WARC Asia Editor Rica Facundo speaks to Lifebuoy’s Khim Yin Poh about how the pioneer of brand purpose aligns purpose-driven marketing with product and profit.

WARC: How are you seeing the economic climate impacting consumers in emerging markets, especially in rural areas?

Khim Yin Poh: The recession has hit during a difficult post-COVID period, especially for the developing and emerging world. The struggle is very real for rural consumers in the APAC region. A lot of them still live on daily or weekly wages. COVID has forced them to dig into their savings.

Historically what we’ve seen in the past is that when a recession hits, the first thing that consumers do is they will let go of all their luxuries. The good thing for a brand like Lifebuoy is that we fall more into a basic necessity category.

However, I think one key pivot that we’re seeing is that they are looking for things that deliver value. Typically, we think that value translates into buying anything cheaper. This is not necessarily true. Rural consumers are also very smart. They don't really think that if they buy cheap things, it means that it's good. What they look for in a recession are products with superior quality, to ensure that they are getting a benefit out of every penny spent. Of course, it still needs to be affordable but at the same time, if you're not offering them that benefit they're seeking or if they feel like your product quality is sub-standard, they will also not choose your brand.

Are there any changes in the way that consumers are looking at value compared to previous periods of uncertainty?

I don't think things have changed a lot. Value to consumers on a soap would still be things like the benefit that it provides them for life, which is germ protection. But when I say value, it also goes beyond the physical product that they are buying and using to the benefit that they can actually get. This is what gets heightened now.

With economic uncertainty like this, the key for a brand like Lifebuoy is to actually double down on our purpose. We hear from consumers that medical bills become a big concern and they have to pay more to seek a doctor’s help. When their child falls ill, it’s an emotional issue they have to bear. There’s no one to take care of their child, which is a big issue for countries such as Indonesia where both parents work outside the home. If their child falls ill, it will impact their income. They are also worried about their child’s education. After two years of COVID when people can finally go back to school, if their children fall sick, they can't go back to school.

Lifebuoy utilises these kinds of insights as part of our communication to rural consumers by telling them that if you're worried about the cost of infections, the best course of action is actually prevention. This has resonated with consumers because they can see the relevance. And instead of buying any cheap soap, they buy Lifebuoy because it not only gives them protection for their family but also helps relieve one of the pain points – in this case the financial burden for the family.

As one of the pioneers of brand purpose, what do marketers usually get wrong, especially when trying to align purpose more holistically across the product or with profit?

Purpose has become a trending word over the last 10 years. Every brand and individual has a purpose. What people misunderstand is that the purpose is not about woke advertising.

When you craft purpose really well, it needs to stand for something that you're solving in a consumer's life in a way that the brand can actually credibly play in. If the brand or product has no credibility in the space to elevate the consumer’s pain point or problem, then I don't think the purpose is well-crafted.

If that happens, then that is when you start facing the problem of whether to drop brand purpose during times of inflation. Or how do you prioritise purpose versus profits? Once you get that definition right and purpose becomes so integrated, then you don’t have to give it up. In fact, during times of recession or uncertainty is when you double down on it and it helps the brand.

Brand purpose can sometimes be interpreted as being lofty without having an actual impact on the bottom line. Would you say that the missing link is trying to realign purpose with solving a real consumer problem?

Yes, and the problem is finding a space that a brand can credibly play in. Not every social cause that’s trending realistically showcases what Lifebuoy can do differently from other brands. We need to ask ourselves how can we use our products to play a role in this cause. If we can’t, then it can’t be our purpose. Then it becomes CSR and about doing good on the side in a way that’s not integrated in the brand. That’s when you actually meet problems. When you have a financial crunch, that's the first thing a brand will give up because it has nothing to do with what the brand does to credibly solve a problem in a consumer’s life.

Even for a brand purpose veteran like Lifebuoy, what are some of the challenges that you see for purpose-driven marketing? How would you plan to overcome that?

Lifebuoy has been around for a while and our purpose has not changed. In that sense, I don’t think the future of purpose will fundamentally change. What will change is how we go about delivering our purpose.

For example, Lifebuoy was one of the brands that co-founded GHD or Global Handwashing Day around 2008, together with other industry players.

When we first started in 2008, we ran these campaigns to help a child reach five years old because at that time, around 1.2 million kids fall prey to preventable illness such as diarrhea and pneumonia every year. At that point in time, talking about helping a child reach five was a very relevant and shocking kind of angle.

Fast forward 14 years and the conversations and pain points have changed. And therefore, we had to find a way to pivot how we talk about our purpose. So for GHD last year, we had this idea of communicating that H is for hand washing, similar to how they learn that A is for apple, etc. This is because kids today are more educated than before.

Is the ability to consistently activate brand purpose something that brands need to think harder about regarding how they ritualise that into their marketing plans?

Consistency is a very generic word. I would attribute consistency to brand purpose and what you stand for and the message you want to tell consumers. That has to be consistent.

It’s the execution that needs to evolve because of the way consumers are articulating the pain point. Therefore, the brand also needs to keep up with how it executes its purpose.

Any examples?

During COVID, many rural consumers did not have access to doctors. We found that WHO recommends the doctor-to-patient ratio should be one for every 1,000 people. But the reality for many of the regions that Lifebuoy operates in is this is almost one to 10,000.

Since Lifebuoy is an infection prevention brand, it’s an opportunity for us to solve this pain point for consumers and take our purpose one step further. We started providing doctor access and providing medical information. 

Our telehealth initiatives included partnering with telehealth providers. It makes access easier because people don’t have to travel. In these rural geographies, many consumers have to travel hundreds of kilometres just to reach the nearest doctor. And most of the time, if their child falls sick, they will go ask their neighbours who don’t know any better. And therefore, by providing this kind of telehealth access, it actually allows them to seek proper doctor advice.

On top of that, we are also doing something called Mobile Doctor Me, which is telephone access to health information. It’s a mobile bot where they can dial in and ask very basic health prevention questions.

So this is how the brand needs to evolve. When certain things are trending, you can still find a different problem that they have that is associated with the brand purpose.

How is technology enabling Lifebuoy to activate its purpose? What’s possible now that wasn’t before?

In the past, the only way to reach consumers in developing and emerging markets in a mass, impactful and scalable fashion will be through TV. So we would put all our efforts into one big TVC as the main channel that goes out to consumers. Or we had to do a lot of on-the-ground programmes to reach these kind of consumers.

But with the evolution of technology and especially digital platforms, this has really opened the touchpoints to consumers in a much more scalable and impactful manner.

I was really surprised on my recent visit to India when they gave us a statistic that says something like 97% of rural consumers access YouTube. My initial reaction was how can that be when it requires at least 3G. Of course, because India has a lot of telcos, this is possible compared to other rural regions in Southeast Asian markets.

The second evolution is with data. We don’t get sensitive information about the patient via telehealth services. But we are able to get bigger data on what infections worry consumers. What kind of questions are they asking when it comes to maintaining health and preventing illness? 

The combination of these two evolutions gives better reach, impact, skill in a much more affordable way.

Let’s talk about another fast-growing platform. How is TikTok helping Lifebuoy activate its purpose?

TikTok is banned in India, which is our biggest market. In Southeast Asia, TikTok is growing immensely. But during COVID, we used it to reach out to Gen Z and millennials, an audience that will most likely forget to wash their hands. We could turn a serious message into edutainment. So I think it's a very good, sweet spot between us giving credible information from a brand, using influencers that they actually engage with, and on a platform that they visit for multiple hours a day.

Culture and trends also play a very big role. The way we activated during COVID was very different across markets.

In Indonesia, for example, we found an influencer who was known for rapping about social topics. So we partnered with him to create a rap about handwashing and we supported the post with paid media to make him a little bit more viral.

While in India, before TikTok was banned, we turned our iconic Lifebuoy jingle into a dancing song. It became such a movement that it had around 55 billion views.

Moving forward, we will use a lot more of TikTok, especially in Southeast Asia, in order to reach out to younger consumers and remind them of the importance of handwashing.

Why the different TikTok approach for the two markets?

Lifebuoy has a community between the brand and the markets. We have teams that sit across 15 different markets. And they actually bring the local insights to us. So although we think global, we leave it to the community to give us feedback on how that gets executed in a much more relevant and trending fashion in the market.

You will hear this from TikTok as well but the future of content is not going to be from the brand but creator-led content. The TikTok algorithm is also different. It’s more of the genre of the topic that the audience is interested in. So unless you get into the genre of content that consumers are interested in, the content will never reach out to consumers.

And therefore, it's very important to actually embed more in the creator's culture, so the creator can engage with the audience based on what they believe and that’s when your brand purpose gets delivered.