How brands can self-medicate during this pandemic



In a market where there is only uncertainty, and where many industries have already collapsed, as businesses face ruin and scared consumers are hiding out in their homes – how do you market anything to anyone?

Firstly, there is an end in sight: look at China emerging to a semblance of normality in some areas in March, albeit with temperature checks all over, three months after the pandemic took hold in that country and mass lockdowns started in February. Yes, we have already been told that this pandemic may be with us for two years, as treatment protocols are refined and a vaccine possibly developed, but – in about six months’ time, after our winter – South Africans will have an economy to rebuild, as will most of the rest of the world.

That is what we all need to start planning for now. Even in the face of total shutdowns, we all have skills and careers that we have invested in. We now need to reengineer them and look at how to do things differently. In any crisis situation, be it war or this unprecedented lockdown of our global society and economies, innovation thrives. We have to be creative to work remotely; to start new businesses if our current ones fail; to look at how to take our unique skills or hobbies or passion-projects and turn them into businesses.

South African futurist and future of work consultant at TomorrowToday, Graeme Codrington, has been releasing a series of videos on his YouTube channel to counsel business leaders on what to do next – this after his globetrotting career speaking at events and to companies for 11 out of 12 months each year was abruptly curtailed by travel restrictions. We all have to start thinking differently and more virtually, using online tools to connect and work and be more effective, he says.

Influential American site Politico also surveyed 34 leaders and thinkers across society, technology, the economy, health and politics, to find out how the world will be changed by this pandemic. It is a long but excellent read and will spark ideas as to how we will need to do things differently and how we will all be changed by remote-working and self-isolating for months, while trying to keep our work going. The main take-away from the article: “Coronavirus will change the world permanently. A crisis on this scale can reorder society in dramatic ways, for better or worse.” It is not only our ways of working that will change, but society in general. This needs to be taken into account in future business decisions.

Purpose over profit

However, before that, we need to support our immediate communities: our families, friends, customers and clients. Purpose over profit – that is how we have to go forward. All the futurists say plan and prepare. Accept there will be massive personal and business losses financially, which are unquantifiable at this stage, and so prepare for the worst-case scenario and plan what to do when society returns to a semblance of normality. What do people need now? Where do consumers need support now?

A young filmmaker in Italy, for example, had people share their stories from quarantine with him about what they would have done differently before the pandemic – his short docudrama has gone viral. There are many such projects that filmmakers and film editors could take on from their homes, for example. It may not be enough to pay the bills in the short-term, but may ensure a future in the long-term. Now is the time for empathy, supporting others and passion projects.

Global advertising agency Ogilvy has prepared a communications plan for its clients and partner agencies worldwide and shared it globally to aid other brands. Called COVID-19: How to Communicate in Turbulent Times, the agency advises: “Using your expertise or brand capital to help during a crisis is not about commercial advantage or profit. It is about doing the right thing for society and showing a company’s true values and citizenship.”

Summing up the main findings in the report, Scott Kronick, Ogilvy’s regional lead of PR and influence in the Asia-Pacific region, says that this challenging time for broader society is also a challenging time for marketers and communicators as they have to go into full-scale crisis communications mode. There is no normal right now.

This is Ogilvy’s advice, as outlined by Kronick: “First, it’s crucial that communicators make sure they are dealing with accurate information. Times of crisis can be confusing and frightening, resulting in an amplification of speculation, conspiracy theories, obfuscation and censorship. Communicators must ensure that they are dealing with facts and not fiction, real information and not rumour.

“Second, it’s crucial to have an understanding of the ultimate goals of the communications being delivered. This is not a time to try to market or sell, but rather it is a time to reinforce the values that define leading organisations. What can be done given the various objectives we are working to address? It all comes to down communicating effectively.

“And last, communicators need to properly place the ongoing crisis and issue in a greater context. What does it mean for globalisation, economic growth and more—and how does that play out as the world works to get through the crisis together?”

Survival strategies

AdWeek reports that agencies will be forced to address technology shortcomings during this time and advises brands that cause-related marketing may work better than any other kind, as consumers need to feel supported. A growth in ecommerce is also expected, as all transaction systems move online and retailers beef up their online shops. I believe many small businesses will also upgrade to shop windows on social media and ecommerce platforms and online marketplaces will thrive.

While companies grapple with everything required to allow workers to work remotely, brands and retailers are also having to cope with massive drops in revenue as retailers close the world over and foot traffic all but disappears across much of the retail sector. What brands have to remember is that consumers will develop new habits over this period: people will shop online, order groceries online and order prepared food online in their communities (restaurants have to evolve in this direction)  – and get all their entertainment online, from gaming to movies. Safe delivery will be key, of course, but as more consumers get comfortable with shopping and ordering online, these consumer habits will still be there after this is all past and a massive technological leap-frog will have taken place in retailing, meaning brands will have to do things differently going forward.

Reports AdWeek: “Industry watchers also suggest that if a brand hadn’t devoted major resources to ecommerce in the past, now is the time to do it. While many analysts have said ecommerce cannot replace all lost foot traffic (especially if consumers hit by curtailed or lost incomes have less money for shopping), it’s also true that in the wake of the coronavirus, over 46% of consumers are more likely to buy clothing online, and nearly 65% are more likely to head to the internet to buy personal care products, according to recent data from Red Points.”

The one comforting thought, as South Africa stares down the barrel of this pandemic, is that after two months of lockdown, China is slowly getting back to normal. We have to hold on to that and plan for the disruption that will face all business sectors this year.

The link to the Ogilvy full paper for free download is:

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Louise Marsland is an editor, journalist and columnist in the media and marketing communications industry in South Africa, who has been writing about the industry for over two decades as a former editor of publications: AdVantage, Marketing Mix and She currently writes extensively about industry trends and consumer insight.