How to build a brand during a crisis

Hari Ramanathan | Updated on March 31, 2021

Delivering purpose and sustainability through the entire customer experience is one way

Whenever someone in marketing talks about the pandemic, the conversation is either about how we should do things around people’s fears of the virus or talk about the New Normal. The former is avoidable other than as a short-term tactic for products that can actually solve for the issue, the latter is a waste of time, as most predictions about the future are going to be as right and generic as what you read in the Zodiac section of your afternoon tabloid.

More beneficial instead is to focus on what parts of the consumer behaviour is not going to change, and that includes things that used to be trends that have now become part of mainstream life, especially since they have been exacerbated due to the pandemic.

So, let’s start with what is the metric we’ll use to measure a brand as having performed or not. The key here is not to confuse either familiarity, habit or market share with brand success, while they are all important indicators of the brand power translating into a business, they can just as well be achieved with large amounts of money that buys reach and adequate promotions and distribution.

At the end of the day the brand has one primary role in the marketing mix – be the reason why your product is chosen over another (mostly parity products) in your category.

Most times even product quality or differentiation isn’t as important as the brand, whether in cars, electronics, foods or even finance, the best product isn’t always the largest selling. Behavioural economists have firmly proved that people aren’t rational beings and neither do they make rational decisions with their money, in fact two Nobel Prizes have been given out to confirm that.

Before I carry on, I am not suggesting the product is entirely irrelevant, Vodafone in India is the saddest example of a great brand that’s struggling due to product and company issues, so the relationship isn’t mutually exclusive, but symbiotic, trying to separate any one from the other will result in mutual failure.

In this light let’s look at two key factors that the pandemic has amplified or introduced in people.

1.   A growth in the rise of purpose – And this isn’t about purpose as a communication theme, but a strong and real commitment from the brand to take on a purpose and a cause. It can and should be close to the category but needs to exist outside the product. A survey by YouGov and Campaign APAC in 2021 found that this is not only desirable, but something people want.

On an average over 70 per cent of Indian consumers thought a brand should engage or tackle social and ethical causes as part of their marketing. And a whopping 50 per cent plus Indian consumers thought brands should also engage with political issues as part of their marketing.

Brands are being evaluated on the purpose they commit to and how willing they are to put a stake in the ground about them.

2.  Sustainability Centered – In the same poll over 80 per cent of the Indian consumers said that a company’s commitment to reducing negative environmental impact is a criterion in selection of a brand. The key here is the word commitment – which means action and providing consumers the alternatives to make the right product choices.

The most critical point is that these two aspects can’t be addressed simply in communication. It can’t be just the brand talking about it from a pulpit. The two dimensions of Purpose and Sustainability have to be delivered as Experiences, and that’s not a euphemism for an activation. It’s about mapping real in-depth customer journeys using data and leverage technology across product and retail to deliver category changing Experience.

Keeping with the theme of the times, focusing on building your brand using purpose and sustainability delivered through the entire customer experience is the only vaccine against the scourge of parity products and predatory pricing.

(Hari Ramanathan is Chief Strategy & Transformation Officer, VMLY&R)

Published on March 31, 2021

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