Expert Speak: With the arrival of a deadly Second Wave are brands doing enough?

COVID-19 brand communication

While the world hopes to see the light at the end of the tunnel, the advertising industry has pulled back on its marketing efforts, considering the not-so buoyant consumer sentiments amidst a lethal second wave. We speak to industry experts, understanding how the second wave has resulted in a different approach towards crisis communication & its effectivity.

“We’re dealing with a national crisis at a gargantuan scale. Dissemination of information is only one part of what’s needed. Yes, brands can step in to increase awareness on masks and hygiene but the assumption is that that has already been understood,” says Vani Gupta Dandia, Independent Business Consultant.

Although brands have come ahead to work towards COVID-19 relief efforts in the form of donations and amplifying relevant messages, what we haven’t laid our eyes on are impactful campaigns, ad narratives, and brand communication that put light on the current situation. We try to find out why?

Where is the brand communication headed?

According to N. Chandramouli, CEO, TRA, differentiated public service ads and consumer-centric awareness campaigns are not easy to conceptualize.

He adds, “Firstly, it has to be aligned to the brand philosophy, and then it has to also have a social message in the current context. PSAs, which have taken a bold approach has been trolled in the recent past because they dared to cross the imaginary line of balance. Often, this has caused the brand reputational or monetary harm. A brand needs to believe strongly in the PSA or consumer-centric message it is trying to create and stick to it, despite criticisms or trolling.”

There was a time when India took to eradicate Polio by popularizing the medicine doses through ‘Do boond zindagi ke’ campaign – the success which was largely owed to the massive campaigns carried by the health ministry, urging people to get themselves to the polio booths – not to forget the Bachchan effect. Cut to 2021, as the clouds of uncertainty around vaccination loom large, how far are the authorities and brand custodians from churning out effective campaigns to spread more awareness?

Ambi Parameswaran, Brand Strategist & Founder, Brand-Building thinks brands and corporates have not done enough this time around and have been caught flat-footed. “This is surprising given the kind of brainpower that rests in the large Indian companies and MNCs based in India. They should have seen the second wave coming and alerted one and all. But that said, it is water under the bridge. They should now take a stand to pay for all the vaccination of all their employees and family. That is the bare minimum they can do,” he observes.

He further shares that many of them have offered to produce oxygen needed by critically ill patients, a good initiative. Some ITES companies are creating Covid Care centers in their now, empty offices. 

On the other hand, Harish Bijoor, Brand-strategy specialist & Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc says, “The pandemic and its pain are being read inadequately by the A&M industry. Many companies, and indeed their many brands look tired. Many efforts seem overdone. Many lack the basic integrity hood communication needs to pack.”

The IPL impact?

When asked if they think that the focus on big-ticket events like IPL has resulted in a shortage of crisis communication, Parameswaran quips that IPL adds a relief valve and we should not throttle it. On their side, he feels, the tournament should pledge all the surplus from IPL 2021 to the Covid Vaccine program or something similar.

Meanwhile, Chandramouli comments, “IPL in a time like this is controversial. It’s a big-ticket spend and the returns are uncertain when India is battling its worst Covid wave yet.”

Also Read: How brands can help COVID-19 relief efforts & put out relevant communications

A New POA

Given the scale of the crisis more than communication we need funds to mobilize oxygen at hospitals or provide other necessary medical infrastructure, thinks Dandia.

“Those struggling at home with studies or with Covid family members need food, supplies, mobiles, medicines. There is little brands can do today in the preventive / education zone.  We’ve crossed that bridge. Today we need crisis handling,” she asserts.

Advertisers rely on consumer trust, and they can enhance this trust by demonstrating that they care for more than just monetary gains and are interested in bringing benefit to society.

Chandramouli opines, “When a socially relevant message or campaign is being created, a brand must ensure that the brand philosophy and campaign are aligned completely. If this rings true, then there are many messages around helping in this time of crisis that will help consumers. PSA gives generic messages of ‘stay safe and healthy, don’t cut ice.”

In terms of communication, Parameswaran feels that the brands can fund efforts to reduce vaccine hesitancy, once vaccines are freely available- that will be a good move. 

“Brands need to sit out the pandemic and must not force the advertising and marketing narrative. That would be insensitive if they did,” elucidates Bijoor.

If at all brands must do something, he adds, they must just feel. “Feel the pain and wait it out. Additionally, brands need to be the balm consumers are looking for. Advertising and marketing narrative must keep this in mind and make it the basic touchstone of what they communicate.”

On how can agencies drive the relevant message back home and apply their creative abilities in an apt way for their clients, Chandramouli replied that, unlike the yesteryears, the agencies of today are succumbing to the pressures of the client.

He briefs, “The conversation between the agency and the client is mostly led by the client because of the fears of disagreement. However, creativity begins with a clash of ideas, which is lacking today because of a client’s high focus on revenues. However, agencies should still do their bit in presenting creative ideas that help meet the client objectives and yet pass the consumer-interest messages through their campaigns.”

Also Read: Brands that are working towards COVID-19 relief efforts

Need of the Hour

“Today companies must step in to help wherever needed,” says Dandia. For her, it is not necessary to look for a brand link or check back on the CSR agenda companies committed to as part of their annual operating plan. 

“And not look for badge value, propaganda, or increase in equity scores.  Brands must step in quite simply because if all of us together don’t get through this then we’ll see a huge downward spiral in the economy. And that will certainly affect their own share price, revenue, and long-term growth.

In the interest of survival no longer can anyone wait and watch.  We need to step up to whatever we can do to curb the crisis as if our own house were on fire.”

From disseminating crucial information to contributing to the relief efforts to communicating new guidelines and offerings, a few brands have taken cognizance of the grave situation as the deadly virus ravages India.

“We should watch out for a ‘Bull Whip Effect’, and not get carried away either way. Make a lot now. Regret later. Cut back now. Then get hit again. A story we have seen happen this year,” Parameswaran concludes.


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