By Shweta mulki
‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’ – Winston Churchill is said to have uttered these words sometime in the mid-1940s, as the end of World War ll approached. It was in reference to the Yalta conference and the alliance forged between Stalin and Roosevelt and themselves – which eventually led to the formation of the United Nations.
The sentiment was recently echoed by RIL chairman Mukesh Ambani where in a conversation with Facebook CEO Mark zuckerberg last month, he expressed that ‘a crisis is too precious to be wasted’. Incidentally, it was in the middle of the pandemic that RIL cleared its $ 21 billion debt, and also became the first Indian company to exceed US $ 150 billion in market capitalization. A milestone in a ‘crisis’ year.
In India, in fact, a major outcome of these tough times is the explosion of the digital ecosystem. It has enabled many entrepreneurs to launch companies built purely on digital. “Even smaller setups who are looking to operate from home are confident of getting their reach via digital,” says Arun Iyer – Founder and Creative Partner at Spring Marketing Capital.
Across the globe, there’ve been some brands that have quickly re-invented business models or pivoted, not only to survive, but to increase their sales and even create more jobs. And for some crises have created great opportunity – Airbnb‘s launch during the 2008 crisis for instance, or China’s ecomm giant Alibaba – for whom the turning point came in 2002-03 with the SARS epidemic – as it convinced millions of people to try shopping online.
Also Read: Did Fortune Rice Bran slip up?
Also, Revlon’s launch in the Depression era in 1932, and Estee Lauder’s milestone $ 8 billion sales during the Great Recession of 2008 are perhaps testimony to the ‘Lipstick Effect’ – a term coined by Estée Lauder’s Leonard Lauder which once suggested that during troubled times, cosmetics sales tend to be inversely correlated to economic health, as consumers seek out ways to pamper themselves with ‘less costly luxury goods’.
While every recession is marked by characteristics relative to that era, vis a vis how brands have been impacted, and how both consumers and brands have reacted to adverse situations, the 2020 pandemic has been an intense introspection period for every entity. And there’s been an intense desire to connect deeply with customers.
Unified emotions- the big opportunity
Despite the dips in ad spends, some brands have actually amped up their messaging to maintain brand saliency, while others have recognized the confinement-led increase in eyeballs, as an good opportunity to launch new campaigns.
One of the most buzzy new campaigns of 2020 in fact, was that of CRED, a two-year old Fintech startup, which saw its customer base double to about 5.9 million in 2020. Experts feel that the brand’s humor-tinged films – that used celebrities from the 90s in an endearing self-deprecation mode, set the brand apart from regular pandemic-focused messaging.
“There’s this heightened sensitivity towards everything.” Everybody’s antennas are up, making one more receptive, if and when something strikes a chord – and therein lies the opportunity, ”says Arun Iyer.
We are feeling things as a collective. “Usually it’s all so scattered when people are in different spaces and mindsets, but currently you have a mass of people feeling similar emotions”, he adds.
Iyer believes that this is a massive opportunity because very rarely do human beings come together like this. “How do you tap in to those emotions?” Because right now you can connect with anyone in the world – when Nike says ‘You can’t stop us’, it’s universal, ”he explains. One basically needs to envision a brand as a person- such that it talks to people the way we talk to each other in these times – with concern and empathy, he adds.
‘Don’t go off air’
According to Soumya Mohanty – Chief Client Officer- South Asia, Insights Division at Kantar, this is simply the worst time to go off air. “BrandZ India’s shows that the brands that have grown in shareholder value from ’19 to ’20 in India have also gained more than 20 pts on salience. Consumers come back to market and when they do, they gravitate towards brands that have remained salient in these times. They will come back with “lists” and spend less time to browse and buy. Mental availability will be key to unlocking share ”, she reasons.
The tricky part is what should brands do or say in such times. “We have seen campaigns getting polarized responses in an instant social media environment. Whether this response is representative or not, its sufficient to get ads from the likes of Tanishq or Kent be pulled off – for completely different reasons too. WhiteHat Jr had to withdraw their ads – which perhaps in a different world could have passed off as hard sell, ”Mohanty notes.
Also Read: Building a new intelligent marketing world
Also, at the onset of Covid-19, consumers expected brands to provide emotional succor, but now expectations center more around practical demonstration of utility – ‘stick to business’, she adds. “Be empathetic – and while at it, be careful to balance the old codes of inclusion with the new growth of tribalism,” Mohanty surmises.
She cites Pepsi Foods’ “heart work” as an effective campaign. “It simply expresses gratitude to all stakeholders, partners and even the large ecosystem (like Netflix) that has contributed to their brand Lays,” she explains.
Back to the core
When times are good, all teams are engaged in seizing the market- relentlessly. There’s no time to think about reinvention, streamlining of processes, and weeding out of bad models, bad systems and bad ideas. But Covid has definitely made every brand re-focus on ‘who they really are, or want to be’.
“When the pandemic struck, we had to think long and hard about what was important to us as a company. We went back to our roots – driving people to people connections, powered by technology, says Amanpreet Bajaj, GM at Airbnb – India, SEA, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
With the pandemic enabling faster digital acceleration, the company took travel online. launching their Online Experiences line. “In India, we introduced campaigns such as At Home with Airbnb, that offered guests virtual experiences curated by well-known Indian personalities and work from Any Home, where we partnered with creative personalities, entrepreneurs, and authors,” says Bajaj. These homes were often outside of big cities, for longer stays, he adds, and notes that every crisis is an opportunity to learn, adapt and grow.
If in your journey, you lose your map, go back to the compass – your core mission, ”says GV Ravishankar, MD at Sequoia India. By focusing on things that progress that mission – even when it’s different from the original plan, companies can build deeper connects with their stakeholders and come out of a crisis much stronger, he adds.
‘How you make customers feel, will be remembered’
“When Covid resulted in companies having to make tough decisions to survive this uncertain period of demand, several of our start-ups were clear that while they needed to make tough calls, they would be fair and empathetic to those affected. Even if these resulted in less-than-optimal business decisions in the short term, ”Ravishankar recalls.
Many Sequoia-funded companies focused on their passion. BYJUs made their app free for students who suddenly found themselves out of school and without support. Zomato and Rebel Foods channelled their partner kitchen capacity to make food available for the marginalized. Log9, whose founders are all about creating societal impact at scale, used their expertise in product innovation, creating ‘CoronaOven’ to address near-term opportunities in the world’s fight against Covid.
“Each one of these companies could have chosen instead to cut costs and hibernate till things got better. We all believed that while customers and employees may be willing to forget what we say and do, they will certainly remember how we made them feel during this time of crisis, ”Ravishankar adds.