13 June 2020 13:37:03 IST

Brands must hang in there and ride out the pandemic

And they must hang on to their customers, continue to engage with them and delight them

I had the good fortune to moderate a discussion on the above topic for CII Southern Chapter just yesterday, during which Sam Balsara, CMD of Madison World, shared his wisdom and predictions for the future in strife-ridden pandemic times. What should companies do and avoid? How do they sustain brands when the tendency is to follow the ostrich? What can the government do to help alleviate the problems of the advertising industry? Here’s my understanding of some useful tips for people managing brands and for people interested in communication. It’s perhaps even more relevant for young minds who are embarking on their careers in perhaps not the best of times.

Bad news is the flavour of the season

There’s no shying away from the fact that we are probably confronted by one of the worst crises that any of us have faced in our business lives, and that silver linings have been as hard to find as runs for batsmen out of form. The commercial world survives because people spend more than they earn and buy things that they don’t really need, aided and abetted by advertising, on which billions of dollars are spent. That has taken a big hit since early this year, with a consequent reduction in consumer spending by an already frazzled consumer. While there is some cheer for FMCG makers, in terms of the continued need for essentials, which is helping the sector hold its own, several others sectors, such as auto, restaurants, spas, cinemas, retail and malls, are currently on ventilator support, if you’ll pardon the use of that term.

Whither advertising?

When times are bad, most clients tend to pull the plug on marketing and advertising as they seem to have the mistaken notion that it is a controllable, avoidable expenditure. There’s enough evidence to suggest that it actually makes sense to maintain your advertising presence in times like these but theory goes out of the window in crisis times and knee jerk reactions take over.

The reality, however, is that brands will have to spend far more than they might have saved when things return to normal, just to get back to the same stage they were at before they cut back on advertising! The proposal to the government by industry to amortise the expenditure in advertising in 2020-21 over three years seems to have had no impact so far.

A wary customer

In what will not be great news for marketers and brands, consumers are not expected to rush out and buy stuff or dine out the moment the lockdown is lifted. The mood seems to be one of cautious pessimism, at best, and ‘wait and watch’ could well be the consumer’s watchword. Luxuries and holidays will have to wait though I feel that personal mobility might see an upward surge.

There will be a greater realisation of the value of health, something most of us tend to take for granted, and a spurt in the demand for personal fitness products, alongside a greater appreciation of traditional healing systems such as ayurveda. People will focus on areas and avenues that will improve their health and immunity, and brands can capitalise on this.

Big fat wedding or a private Zoom event 

The new norms of safety and social distancing will put under the scanner the Indian habit of spending disproportionate amounts on ostentatious weddings and social functions. The commute to the workplace will happen less often as people work more from home, impacting ride-hailing players such as Ola and Uber, not to mention fuel consumption. Forget the nights out with the boys or those big parties at home. It’s going to take a long time for things to even think of coming back to normal, and consumption will be badly hit. 

So what should brands do?

We already spoke about maintaining a threshold level of advertising at least, but brands must remain true to their real nature and try not to exploit the pandemic. Here are two commercials done in these times which did not cost an arm and a leg but are still extremely effective. 

Let’s take a look at Bathsense by Asian Paints



Let’s take a look at Bharti Singh for the Champi Malish



In fact, the Parachute commercial rocked Tik Tok, and thousands responded with their own videos. Yes, customer engagement will be key in these times.

So what does the future hold?

While the situation seems grim, to put it mildly, I do believe in the resilience of the human race and business in India. Things will come back to normal slowly and it will be a war of attrition against the virus. Lets hang in there, first health-wise, taking the best of precautions. Let’s hang on to our customers and continue to delight them. Let’s hang on to our employees as they have stood by us and need us more than ever. Let’s hold on to our cash and postpone feel-good expenditure and, finally, as the communication industry, let’s hang together lest we hang separately!