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Prasoon Joshi

Chairman - Asia pacific & CEO and chief creative officer McCann Worldgroup India, also a renowned poet and screenwriter

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BW Businessworld

Covid Tunnel Is Only A Filter: Learnings & Opportunities From 2020

Specific business categories like E-learning or E medicine that many thought would take some-time to be mainstreamed have been adapted to, in no time.

Photo Credit :

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As Advertisers and Marketers, we have now had a perspective on how the Pandemic has impacted our work and lives. Several implications seem short term, but many would transmute into long-term impact as well.

That the world will be increasingly a digital one is for all to see and enough has been said about that.

However, let's not forget that the crux of our business- that of understanding our consumers. Not just their behaviour but the mindset that drives it. And in this phase, this is where the learnings really emanate from.

We will have to align ourselves to how the consumer is looking at Brands and consumption. Consumers are reprioritizing many aspects of their lives, be it internal or external. Their needs, want and desires have got impacted. From indulgences, there has been a swing towards the essentials. The pendulum may move again in some time, but for now, we have to understand that consumers are re-evaluating choices – be it the city they stay in or the food they eat or the relationships that truly matter to them.

Specific business categories like E-learning or E medicine that many thought would take some-time to be mainstreamed have been adapted to, in no time.

We will have to see some things as a transition phase and have a strategy ready for that. Call it the "with COVID phase" and then the strategy for the new phase which would be the post COVID one.   

Refiguring the mindscape of the consumers will be vital for the brands. Product categories will need to be realigned and the focus sharpened on innovating in sync with the new emerging needs.

Challenges to Overcome 

Initially, there seemed to be blanket of much gloom and doom surrounding the economy and as a result, specifically the Advertising and Media industries. The worry about advertising spends loomed as the Business community struggled with capital and production issues. Concerns arose about the consumer- demand side, with consumers, spends on non-essentials being curtailed to a bare minimum. Worry about the 'market sentiment', the animal spirits being doused and a general pervading sense of despondency hung in the air.

No one can deny that there are real challenges that too of a global scale. Will 2020 and much of 2021 be a balance sheet washout, will the Pandemic alter forever the wallet and the mindset, who will survive and in what shape?. No easy answers here and we will have to see how it all plays out and be nimble to course-correct.

What we can do in the intermediate stage is to look at and understand the current emerging scenario.

From an agency point of view, we are in the business of ideas and people are our most important resource – the very core of our business. Whilst the ideation doesn't require infrastructure, the execution of those does.

Ideas need to be brought to life through films on-ground events and so many tactile aspects. Virtual events are experientially, not the same. And that's where we have had to honestly think and rethink as the canvas is constricted. Having said that, it's also been a very focused and fertile time, and a lot of work has come out faster and created an impact.

Though work in many ways is simpler without the hassle of a drop of the hat travel and logistics – but for a people-driven industry and especially that of creativity - the bonhomie, bonding which happens virtually lacks a certain vibe- that of organic energies which shared spaces emanate. That part of the work culture is being missed.

Also, I believe in the power and the nuance of the first-hand experience. Like one doesn't go to a zoo to see a lion hunt, you need to be there in the jungle -

Similarly, to be facing, meeting people/ consumers, studying the market, getting a sense of how things are on the ground is imperative.

Now the degrees of separation seem have grown. It's more derived than tactile. And we would need to learn how to extract the maximum from this.

Opportunity :

Given this scenario, what would be the way ahead for the marketers?cIn my opinion, To communicate. Whether it is the right time for the Brands to advertise or not, each business will need to examine their priorities, however, for many categories, this is the right time to hunker down and examine.

But to not to stop at that, action post the recalculation of business needs is essential as well.

To not advertise has to be a considered and calculated call, not a default one.  

To not communicate with the consumers at this juncture can be a folly to be repented on at leisure. This I say with responsibility and awareness beyond the Henry Ford homily during the time of economic downturn of' Trying to save expense on advertising is like trying to save time by stopping the clock."

I say this purely in the context of the consumer. There is a rare opportunity here.

From the lens of a marketer and a communication creator, allow me to pull back just a little to widen the frame.

For long, we in our industry have been in the work of humanizing brands, because people don't consume products, they consume emotion, images and ideas. Brands are like people around which we create a world.  

And Without a story, a brand is lifeless.

Carving out the brand, its persona and etching out a connect, between the brand and its consumers through the idiom of storytelling has been central to all brands.

 A story is a critical part of brand building, a vital marketing asset that enables brands to build bonds beyond the blatant sales pitch. Stories put into place the building blocks of comprehension, belief, openness and compassion.

People don't just buy merchandise they do so because they connect with why are you in this business, what you stand for and the stories that you reveal and share.

Marketing is not just about selling the goods but sharing a journey that resonates.

An authentic story well told garners from the consumers the elusive and precious – emotional investment.

However, Over the last some years, and mainly since social media exploded into our lives, the storytellers more specifically the brand storytellers, found themselves faced with an existential crisis.  

The mediums and platforms multiplied, the technology and formats changed by the minute, variety of content bourgeoned and some studies showed up that attention spans of humans dropped to an average of ten seconds, yes lesser than that of a Goldfish. Brands struggled with clickbait, shock value, 'front-loading' the communication ( main product benefit to be put across in first 5-7 seconds)

The seminal factor, however, to my mind that was a defining one was that the consumer became least interested in hearing the brand story- the consumer wants to tell his or her story. The selfie, Snapchat, Insta story, Digi native is the hero in his story, one that must reach out to gazillions in quick successive periods.

We witnessed a generation where everyone became the storyteller… where were the listeners'?  

Then came the Pandemic.

The sudden pause to life as we knew it. The anxiety, fear, the human suffering and the common thread that bound us all not nationally but globally, became centre stage.

The moments of crisis be it for a country company or a human always mean change.

During this Slowdown -The inflated sense of self and the numbing cocoon of 'work hard and party harder', 'live life king size compulsively on multiple screens broadcasting the story of my life'… receded into the background. The self-stories seem to have lost some of its glossy, slippery charm.

The consumer is stationary, there is more time to breathe, more time to focus attention, to see and to listen. The canvas finally has white space, room. Now that the noise of the deafening noise of the drums has faded, the gentle flute can be heard.

Brands would do well to start speaking again to weave and strengthen the relationship, to tell your brand story gently with empathy and relevance. For a change there are listeners, So don't be absent. .  

Also, for Brands, this is actually a time to walk the talk. Just being a "feel good" brand is no longer enough. The Pandemic has thrown up real questions about real issues. Brands will need to 'do good'. It's time to walk the talk. It's in times like these that the real from the projected is deciphered.

STRIKING A BALANCE 

Coming back to our key asset – people. Given the nature of our work, which is essentially a lot of mind work - much of it can be done from home. However, people can get fatigued from zoom meetings and remote working. It's essential to informally catch up virtually and also encourage people to take breaks looking after their health and family.

We must learn from the pandemic times. Certain things some realizations some other aspects that need to play out more to be ascertained. Keeping all things in mind, we are working towards re-examining our approach.

Advertising is a business where you work and create with a vibrant, throbbing sense of life. It's a critical need as ideas need space, an effervescent atmosphere to strike and thrive, that part of the business should not die in any kind of new working policy that emerges. After all, Sharp business acumen and tough decisions need to be balanced with compassion and concern.


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