out or be reached except perhaps you are in the food or communication business or any of the other designated essential services. The temptation for marketing is high to also join the lockdown and be in self-isolation or complete quarantine is therefore very high and actually not unreasonable. But this needs not be so. But it can indeed be a tough call.
The current pandemic is real and recession in Nigeria and many other parts of the world is seen as inevitable, all things considered. Some marketing people will raise their arms up in surrender. There will be more than enough to blame for brand performance decline. Even if the pandemic ends tomorrow, it will not be the silver bullet for brands to suddenly start growing again. Things will for a while, remain tough. But the silver bullet is that every challenge, the type we have now always offers an opportunity that can be turned around to an advantage. Nigeria today, offers such a great opportunity to turn the stressful times into a gold discovery to marketing people and brands that refuse to take the easy route and go into self-isolation, just waiting and hoping for the ill wind to blow away.
“That’s what friends are for, for good times and bad times”. That is a line from Dionne Warwick’s famous song. Most certainly, that is how it has to be between brands and their consumers today. In the end, marketers’ major objective at this trying period should be to engage with consumers in such a way that their brands end up coming out stronger from this crisis than it went in. This is no easy task, but a doable one. It has to be a winning philosophy of every marketing organisation. It is not really a paradox to propose that crisis of the proportion that we have is a fertile opportunity to great marketing professionals to energise and grow their brands, if their focus is not just now, but the long term.
Hyundai showed the world how to benefit from such crisis in 2009. Marketers today can learn a lot from their experience. The story of this company in the United States during the last recession in 2009 comes vivid. As we all know fairly well, one purchase that many people put off during recession and difficult time like we are in right now, is that of a new car. According to Advertising Age, during the last recession in the US, “escapism was the order of the day and most advertisers played right along, with brands like coke and Pepsi offering saccharine happy-happy-joy-joy visions that jarred with the bleak reality.”
But Hyundai was different. They did it differently. They came out with a promotional programme called the “Hyundai Assurance” and with it, a simple advertising promise: “Now finance or lease any new Hyundai, and if you ever lose your income in the next year, you can return it with no impact on your credit.“
This was advertised heavily, and also on the most expensive time slot on the American Super bowl. This happened at a time when many other companies had cut back on advertising. In addition to the “Assurance” campaign, Hyundai launched a new luxury brand “Genesis” which targeted Mercedes Benz and co. They engaged consumers with “broken dreams and the intact campaign” through high profile advertisement, again in contrast to what its competitors were doing – reducing advertising and mainly retail focused.
Results: Bum! Ratings and sales went up for Hyundai. In a vote on AdAge.com, Hyundai scored 40% versus Walmat 30%, McDonald’s 14%, Lego 10% and Amazon only 7%. While industry sales dropped by 22%, that of Hyundai went up 27%. Hyundai’s market share jumped to an all high 4.3% from 3.1%. Hyundai understood their customers, their fears, their challenges and their hopes. They showed love, empathy and a solution. According to AdAge, “Engaging with both the broken dreams and the intact ones through high-profile ad buys that garnered plenty of positive press was in sharp contrast to the tail-between-the-legs mode of Hyundai’s rivals, many of whom had slashed budgets and retreated into retail-focused advertising…For Hyundai, the overall results were clear: Sales and market share were up, and its brand image overhauled.”
In our current situation, consumers are generally trapped at home, self-isolating or just forced to stay at home. They are bored, some frustrated and some are fearful. In a recent survey in US, McKinsey reports that 64% of the people felt depressed, anxious or both. The same results would probably be replicated in almost every country today. Therefore, what people, consumers everywhere need now is love, understanding and empathy. They do not need being talked down on, they do not need your multi-million Naira entertaining advertisement about your company or brand, they do not need you to tell them about the qualities of your brand, they do not need to know how good your company has been in corporate social responsibility, they do not need you to tell them you care. They do not even need you to tell them about Coronavirus, they have probably heard enough already. In any case, you are not even the medical expert. They need care and they need to see that your company and your brand indeed care. They need you to “shine a bit of hope” on them so they can look beyond the Coronavirus pandemic. They need to be helped to navigate “the stages of grief”, according to Molly Fleming in Marketing Week.
Some organisations believe the Covid-19 pandemic is a time for the FMCG company to just “remind” consumers of its brands and their benefits rather than cutting back on marketing spend. So, they retain presence in the media especially new media – dishing out their mostly thematic campaigns. That may be fine but certainly not enough, if that is all they are doing. That cannot connect with consumers who at this time need support, to manage their difficult situations. That approach may seem to meet the needs of the company but not the needs of the consumers this moment. What marketing people should avoid is the temptation to just sell, this season. If you must run a campaign at this time, let it connect with the consumers and help to manage some of their current challenges. That is why I love the Coca
Cola campaign: “Staying apart is the best way to stay united”. Joanna McClintock, Global Brand Director, Skyscanner would encourage marketers to “solve not sell”, treat customers as individuals and “really lean in an listen”. What marketing people can do and do well at this time is to win the hearts and soul of consumers is to: 1. Show empathy 2. Show respect 3. Get involved with them.
Company PR activities are good but are to be treated differently with those that can directly have direct impact on consumers. In the attempt to connect with consumers, there can be no one size fits all. Do not do it just because others are doing it. The marketer must reflect and decide what works in its own context. Long after this pandemic is over, the world will not easily forget the Ali Baba Foundation and its owner, Jack man for the test kits, face masks etc. it is flying all over the world to save mankind. They are not running any campaign about it but the world knows. Years later, many Nigerians will remember the GTB Hospital that came up overnight at the Onikan stadium.
In the past few weeks I have seen so some many campaigns run by different Nigerian companies. It is nice to run a campaign telling consumers to do social distancing, wash their hands or use hand sanitisers. But when every company is doing same in addition to the daily advisory from the Ministry of Health, the NCDC and the WHO, no one needs to tell the company and the marketers that they are firing shots in the sky. Imagine the impact, if instead of running a wash your hands campaign on TV and social media, Reckitt Benckiser Nigeria ran a “5 million free Dettol hand sanitisers” or “5 million free Dettol hand wash soap.” Or imagine if any of the telecommunication companies ran a free data for 60 days. That would be impactful.
In whatever marketing people do this season, they must strive not to exploit or be seen to exploit the current challengers of the people. The people are not stupid, they will understand and pay back. Joanna McClintock advises “Don’t try to push things irresponsibly and commercialise a terrible situation.”
One thing stands clear, post-COVID-19, things will not go back to the normal as we know it. There will be a “new normal”. Companies and brands that have shown and led with empathy and genuinely address consumers’ needs this trying period, are the ones that will strengthen relationships that will make them shine in the new normal to come.
Agenmonmen, fnimn, is a Marketing Consultant and President, National Institute of Marketing of Nigeria(NIMN) based in Lagos