Excuse me, If I tell you how to wash your hands, will you buy my brand?

Puru Gupta

Part 1/4
Are you part of the 70% of the world that is already fed up with this “Covid-19” and want to take your mind off it? Every article or webinar seems to be talking about how a new world will emerge after Coronavirus. While some of them are quite insightful, is it helping the cause of marketers and building sales or branding for them?

Well, surprise! This one is about it, too – except that I hope Marketers take away something actionable out of this 7-minute ranting, for their respective brands.

While I don’t need to reiterate what’s happening, there are few visible patterns that are emerging in our behaviour, based on readings around the internet –

a. High anxiety levels, given the daily count and proximity to infected locations
b. Loneliness and incompleteness by being locked at home, leading to further anxiety
c. Feeling of helplessness when you are unable to do things as perfectly as you wanted to
d. High levels of uncertainty on when and how this would end – worsened by the pseudo-experts who prognosticate a recession or long period of recovery
e. High levels of Insecurity, personal as well as professional

When people are anxious it doesn’t give them the confidence to purchase.
Does it mean brands should not talk about purchase and only try to reduce anxiety by talking about various aspects of Covid-19? And how to address it?

With so much uncertainty around, do we need Brands (or companies) to tell us what we should do and what not? Do Brands need to share instructions on how to wear masks and what not to touch over the next few weeks? Or the latest count by country? Or do we need detailed assessment reports of the situation that every pseudo-expert and her uncle are publishing?

Challenge is if you care too much about the situation, they might think that something is wrong and you might have an ulterior motive; but if you don’t, ignore and move on with our work, they’ll accuse you of being indifferent and not bothered about them.

Just before you think am alluding to perils of “married life” and rantings of troubled spouses, no it’s not – this is about Brands communicating with their consumers.

There are two schools of thought or tracks brands are choosing –

The Aunt Next Door -– I will hold your hand and keep chatting with you, to make you feel comfortable, keep updating you with gossip in the hope of increasing my social currency and getting your attention

The Funny Salesman– I might have a sense of humour, but you know my objective is finally to close the sales (sales = brand building, reach, clicks, etc. for the sake of this discussion)

How are brands acting as these two? Read on for few more minutes…

Part 2/4 – Aunt Next-Door Track

This assumes people are looking for information and don’t need you to sell your brand. –
How do you know what you are saying is right or wrong – an interesting tip at Protocol says –

..at a time like this, the best thing you can do is.. call up a friend, and pretend like you’re trying to say the thing to them that you want to email to your customers. And if that sounds ridiculous to you when you play it back to yourself, or if you call up somebody and they’re like, “What?” Then it’s not going to pass the sniff test, right?…

According to Kantar, there is a high level of agreement that brands should use a reassuring tone (empathetic), offer a positive perspective (upbeat) and communicate brand values.
Ogilvy says you should listen first, be sensitive, transparent and rise to the occasion, but not stop talking. Brands should rise to the Occasion – a global crisis at the scale of coronavirus can be a make-or-break moment for brands — testing not only their values and commitments but also their agility, creativity, and spirit.

Some companies talk about the 3E Framework, that includes Empathy, Engage (with stakeholders) and Educate (on the criticality, steps taken to manage the crisis, etc), while others use the Listen, Serve and Connect approach

Vic Drabicky, founder of branding agency January Digital, said – Unfortunately, there is “absolutely no one right way, but there are hundreds of wrong ways” to do it
One good rule of thumb: “Always err on the side of humanity.”

Showing empathy during the crisis is better than being silent. However, what kind of empathy and level of empathy also defines how much respect the brand garners –Customers need to get some meaningful action that makes them feel better

Personal connections are better at these times than corporate-speak, which almost always reads as commercial.

Of late, logos representing social distancing is in vogue. However, Going viral (no pun intended) is not the same as Salience. This is how few Indian Brands used their right brains and high empathy levels to encourage “Social Distancing”

Part 3/4 – Funny-Salesman Track

This asks you to go as you would normally, so that people get distracted to normalcy and reduce their anxiety levels. According to this track, empathizing does not help anyone

Using Covid-19 as a marketing hook is negative. At worst it will actually harm a brand — even one with years of good marketing practices behind it.

Brand emails are not working for any brand as such, as Inboxes are flooded with a mix of messages. Some are even signed by company chief executive officers and leadership, trying to seem empathetic, typically in bland, unaffecting terms. In the advent of an impending recession, layoffs are an almost certainty – shopping and spending money might not be the right thing to advertise.

In an interesting note, Mark Ritson summarizes what these ‘typical’ emails contain –

Paragraph one is all about you: how are you holding up? Paragraph two is all about them: we believe in X, Y and Z, and they are especially relevant now in this time of need. Paragraph three is the money shot – you can still buy from us as usual/online/in the following ways. Paragraph four is back to you and yours, and a prayer that you will stay safe.

Does it help? Unlikely. According to Minter, Such emails saying “we care about our customers and employees” and “please wash your hands.” – Dry, institutional and patently impersonal, are not ‘wrong,’ but at best they’re a missed opportunity. At worst, they are a waste of time and resources.

What does Mark Recommend
Get on with the business, with the brand, and with making tangible and impactful changes to the rest of the business. What we need marketers to do now is put down the worthy banners and earnest emails. The world does not need our support or our concern. Your companies do not need a communication campaign about how much you care about the state of the world.
They need us to do our job. To develop products and services that reflect the strange new challenges of the Covid summer ahead. To distribute them in a way that enables everyone in the market to benefit from them. And to price them in a manner that maximises availability and profitability at the same time.
Make money, not moral statements. Get on with it.

So does the trend of Brands representing “Social Distancing” help?
Brian Braiker, the editor-in-chief of Ad Age told CNN Business – “Understanding the situation, shutting up and doing something helpful is really the only way to go here. When you see brands like McDonald’s or Coca-Cola spacing out their logos in ‘solidarity,’ it strikes a sour note,

“..brands designing social distancing logos have the potential to diminish the severity of what we are going through. The creativity, passion, and thought that goes into wanting to help, educate, and be part of the physical distancing movement is a worthy note,”.

Part 4/4 – Recommendations from a Witty Ventriloquist

While both the tracks might seem like Contradictory Imperatives, is there a middle ground?

While both the Aunt Next Door and the Funny Salesman might be doing their rounds, why not take the best of both worlds and be someone who you enjoy being with – the Witty Ventriloquist

Just like the ventriloquist – When the puppet is talking, even though you know it’s him, you don’t mind getting entertained and enjoy the act.
He entertains customers, lightens their mood and distracts them, and stays away from any stressful messages.

Lest you think this is random ranting without any actionability, here are five things that brands can surely do (these are action points that I would take-away as well for the brand I work for) –

  1. Community-building will be strong, with high importance being given to peer-level credibility (more than now, given the increasingly skeptical and uncertain world)
  2. Social Influencers will also drive empathy and possibly reduce anxiety, but brands will have to sift through the relevant influencers, in the middle of a surge in UGC, with an explosion in channels like TikTok
  3. Brand Values and Salience both are critical. Brands should build distinctiveness via Assets and Associations / Cues
  4. Social Selling -Given increasing engagement on Social Media, social selling might also be a strong development, as customers might be open to explore (I would still want to explore this further, as one school of thought says that customers might not be in a shopping state of mind socially in the current environment). Even community engagement is better facilitated on Social Platforms.
  5. Brands should not stop advertising, though they can explore changing the media mix – According to kantar, if the brand cut all its ad spend during the crisis, this would have a 13% impact on sales in the long run and make market share hard to recover. However, a 50% drop in ad spend would result in just a 1% drop in sales.
    On top of this, Engagement Labs’ consumer conversation tracking during the first two weeks of lockdowns reveals that marketing communications are an important factor in driving positive conversations/sentiment about brands.

So keep chatting – be it the Next-door-Aunty or the Funny-Salesman, or just YOU – it’s time we talk!
Be the Witty Ventriloquist & entertain people – empathize with them, tell them stories and solutions sometimes – they will choose whether to get entertained or get empathized. But at the end of the day, they should enjoy the act!

Image Sources: Witty Ventriloquist, Funny Salesman, Aunt Next Door, Indian brands Social Distancing, Baby Anxiety

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