Growth Officers Inc CEO Anindya Dasgupta believes that marketers need to rise beyond their usual day to day in times of adversity and offers some guidance on how organisations can turn some of the most adverse situations, into opportunities.

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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As any business person, or those working in the corporate world in China, Singapore and now many other countries in the world knows, it does not matter whether the world shuts down due to the Covid-19 situation, the business objectives and targets of the business will probably not change much.

Shareholders are unforgiving, and not delivering business results by a huge margin, is rarely justifiable - even in the middle of what could soon be called a pandemic. In this situation, there would definitely be some businesses and people, who would end up on the sharper end of the knife.

While little can be done to minimise the negative impact of the situation for some businesses by virtue of its nature (hospitality, airline etc), I firmly believe that most other businesses can turn some of the most adverse situations, into opportunities through a nimble and agile approach.

Every company should spend some good time upfront preparing a Business Contingency Plan. Companies that truly know their purpose, and core reason for why they exist, would benefit massively through asking a simple question: “What can I do with my business and products, that would be immensely helpful for consumers who have been affected by the current situation?”

Sometimes, the answer may well be a new product idea, or a new delivery system idea, or even a service idea around providing consumers with more information that they need.

In fact, depending on the category that the brand plays in, this could be a major opportunity to drive equity – and in most cases revenue! For instance, brands that are in the personal care category, especially in hygiene, this is the time where being close to and standing by people in distress, could create a brand connection with consumers that no advertising can buy.

The focus for every average consumer today, is around “how can I protect myself and my family”. One large multinational company making sanitisers globally realised that this is an opportunity. However, the usual long process of approvals kicked in, and nothing much was done for over four weeks as executives were busy writing up the business case.

That is, until an entrepreneurial executive within the company decided to take this head on, got in touch with all its global manufacturing location and created a brand proposition overnight. The result was the launch of a range of Lifebuoy “sanitising” solutions. All this in 12 days from idea to launch!

This isn’t just about health-related personal care products. Take Food and Beverages for instance. No matter what the situation, people will eat. The problem is really around access: Some consumers are avoiding crowded shopping areas, others are avoiding restaurants. In these situations, it’s important for these companies to immediately figure out a service solution around distribution, that makes these people’s lives easier.

During the devastating earthquake in Chile in 2010, most food supplies were affected. One company, Soprole, took it upon itself to ensure that people were getting their supply of Soprole milk and some other necessities.

They tied up with every government agency going into the affected region - including some army vehicles and made sure that at least one carton of milk was on each vehicle. All employees of the company became distribution agents, taking their own cars or motorbikes to deliver products to the most affected areas. Factories worked overnight.

And the outcome?

When I joined Fonterra and got oversight of this amazing business in 2014, the equity that Soprole had created through this unprecedented show of solidarity with the people, had made it the most loved brand in Chile… ahead of Mercedes. And a US$1bn business. All due to the tenacity of each and every employee in the company. Sometimes, adversity can be the biggest game changer for a business.

Stepping out of the functional box

People complain about lack of advertising funds during these situations - because most companies tend to cut their A&P to offset the lower revenue. This is a real opportunity for marketers to think outside the box.

Recently AIA (insurance) announced that it is offering free COVID-19 coverage to all its 1.4 million affected subscribers in Singapore. Of course, this was highly news worthy, and every newspaper and website carried this announcement. If one thinks about it from AIA point of view, given the tiny percentage of actual incidence of this disease in the population, its real cost is almost negligible. Kudos to the brand owners there for not just doing the right thing for the population, but seizing this opportunity to build their brand love.

These are also the times, when marketers cannot just remain confined to their functional responsibilities. They have to wear a total business hat - and work closely with their colleagues in other departments to create cohesive and seamless plans for their business. While this should be done during normal situations as well, during any such emergency, this becomes an absolute necessity.

From P&L planning with Finance to ensure that the shareholders are protected to the extent possible, to supply chain support and planning to ensure against any disruption that might arise - marketers absolutely need to rise beyond their usual day to day.

So here are some reflections from my experience for all my fellow marketers, and other business professionals:

Rise above the obvious negative impact that you see around the COVID situation. Think outside and box, and work in ways that you never thought was possible. And always ask yourself the question: “Will this be helping the affected consumers?”

While staying really close to your consumers is always important, during times of adversity, this becomes a survival tool for businesses. Knowing what consumers are thinking, what their biggest needs and fears are, will help every business person truly device a solution that would be unique. And that is what would define the difference between a “yet another brand initiative” and one that is a gamechanger.

As they say, when the going gets tough, the tough really get going.