BBH’s Jacob Wright believes the current pandemic is going to bring class differences in Asia centre stage and brands need to acknowledge this divide moving forward.

2020 is clearly going down in history as the year of lockdowns and COVID-19. But I have a hope that it’s also the year that class-consciousness permeates the Asian marketing community.

Marketing in the COVID-19 crisis

This article is part of a special WARC Snapshot focused on enabling brand marketers to re-strategise amid the unprecedented disruption caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak.

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Much has been said about the danger of being seen to cynically leverage the lockdown for marketing purposes, and if you need a full rundown, there’s an excellent post on BBH Labs about it.

Subtler, but more pervasive and longer-lasting, is the danger of pitching your response in a way that is tone-deaf to class issues. It’s my belief that our current crisis is going to bring class differences in Asia into sharp relief. 

The conversation has already started: at the highbrow level with Teo You Yenn’s “This is what inequality looks like”, at the middlebrow level with the incredible “Parasite” and at the lowbrow with “Crazy Rich Asians” - the effects of quarantine and economic slowdown will simply bring it much more to the fore.

Talking about class may bring up antiquated ideas of communist rhetoric or British snobbery, but it’s a very real and modern issue that is linked to these historical phenomena but now takes a different form.

As those films showed, the different classes in Asia today inhabit different worlds. One is a polished, technological wonderland that could be anywhere in the world. Another is deeply local, precarious in the extreme and exceedingly lo-fi.

There are many ways to define class, but the impact of the COVID-19 quarantine can give us a simple yardstick of upper, middle and lower that can help marketers avoid making tonal mistakes.

If your reaction to the quarantine has been to take pictures of the elaborate meals you cooked at home and share them on Instagram with #quarantine. If you’ve had a conversation about how wonderful and inspiring it’s been to home-school your kids and if your biggest challenge is finding a private space in your home to work remotely from, then you are “upper” coronavirus, and your challenges are challenges of lifestyle and perspective.

If you’re reading this article, you are almost certainly in this group. Your experience of quarantine is that it’s boring, you’re having to work quite hard on your company’s official response and you want to throttle some of your family members. The danger is that you assume your experience is typical or even particularly relevant.

If, instead, you are looking at the balance sheet of your bar or restaurant and wondering how on earth you’ll make the numbers add up, or anxiously awaiting news of retrenchments and downsizing from your employer in the travel, hospitality or retail industry, then you are “middle”. Your security has been seriously challenged, and you’re going to have to make some serious life changes.

You’re unable to work right now, you are facing bankruptcy or a change of career when the lockdown ends, and you’re going to need a lot of help with retraining, sorting out your finances and keeping your business afloat. Approximately 16 million people in Southeast Asia whose jobs directly involve tourism are in this group, as are the millions of restaurant and bar owners, workers in the airline and oil industries, their spouses and their families. 

Finally, if you are unable to work because the only kind of work you can do involves being there in person with lots of other people, and you’re worrying about how to pay the rent or put food on the table when there’s no money coming in this week, then you are “lower”. Your safety is under threat and you really don’t know if you’re going to be okay.

According to the International Labour Organisation, approximately 1 in 3 workers in Southeast Asia are earning US$2 a day in relatively informal work with no job security. That’s the “lower” group and they are huge in numbers, disproportionately found in smaller towns and around the fringes of big cities, but present in every country, even Singapore.

The World Bank estimates that 11 million people in Asia could be pushed back into poverty by COVID-19 and this is where the trouble will really come - people will not sit quietly and starve and we can expect issues of crime, social unrest and political instability unless more is done to help them.

So, we have an upper class whose lifestyle is affected, a middle class whose security is affected and a lower class whose safety is at risk.

The dangers for marketers here are many - assuming that the story is simply one of inconvenience and a need for distraction is the most egregious. But the opportunities are there too.

Many brands can be a friend to the middle class. Media brands can help with advice on retraining, careers and small business triage. Financial services can play a major role in softening the blow and providing useful advice. Tech brands and telcos can aid struggling small businesses with the right packages of business services, in particular helping bricks and mortar retailers to sell online.

And anyone who is prepared to take a financial hit can support the lower class and be a national hero. In times of crisis anyone from LVMH to General Motors can put their resources into service to help the nation. What does that look like today for transnational brands?

As Edelman’s Coronavirus Trust research has shown, consumers react positively to the way companies treat their employees and suppliers and making a selfless gesture can reap huge rewards. In fact, over 80% of Chinese consumers claim to have switched brands because of the way a company responded to the crisis.

However marketers choose to react, it feels like it’s no longer optional to acknowledge the different ways this crisis is impacting different levels of society, and that images of wealth and aspiration may not always be appropriate for every situation.