April , 2020
Marketing Strategy in the COVID-19 Crisis
11:59 am

Shaunak Roy

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to trigger havoc across the world. With the outbreak showing  no discernible signs of deceleration yet, a major segment of businesses across the world is apprehensive. Marketing professionals are weathering tumultuous conditions - as they continue to engage in a relentless quest to come up with innovative strategies.

What should the advertising spend and marketing budgets be for the upcoming quarters? Should businesses seek to recuperate sponsorship losses from mega events? Are the risk mitigation strategies of the company adequate? Are the business continuity planning (BCP) initiatives of the company robust enough to deal with the challenges?

These are critical questions faced by most companies in India as well as across the world as they strive to develop effective business recovery plans.

Appreciate the current situation

The first thing marketing organisations must do is to take a pause for the cause and forget about aggressively promoting their products and services for the upcoming few months. At a time when the world is grappling with a thorny malady and financial precariousness, the last thing consumers would want is a corporate attitude obsessed with profit-maximisation. For instance, in a recent report, it was observed that during the 21-day mandatory lockdown period, retail giants such as Westside and Spencer’s, continued to accept nationwide online orders and payments for products that were being stored in their premises, regardless of their inability to fulfil order deliveries. Despite being highly profitable ventures, such attempts of unreasonably eschewing their contractual commitments puts smaller retail players at a disadvantage.

However, various companies are doing their bit. For instance, the Reliance Foundation has arranged for free meals in collaboration with several NGOs during the crisis. Zomato has also initiated a similar programme called the ‘Feed the Daily Wager’, wherein they have distributed over 1,00,000 kits spanning over 20 metro and tier-II cities. Similarly, Hero IndiaMahindra and Mahindra, the Godrej groupPayTMPatanjali and several other companies have already dedicated their philanthropic contributions to adversely affected territories. In return, they have shared their humanitarian undertakings with their followers on social media platforms and through online newsletters and web communities. Although companies have not refrained from engaging with customers through their marketing communications programmes, the style of such promotional messages has changed significantly. Flipkart does not bombard inboxes with alluring offers but instead offers meaningful activity suggestions such as meditation, healthy living, and exploring natural talents. Travel companies have continually reassured their customers that their money is in safe hands and that they would either be offered a total refund on bookings or be given a complementary rescheduling option in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Develop a list of primacies

In an extremely dynamic environment, marketers are faced with the challenge of developing a well-defined list of primacies which need to be implemented with high levels of independence at the local level. The most pressing need for marketers in this VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity), environment is effective communication of updates and information - as substantially and recurrently as possible. Consider the case of online delivery companies like Amazon, Big Basket, and Swiggy which continually update their pool of customers about the safety precautions adopted by the company in handling deliveries. In this context, it is also important to note that due to the sheer volume of fake news circulating, companies must cite credible agencies such as governments or international agencies when making marketing decisions and developing promotional content. Brands must now prioritise by focussing on customers at this moment of crisis, which, in turn, helps them regain the confidence and loyalty of their customers. 

Implement scenario analysis

Of all the strategic thinking techniques available to companies - be it contingency planning, sensitivity analysis, or even complex computer simulations - the most feasible tool available now is scenario planning. Marketers should make  efforts to define the word ‘future’, which would help to shape the structure of strategic thinking towards planning for diverse possibilities. Marketers are essentially staring at four kinds of future:

§  Anything can occur- from a sudden and miraculous disappearance of the virus strain across the world to a collapse of the social order (possible future).

§  The  possibility of something happening, such as all countries in the world taming the SARS-CoV-2 virus synchronously, is viable but improbable, given how the situation has panned out so far (plausible future).

§  Something is likely to happen, such as the transformation of the social order in a given society, be it in terms of developing just and equitable labour policies to accommodate disabled people or even implementing rational policies for sick leave and flexi-child-care arrangements etc. (possible future).

§  A company is desirous of something to happen, such as restarting conventional business operations at the earliest (preferable future).

Marketers must first define best-case, average-case and worst-case scenarios that could transpire in the course of the ongoing crisis. For instance, the best-case scenario would be to purchase ad spots during the Indian Premier League (IPL) while the worst-case scenario would be to scout for unorthodox modes of reaching their target audience when the IPL stands cancelled. With the Tokyo Olympics being deferred until 2021, a few major time-honoured sponsors such as P&G, Intel, Airbnb, Coca-Cola, and Samsung have reiterated their allegiance to the games by pledging that they would not be likely to pursue the monetary refund dedicated to the contracts. This would probably be the best time to identify obstacles encountered by customers, brands, supplier,s and the marketing organisation in each of the aforementioned scenarios. This would help them conceive of plausible strategies to be undertaken.

Boost social listening to track consumer behaviour

The best strategy that marketers can adopt at present is to listen more than they speak. Amplifying social media monitoring and measurement efforts in order to paint meaningful deductions about the prevailing sentiments of their target customers is crucial. For instance, what is the level of trust that consumers have in general towards the actions of the government in the wake of the crisis? What are their immediate heath concerns and requirements? In what ways can such requirements be channelised to suit their relevance to the given brand? Marketing organisations must use voice of the customer (VoC) methodologies in order to systematically outline the customer expectation-experience gap in connection with the marketing organisation. Brands can successfully avert a likely brand crisis by augmenting customer retention by customising their product offerings to fulfil latent and expressed customer needs. While face masks, hand sanitizers, and other essential items may not be the core offerings of every company, they can open up newer opportunities by tracking customer sentiments. The key is to ensure that customer service professionals exhibit profound levels of prudence in backing and safeguarding customer liaisons while maintaining absolute uprightness about the company’s current operational capacities.

Acclimatise the marketing plan

The widespread societal adjustments would start to take its toll on the marketing plans of the organisation. Event management companies must look for alternative modes of event delivery. For instance, sporting events would focus more on bettering their broadcast and streaming delivery platforms. Schools and colleges are gradually moving into the alternative virtual mode of pedagogy, which is proving to be effective in many ways, despite preliminary hiccups. Work-from-home is at an experimental stage at present, as organisations might consider reworking their work structure, thereby cutting down employee costs in future. Content marketing firms would see a rise in demand, as billions of isolated individuals would want to watch gripping content as they follow social distancing norms and spend their time in isolation. The demand for such entertaining, uplifting and buoyant content would compel firms to hire the services of professional content marketers or agencies. Brands, which dynamically acclimatise to the enduring crisis, shall tend to enjoy greater levels of customer-based brand equity (CBBE), since consumers tend to value those brands more which are empathetic and responsive towards their needs during crisis.

The author, Prof. Shaunak Roy is presently, Assistant Professor of Management Studies at St. Xavier’s College (Autonomous), Kolkata.

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