Brands and Covid: Long Time, No See!

There has been a lot of discussion lately, at least in India, on whether brands should stay quiet during Covid or continue to communicate with their customers. I think much of the dilemma stems from the fact that certain industries have been hit so hard during Covid, either from pandemic fears or from the lockdowns imposed, that companies have had to rethink their brand communication and marketing spends at this time. I think some of the concerns also arise from the feeling that communicating at a time like this might either seem opportunistic or insensitive; on the other hand, some companies might feel that this is the time to express their empathy and concern for the consumer.

I would like to approach this subject from a slightly different angle. And that is that brands should consider whether to advertise or not, based on market conditions. During Covid, industries that have been adversely impacted such as travel, hospitality, dining and entertainment, and even discretionary retail must know that their customers are not in a frame of mind or position to spend and therefore, there is no reason for companies to communicate to them or advertise at this time. The other important consideration, of course, is budgetary; if they have the budgets, they might choose to communicate in a limited, but more targeted way by reaching them through social media and the digital medium.

Other industries might still choose to advertise, albeit in a muted fashion, because their consumers still need to buy essentials and would appreciate their brands being made easily available through the lockdown, as well as special offers that companies might be able to announce at this difficult time. Makers of soaps, hand sanitisers, and other personal care products as well as food, beverage and grocery brands could continue to advertise; some of them might even like to offer their consumers special tips (both Covid-specific and otherwise), recipes and other ideas to make their Covid-lockdown at home more pleasurable. One would have to be very careful and considerate in what and how one communicates during and after lockdown.

It is usually the case that the biggest advertisers are FMCG companies, because competition for their brands tend to be the stiffest, and because the consumers’ purchase cycles are also shorter and the need to keep communicating to create a preference for your brand is paramount. It also tends to be the case that stronger brands tend to have the larger advertising and marketing budgets. Nothing succeeds like success, it appears, in the world of brands. Usually, this also determines the channels of communication and frequency.

Mapping brand strength vs budgets, we see that strong brands with large budgets are mostly FMCG brands

There is a clear correlation between stronger brands and larger budgets, and they mostly tend to be FMCG brands. However, the reason for my mapping brands and budgets is to also show that there are opportunities for other brands in the other quadrants to communicate with their customers as well.

It is in this context, that I would urge companies and brands to consider another important factor: the role that the brand plays in their consumers’ lives. Here, it becomes important for companies to not just look at the market scenario and their budgets, but also how important their existing customers are to them, and if there is something beyond the usual advertising message that they can communicate to these existing, and perhaps loyal, customers.

And here, I would like to stress the relationship-building aspect of brands; brands are after all, relationships that companies and their products have with consumers and other stakeholders. The objective behind communicating with customers at a time like the Covid-19 pandemic, would then be to offer them a consumer benefit that is in keeping with the larger brand strategy, and yet specific to the lockdown period. It would be a tactical exercise, not just to keep the brand top-of-mind at this time, but to really reach out and offer consumers something beyond the usual.

I have explored what a few brands in the non-FMCG, niche, high-end category with smaller budgets can do to communicate with their customers during the Covid-19 lockdown. These brands are likely to have a select, easily identifiable customer base, that are loyal to them and among whom they clearly enjoy brand preference. And, they are best reached through social media, digital publications as well as email marketing.

I must add that I have been a writer in the advertising industry for over 20 long years and I am sound on strategy. But I am not a designer/art director and yet I have had to design my blog, The Whistle newsletter, and other email updates that I share with my subscribers for the past couple of years. Thanks to a designing app, Canva, I have managed alright so far, I think. When I share the following campaign ideas for a few brands, I must clarify that I have thought up the strategy and the ideas, as well as done the writing and the design all on my own. If there is any problem with any aspect of these campaigns, you know who is responsible!

To start with, since we are talking lockdown and messages like stay home and stay safe, I considered how it would be a perfect opportunity for a telecom brand like Vodafone to take on the mantle of communicating this to their customers. The main message of this campaign is to tell their customers that staying home and staying connected can be an enjoyable experience and to offer subtle suggestions on how much they can share with their family and friends.

The creative idea of the Vodafone stay home campaign is to get Vodafone customers to share their experiences of how they made the most of the lockdown and made it worthwhile. The campaign line is: Home is where the heart is, where the start is. There is a video as well as social media adverts. The social media campaign takes the reader to a special landing page on the Vodafone website, which shares the rest of the Vodafone customer stories and invites them to send in theirs as well. The campaign is also shared with subscribers via email.

In addition, Vodafone brings their customers exclusive expert advice through a complimentary podcast series with a well-known life and wellness coach to help them navigate the testing times through Covid better. To see the entire Vodafone Stay Home campaign, please click on the link below.

If “stay home” is one way a brand can communicate with its existing customers during a lockdown, another would be to see if brands can make working from home a unique experience. After all, #WFH is a new phenomenon that many predict will last and it is already a trending hashtag. I thought that while working from home, it is possible that people tend to use their computers and gadgets more, and forget their writing instruments. So, I thought of a campaign that Parker pens could run in order to make their owners use them even while Zooming and chatting with their colleagues online.

This, of course, fits in with the overall brand strategy and campaign ideas that I have already created for Parker, and will not share here. Suffice it to say that the positioning for the Parker brand that I recommend is “The writing instrument that helps you make your point most effectively.” In the Covid-related campaign, which I treat as a tactical exercise, the message is: work from home with individuality.

The creative idea for the social media adverts and short, snappy 8-second videos is to remind them of the power of handwritten messages, even on the electronic medium. You may view the Parker WFH campaign by clicking on the link below.

Yet another way for a writing instrument brand to communicate with customers during Covid, could be to run a competition. This is what I recommend for Waterman pens, as a brand that is positioned for men and women of letters and stands for inspired writing. Here again, I have worked on the brand strategy and campaign ideas for Waterman already, and cannot share them right now.

For the Covid period, I thought Waterman could advertise an international writing competition, titled “Impressions of Covid” where aspiring and well-known writers send in their short stories, essays and poems about their impressions of living through Covid. The competition will, of course, be judged by a panel of acclaimed writers. Please click on the link below to view the Waterman Impressions of Covid campaign.

How about a brand in a category that is parked in the driveway or garage and has simply nowhere to go during the Covid lockdown? No commuting to work or to the golf course, no long drives in the country either. I am talking of Land Rover, for which I had an idea that would help them build and strengthen their relationship with customers on a long-term basis. I thought Covid could have been a great time for them to be launching this initiative, with a difference, of course.

The idea was of creating a Land Rover owners’ Club, a forum for Land Rover owners to meet, chat, exchange notes on journeys, etc. The idea was for the brand to also be connected with the environment, so the Club could tie up with UK’s most popular charitable outdoor activity: The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Britain and also with the National Geographic Society for international journeys and experiences.

Covid might have been a good time to launch this as a way to make Land Rover owners reminisce and think about their great journeys of the past and share them with each other, while they are stuck inside their homes. I thought nostalgia would be quite a strong emotion to tap into right now and it would have helped Land Rover customers share and relive their great road journeys. Take a look at the campaign I have created to launch the Land Rover owners’ club by clicking on the link below.

As you can see, these are strong brands but without the luxury of very large budgets. Still, if there is a way that they can be relevant and meaningful to customers at a time like Covid, they can continue to communicate and strengthen their relationships with them. They may not be big-bang advertising campaigns that make a splash in mass-media, but they can help companies reach the right target audience with messages that are just right for them.

Speaking of which, I am surprised to note that while P&G is planning to double down on its marketing efforts during Covid, HUL has taken a more cautious approach hinting that it will be curtailing its media spends in India. I wonder if it’s a reflection of HUL’s greater dependence on the rural economy which is much weaker now, given that it is also the larger of the two advertisers. On the other hand, I notice Amul advertising like there’s no tomorrow, and on news channels like BBC, CNN and CNBC. You’d think they were preparing for an IPO, such is the advertising blitz!

FMCG brands have the budgets needed for high-pressure advertising

In the old days in advertising, we had communication that was above-the-line (ATL) and below-the-line (BTL), where every piece of communication that was in mass-media was ATL and all that was not, including direct response, was BTL. In the days of digital and social media advertising, those divisions have fallen away and most of digital communication is akin to direct response. However, the formats of traditional media continue (print-like display adverts and video instead of TV), as digital and social media channels themselves evolve and change.

Covid is a crisis that could help some brands communicate effectively and tactically, even on smaller budgets. It just means that they sacrifice some of the larger ATL presence and visibility, for greater frequency of communication with the right target audience.

It might just be better for brands to stay on the right side of “long time, no see” rather than on the wrong side of “out of sight, out of mind”.   

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