Marketing & Advertising in times of COVID: Should Brands spend or not?

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We have all heard and lived in the times of the Covid19 pandemic by now. Starting from the stock market to every other industry known to mankind, all have taken a beating like never before. Job losses, revenue landslides, management layoffs at this time are aplenty. In many ways, the Covid-19 times is the new normal.

Brands are rocked

At such an unprecedented juncture, brands are still rocked by the situation. Customer buying-power has taken a huge hit, and as a result brands are on a downward spiral.

Now purely from a marketing perspective, what are brands to do? A lot of them have sort of resorted to the conservative mindset and stopped their marketing spends. A few others have drastically reduced theirs. Fewer still are of the mindset where they believe they need to boom their expenditure. Well, which is the correct way to go? That’s what I intend to answer though this article.

No Revenue, hence no marketing-budget is probably a wrong way of looking at things

Not for a second should the devastating effect that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on businesses be underestimated. While most large-footed MNCs have the money and power to withstand the impact, the same can certainly not be said about the small and medium enterprise industry sector. Truth is with an ever-contracting client list most of the SME sector have had no choice than to lay employees off and avail to other cost-cutting measures.

Now at a time like this, it’s but natural to halt or drastically limit all marketing and advertising endeavors as it would perfectly fit the whole cost-cutting philosophy. Now at the very outset, it might look like a very feasible thing to do. But is it actually the wisest choice right now? Even considering the whole pandemic-times we are living in, the answer is no. Let’s see why.

Brands have always wanted undivided attention of their customers, now is their chance

People are now more at home than ever before. Needless to say, the amount of their overall Internet time has gone up many-folds. They are spending more time on Social Media Forums than they did before the pandemic lockdown was enforced. Brands and businesses, big or small, are missing a trick if they are not looking to capitalize on this situation.

Now is the time for brands to make an impression on their customers. People are bored and beyond belief frustrated having to sit at home. Now is the time to relieve them off their unenterprising existence through the most beautifully crafted brand messaging, or a mid-pandemic ad-campaign, or a personalized emailer.

It has to be understood that people get on to the internet to blow off some steam. At such a time, what better than to come across a piece of communication from their brand of choice. Customers who are loyal to a particular brand love hearing from them on a frequent basis. Not only does it maintain the existing rapport, but also helps in establishing lifetime loyalty. Now you would not want your customer to switch over to a rival just because you were timid enough to put your marketing on pause, would you?

It’s important to have an eye on the future scheme of things

History will tell you that mankind has fought out of situations like a virus-outbreak before and it won’t be long before they come out of it again. Brands and businesses should be looking ahead to that time. For brands to enjoy a rich vein of success when normalcy is eventually restored, they need to make the most of “the currently idle” period.

Brands cannot afford to go through a long time without marketing. Staying in touch with their customer base is very important. Otherwise an out of sight out of mind situation will be inevitable. Also, this is a good time for brands to try and expand their customer base by investing in brand awareness and customer engagement programs. Brands should be in a position to leverage maximum sales when customers do regain their purchasing power. In order to do that, it’s important that brands have a proper strategy and plan in place. Most importantly, they should not look to curtail their marketing endeavors by any significant margin.

Let’s now take a look at some brands that have accentuated their marketing efforts during the COVID-19 lockdown period.

Procter & Gamble (P&G):

– Right at the very outset, the Chief Financial Officer Jon Moeller made it very clear that it was a time to “double down” on its existing media plans as the first quarter of 2020 saw an organic sales growth of 6%. Even after COVID-19 was declared as a global pandemic by the WHO, P&G made it very clear that they will not be pulling back on marketing in any way as media consumption across the Globe is at its highest. According to the official word of their CFO, this is the best time for their brand to remind customers of how they have benefitted from the brand over the years and helped them meet the needs of their families. Hence, it was not the time to go off air.

Unilever:

Another case in point is Unilever and probably it is a better example to emulate than even P&G. The reason being the fact that Unilever did not meet its’ expected first quarter growth of 2.1% as sales were flat. Regardless of that they still have taken a call to maintain the original level of marketing investment. Obviously, they shook up their strategy a bit by shifting away from outdoor advertising and reviewing ad-spending to take advantage of cheaper ad-rates. But the important thing is, despite seeking media bargains, they did not curtail their marketing budget.

McDonalds:

Another inspiring example is that of Global food-chain McDonalds. In the wake of the current pandemic, McDonalds has been forced to shut many of its restaurants as sales fell 6% in the quarter to March 31st, while profits stumbled by 17%. But that did not stop them from spending on marketing. They launched their latest campaign late April on US national television where the fast food chain promoted its free meals for first responders push. The company CEO Chris Kempczinki on being asked about the company’s earnings call sternly said “digital customer engagement remains a priority for our business.” 

The Big Daddys vs SME (Small & Medium Enterprise) debate

Businesses irrespective of size should look to take a leaf out of the book of any or all of these above brands. Looking at the calls made by the chief marketing decision makers of the above brands, it’s clear that they are not looking at exclusive sales as their first call of order. Rather, they are gearing up for the ‘good days’ once again so that when the time does come, they are at a significant advantage in comparison to others. In order to enjoy that advantage, they believe that retaining customer engagement and increasing brand awareness in this lean period is the key.

Now the debate.

A lot of small and medium brands and business owners might come up with a stance pointing out that all the above brands are big, global establishments. Hence, they have the money and the liberty to keep fueling in the investment for marketing. The case is not the same for most SMEs. While their argument is fair in every sense, the more important thing to understand here is the strategy undertaken by these brands. It’s neither necessary nor feasible for these small SMEs to match up with regards to the marketing budget. But what the SMEs can do is work with the budget that they have and try and maximize that, instead of shutting doors altogether. It’s not the budget of these brands that requires emulation, but the masterful idea of persisting with brand awareness/engagement activities.

Further, the SMEs should look to be smart with the way they use their money. Since sales is not the only criteria that needs fulfillment, a lot of emphasis should be laid customer acquisition campaigns, brand-engagement activities, awareness campaigns, etc. instead of extinguishing the entire budget on sales and lead-generation activities which might turn out to be futile right now given the pandemic situation.

Brands and businesses should understand that COVID-19 is here to stay. What’s also true is that we will eventually beat the virus as and when we find a defense mechanism or an antidote. But what will help our businesses stand the test of times is novelty in thinking and a flexible marketing approach. Here is hoping that we all prevail.

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