Humanity has lived through many waves of pandemics. Within the past 200 years, we have witnessed the plague pandemic of the 1880s, followed by the Spanish flu of 1918, then several relatively localised epidemics, and now, the coronavirus pandemic of 2019.

Human behaviour during these outbreaks has been remarkably consistent — there has been fear, isolation, the rush towards easy home remedies, the search to find a scientific cure, and, of course, prayer and hope. There have been courageous doctors and nurses at the frontline, products and brands which have done their best to add genuine value, and, inevitably, the quacks and charlatans out to make a fast buck.

Know your onions

Some of the most interesting episodes from past pandemics have arisen from the marketing of easy home remedies. A recurring theme during the bubonic plague and the Spanish flu was the call-out to the general public to eat onions, because their pungency was thought to absorb and kill bacteria and viruses. In fact, there were several advertisements released in the US during the flu pandemic, many of them naturally by onion merchants, asking people to perform their patriotic duty against the flu, by eating more onions. There is no evidence if this campaign succeeded in its objectives.

But there is some evidence that onions are indeed rich in nutrition, they also contain prebiotics, which can help with a healthy gut and therefore build immunity against disease. And, in any case, we Indians love our onions. So, even without explicit encouragement from modern marketers, I have continued to do my duty by eating my fill of onions during the current pandemic. My family, which dislikes strong smells, is relieved that I wash up with lots of soap, after my meals.

Sensible advice by brands

On a more serious note, washing or cleaning hands to protect oneself has been centre stage in most pandemics. For instance, during the past month, over 150 new brands of hand sanitisers have been launched in India alone. I admire all brands that have been so quick to market, with their sanitisers. They have helped evangelise an essential protective behaviour.

Similarly, during the Spanish flu, Lifebuoy soap encouraged consumers to wash their hands on three specific occasions — before eating, after coming home from work, and after coming in from the street. This sensible advice must have saved many lives, for sure.

But the brand that was perhaps the hero of the Spanish flu was Vicks Vaporub. Vicks was still a relatively new product in 1918, having been launched only a few years earlier. It was heralded by newspapers as one of the best methods of keeping the flu epidemic away, with detailed descriptions of how its medicated vapours opened our air passages and helped throw off germs. There were articles on “how to use Vicks Vaporub in treating Spanish influenza”, and very soon, druggists were informed that “the brand was oversold due to the present epidemic.” Within a year, the sales of Vicks Vaporub skyrocketed several times. It was the right brand, at the right time.

What resonates, what offends

From sensible advice by brands, we move on to the space of clever communication, which the creative tribe of marketers just cannot resist. However, people tend to be divided on whether this is actually good practice during a time of crisis. Take the recent example of McDonald’s separating its arches in Brazil and on social media, to emphasise social distancing, and to convey the idea that “we are separated for a moment so that we can always be together”. The move instantly gained a lot of media traction, but also drew significant criticism for being insensitive to the crisis. And so McDonald’s Brazil withdrew the campaign altogether.

Past pandemics have also seen similar marketing communication designed primarily to break clutter, ranging from a 1920s cocktail, gorily named the “Corpse Reviver” at the Savoy Hotel in London, to a massage parlour in California that claimed that its deep massages would cure the Spanish flu. Such marketing moves and dubious claims typically fail to make any lasting impact, and many people also find them offensive.

What, however, resonates well with customers is brands and businesses making genuine and spontaneous gestures to help needy segments of people, during these difficult times. In India, large corporate houses have committed to making ventilators, providing food packets to distressed people under quarantine, and arranging for significant quantities of personal protective equipment. In France, the luxury brand LVMH has used its perfume manufacturing factories to churn out hand sanitisers required by Paris city. Bacardi, Pernord Ricard, Budweiser and many other brands of liquor have also begun using their distilleries for this purpose.

Need for human connection

These gestures connect very positively with us. However, in these days of quarantine, we need to connect not just with brands, but with each other too. Because we are social creatures, and connection brings us hope.

During the days of the plague, human connection was often limited to some priests visiting infected people in their homes. By the time of the Spanish flu, telephones, which had already been invented forty years earlier, were being marketed as an excellent method for quarantined people to connect with their friends. Today, with Whatsapp video calling, Instagram, Netflix, Microsoft Teams and Zoom, there is no lack of affordable digital connection, for doing just about everything online from your home — meeting distant relatives, shopping, virtual dating, entertainment, working, or even yoga classes.

Alongside hand sanitisers and masks, these digital brands are the new purveyors of hope in today’s times of solitude. They will continue to nourish us, until our hope eventually translates into a vaccine, or herd immunity, which will protect us thereafter. May that day of redemption come very soon.

Harish Bhat is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons. These are his personal views.

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