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Opinion: The changing face of branding & advertising in COVID-19

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Social Samosa
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Monaz Todywalla


PHD Media India's Monaz Todywalla writes how has corporate brand social media evolved since the beginning of the pandemic and if these evolutions have had a direct impact on consumer behavior and business.

With the onset of the pandemic and all the chaos it brought, every industry felt shockwaves. In the first few months of this unprecedented invasion by COVID-19, things were unpredictable and people were in many cases filled with despair and a lack of hope. From the uncertainty of the symptoms and the precautions to the sheer number of cases and the strict lockdown restrictions that most people had never witnessed before – the virus took the world by storm.

Through the lockdown, consumer behaviour went through so many extremes, it was a dizzying phenomenon to witness. With panicky stockpiling leading to real and virtual shelves being empty, to extra cautious saving and cost-cutting in other purchase areas, for brands and for the A&M industry, it’s been many months of overwhelming ups and downs. It is noteworthy though, how at every juncture the industry has tried to stay on their toes, understanding general consumer sentiments and creating communications on the back of quick and agile interpretations.

Looking as far back as March of 2020, which now feels like an era gone by, one such trend that began to catch on was ad content and brand communications that were filled with messages of awareness, caution, and information. Instagram’s isolation-specific stickers like “Stay Home, Stay Safe” have been doing the rounds of Insta-stories, health, and hygiene brands have been making the most of the situation to educate consumers on sanitizer use and the science behind hand washing. Even the iconic little girl of Amul fame was disseminating awareness on cautionary measures, and a brand like KFC had to withdraw its latest Finger-Lickin' Good campaign. Essentially, a strong sense of responsibility was and continues to be a top priority in 2020. The peak, though, was at the beginning of the year.

As consumer sentiment gradually began to stabilize for a while, awareness levels increased and people got more used to continuous precautionary measures and lockdown-associated challenges, it became important to spread messages of hope, positivity, and silver linings. As a way to connect with an audience that seemed to have nothing to look forward to, brands from across categories, quite literally, cheered the people up. With empathy, mindfulness, introspection, and openness becoming common sentiments, brands emphasized humane-speak.

While awareness around social distancing and wearing masks was and remain crucial, brands began to go beyond. From Titan’s Make Every Moment Count campaign that encouraged consumers to make the best of their time indoors by doing “everything and nothing”, to Nescafe’s campaign that essentially urged people to actually do something with the catchphrase, “Karne Se Hi Hona Hai” – Determination, resilience, and deep self-reflection became the thought of the time.

OTT entertainment and gaming were also beginning to see a surge in viewership at this point, and social media and the digital realm as a whole were bursting with activity. There was no better time for brands to make their presence felt digital. TV also showed tremendous growth this year, and in April 2020 was already witnessing viewership 40% higher than in the pre-COVID phase.

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Journey on a few months and things began to open up a bit. Cases dipped for a time in between, and for all practical purposes, business, travel and recreation showed signs of stirring. In the approach to mid-2020, consumer sentiments were still cautious, though witnessing a gradual uptick. An OMG report showed that 70% of Indians surveyed continued to be scared of contracting COVID-19, with 60% reducing expenditure on personal grooming products, approximately 50% postponing purchases on non-essential, high-investment categories, all while time spent on media was steadily rising. During and after this, the gradual unlock felt like a huge relief not just to people, but also to brands and agencies. With flight and road travel starting up again, even OOH began to see a return.

In anticipation of the festive season as well, brands and their A&M advisors began to see merit in OOH-based strategies. Brands taking up initiatives to set up an installation at airports and various public spheres are a testament to the fact that out-of-home was already beginning to look up and continues to re-unlock its potential as we end 2020. Communication has also become much more about looking forward to safe and secure normalcy. Messaging is starting to involve people eating out at restaurants while maintaining a safe distance, and the hope that brands are instilling is becoming much more real and immediate. Through all of this, it’s important to acknowledge that social media and entertainment have remained center stage, and with the IPL, Bigg Boss, and KBC, OTT is super-charged and TV is redeeming itself a little more every day.

Just journeying through 2020 in retrospect feels like exploring a few years of changes in media, entertainment and communications. The sheer volume and range of change has been overwhelming, and what strikes me the most is that more than ever before, 2020 has been about brands keeping close pace with consumers. People have always mattered, but through the last one year, people’s physical health, mental wellbeing, financial state, employment situation – All of this has upstaged every other priority. And with the turbulence and turmoil of 2020, the best thing that marketers, advertisers, media planners and communications strategists could do was listen to consumers, respect them and change course with dizzying agility whenever needed.

Empathy took the helm amongst people in 2020, and it impacted the A&M industry more than we could ever imagine, ultimately manifesting in this fascinatingly quick evolution that we have seen in the year gone by. When has today’s generation ever witnessed an entire era that flashed by in 300-odd days? 2020 has been tough, and because of that, it’s also taught us tough lessons.

The piece has been authored by Monaz Todywalla, CEO- PHD India.

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