Thanks to the strength of community, both geographical and digital, the people of the Philippines are finding innovative ways of coping with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. How can brands build connections with new tribes that have formed bonds in the most unusual and traumatic of times? WARC's Asia Editor, Gabey Goh, introduces a deep-dive into the insights you need to know.

The Philippines is still under lockdown.

At time of writing, there are now a total of 398,449 positive cases and 7,647 deaths. The daily rate of new cases stands at 2,438, down from a peak of 6,871 in August. The country has been under varying degrees of lockdown since March and holds the unfortunate distinction of being one of the world’s longest, as the nation of 107 million struggles to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Prolonged restrictions have reshaped and re-wired daily life and the core question facing brands right now is the re-negotiation of place in the social fabric of a changed Philippines. Time spent “cocooning” at home will lead to more independent, empowered consumers reassessing the role products/services play in their lives.

LGUs (local government units) have proven vital in how citizens experience and recover from the pandemic, and with the world shrinking to consist only of home, work and their immediate neighbourhoods – the sphere of community has become vital for support and comradery. Brands that once spoke to individuals or demographic segments now find themselves needing to connect with communities.

Never has the idea and spirit of bayanihan – being in the community – been more profoundly relevant in the daily lives of millions of Filipinos. And it comes as no surprise that this unique aspect of Filipino culture emerges as a unifying spiritual theme from our expert contributors in this edition of WARC’s Spotlight series.

TeamAsia’s Beatrize Lim calls on brands to first take a pause and recalibrate, as the need for meaningful interactions and a stronger sense of community has significantly grown, not only in Filipinos’ personal circles, but also in their interactions with brands. Marketers must also accept the changed role that consumers now play.

“If there’s one thing that consumers have done in the now normal, it’s playing a bigger part of a brand’s evolution. Because both are pushed to evolve, they are able to make each other stronger,” she writes.

And this sense of partnership and helping each other out is nothing new to Filipino society, with the concept enshrined in the notion of and commonly referred to as the “Bayanihan Spirit”. TBWA’s Josef Montinola notes that while the pandemic and lockdown may not have given birth to this communal spirit, it has certainly stimulated it with communities further evolving and now manifesting in new and non-traditional ways.

In his piece, he predicts that more brands will explore more purposeful advertising – be it via working closely with LGUs or with other brands to see what value they can add to a community or possibly even the country.

“We can also expect brands to start thinking small as they find ways to prove their worth and remain present in the small physical and online communities that Filipinos have segmented themselves into,” he adds.

New ways of thinking will certainly define many marketer strategies moving forward. Discovery Hospitality’s Jopet Concio offers a speculative but informed look at how the hospitality industry can repurpose itself to better fit the needs of the moment and bounce back from a grim outlook.

“Rebuilding the hospitality industry anchors on the recovery of the destination and the resilience of the communities. Expect hoteliers to dip their fingers in domestic marketing initiatives, collaboratively with competitors and other stakeholders, beyond government. Expect consumer brands to partner with tourism campaigns and local sustainability programs to get people to travel again or to support homegrown capabilities,” she writes.

Investing in digital transformation as the pathway for the Filipino economy to keep running and thrive during and beyond the current pandemic has become a key point of focus. GCash’s Martha Sazon believes the country’s emerging fintech industry is helping – enabling greater opportunities for the masses to participate in the financial landscape.

“It managed to become an integral pathway for Filipino consumers to carry out their daily essentials but still staying safe while saving time, reaching people and communities regardless of location,” she writes. “Filipinos now lean towards entrepreneurship, investments, saving, and many were seen pursuing self-development and their passions – prioritising self-preservation and employing survival techniques to be able to move forward despite lesser resources.”

Times of crisis also reveal the urgency of supporting those who are most in need, those left behind in the still-persistent digital divide. As Dentsu’s Bea Atienza points out, the pandemic has reminded us that many citizens have not gained full access to the internet, with students and the working population as two segments that are most in need – and where brands could step in.

“It is becoming abundantly clear that Filipinos are having difficulty coping with the technology-driven shifts brought about by COVID-19. This begs the question: If our citizens are so heavily immersed online, why are we struggling with these pivots, especially during a period when going digital is critical to surviving the pandemic?” she writes.

There is ample opportunity for more brands have started to explore purpose platforms that leverage their proposition or emotional territory to uplift consumer groups or communities. This is in line with a new priority that Atienza calls “brand bayanihan”, where brands help to address the urgent needs of local communities.

“This would be a good way for players in many categories to build affinity with potential and current customers,” she adds. “While this is not an easy problem to answer, brands can certainly come together with Filipinos and move the needle.”