Adapting Marketing to the Changing Times

Covid-19 is an opportunity for firms to view their consumers and employees and the environment they live in with more empathy. Studies have shown that firms that are more charitable and understanding of their consumers and employee needs tend to do well and last long.

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“Trust that your Furry Friend is in good health! Stay Home, Stay Safe, and Stay Healthy. Call on this number to order pet food and accessories.”

This was one of the messages that I received early during the lockdown from Planet Health enquiring after my little brown dachshund. Not just messages, open any app, or visit any website now, there is a good chance you will see similar information reassuring the consumers about how the company is tackling the current COVID-19 situation.

The pandemic has forced firms to pivot back to marketing’s main and oft-forgotten principle – have a consumer orientation. It has never been more apparent than now that customer well-being equates to firm well-being. Firms that develop their strategies around customers’ needs are likely to do better than firms that focus only on what they can produce. Take the case of FabIndia that has recalibrated its attention from summer dresses (apt for this time of the year) to cleansing gel and hand-made masks (apt for this specific time in our lives).

The lesson for brands is that they need to view the world through the lens of their consumers, especially when consumers have become more discerning in their purchases – both out of compulsion and choice.

Changing Consumer Attention and Actions

Products like Amul dahi or Maggi noodles, which used to be low involvement purchases pre-pandemic, have now moved to the high involvement quadrant. This naturally implies that consumers will lavish their attention on products that were previously routine purchases. They are likely to be more vigilant towards the messaging and features of these products. It is no surprise then that Big Basket and Zomato are spending time explaining their safety practices. Similarly, The Hindu ran a campaign on how it is safe to read their papers, and Ahmedabad Mirror carried photos of different people, including the Chief Minister of Gujarat, reading the paper.

As people pay more attention to routine and habitual purchases, high involvement products such as automobiles and vacations are unlikely to even feature in the consumer’s consideration set. The challenge for these firms is to remain in consumers’ memory. One can see many high involvement brands engaging in donations or hotels opening their spaces for quarantining patients. Such actions are likely to be viewed favourably by consumers, and firms may be rewarded with purchase and loyalty in the future.

A marked and significant shift in consumer behaviour is moving online for shopping. People are learning to buy everything from rice to gold online. Agents are selling luxury bungalows in London with the assistance of video conferencing software and 3D cameras. The early movers in this space (such as Khan Academy) are thriving, while reluctant players like the local kirana stores are swiftly catching up. Take the case of the Nashik farmers who sold produce worth Rs. 4 crores directly to customers rather than going via intermediaries to transfer their products. This implies that marketers now will be required to pay attention to both their online and offline arms.

While marketers focus on how to be digitally savvy, they also need to consider the data privacy and protection issues of their customers. Firms should resist the temptation to use consumer data adversely for revenues. Such actions may cost them long-term brand equity and loyalty.

Changing Marketing Budgets

Given the shrinking marketing budgets, how can marketers effectively communicate their message?

Numbers show that consumers are paying more attention to COVID-19 themed ads. This is not surprising as people are more focused on preserving their health and wealth. The focus is on safety rather than growth and thriving. Most of the consumers will be glad if they do not incur losses even if they do not make many gains.

In such a scenario, marketing communications should also match this consumer mindset. Communications strategy, which emphasizes “prevention of losses”, is likely to be more productive. Brands should focus on how their products may help consumers maintain/conserve their current status, guard/defend/withstand against problems and prevent unfortunate circumstances. Remember the newspapers and home delivery messages that I talked about earlier?

Further, firms will have to use both traditional and digital media to reach consumers effectively. Each media serves a different brand purpose. Traditional mass media helps raise brand credibility and reach. Digital media offers an opportunity to increase understanding of product usage situations and familiarity. Investing only in one media over others will only partly serve a brand purpose.

Opportunity to change the scope of marketing

This time of crisis is also an opportunity for the marketing community to reconsider their work in a new light. Marketing is not just about investing in communications and media. Marketing is also about investing in customers and employees.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the vulnerability of many employees who are essential to the running of our markets. Moreover, marketers themselves have realized that the migrant labourer who loads and unloads products is essential for the success of their products. It is imperative that we pay more attention to these neglected co-workers. It is also likely that post-pandemic consumers will be willing to pay more if firms could explain how their higher pricing will improve the living and working conditions of their vulnerable employees. This was already happening in clothes and handicrafts and it could extend to other sectors in the economy.

This pandemic is forcing many of us to acknowledge that most of the essential workers out-of-home and at-home are women. If their work is practical and essential, then their needs also must be practical and not just aesthetic (e.g., pink pens). The limited view of women as college girls or mothers has created some regressive stereotypes. There is a critical need for the top-management to recognize that products and product communications must attend to women and women’s needs better. For example, it is time to evolve from the imagery of a mother worried about a child’s injury to a situation where the burden of childcare is on both the parents.

Indeed, more consumers may now shop online. However, it has become evident that no amount of video and phone calls can substitute people’s desire to meet and interact physically. Physical retail spaces can be reimagined as spaces for consumer interactions and online locations as spaces to sell goods. This long-term vision should without doubt be environment-friendly and sustainable.

Here is an opportunity for firms to view their consumers and employees and the environment they live in with more empathy. Studies have shown that firms that are more charitable and understanding of their consumers and employee needs tend to do well and last long. The way to win consumer confidence is by showing that firms care about their customers and employees. It is now up to the firms to make it part of their brand DNA.


Akshaya Vijayalakshmi (PhD, Iowa State University) teaches the topics of Marketing Research and Psychology of Promotions to MBA and PhD students. She is currently Assistant Professor, Marketing, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. Broadly, her research interests lie in the intersection of vulnerable consumers and public policy. She also has an interest in consumer behaviour topics such as information processing and sensory marketing. Akshaya has won several competitive research grants (national and international) to pursue her research. Prior to her PhD, Akshaya worked at BIG 92.7 FM in the sales and marketing department.

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