Indian consumer brands have a golden opportunity

Dr Venkatesh Shankar, Professor of Marketing and Coleman Chair in Marketing and Director of Research at the Center for Retailing Studies, Mays Business School, asserts that Indian consumer brands should use e-commerce to directly connect with consumers, engage with them, create valuable offerings and enhance customer experience.

TPCI:  At a time when the market is down and restricted to a few essential categories, how do you view the importance of marketing communications by companies to its target audiences? What should be the new communication approach and strategy?

Dr Venkatesh Shankar: During these testing times, marketing communications plays a critical role—more so than before. Companies need to better understand revised customer needs and expectations, adapt their offerings and practices, and effectively and continually communicate to customers and prospects. Leaders, managers, and decision-makers need to communicate clearly and frequently during the crisis. Companies need to have revised business and marketing strategies and develop a communication strategy that inspires confidence among their target audience, is responsive and sensitive to customer needs, and be realistic and reassuring. For example, banking and telecommunication companies need to be more accommodating of customer payment hardship.

Similarly, grocers should offer more flexible options and pharmacies and medical companies should more quickly fulfill customer orders. Likewise, healthcare providers should provide more phone and online consultations. These are not just the “right things to do” during such a humanitarian crisis. They are also effective communication strategies that keep companies close to their customers and enhance their lifetime value.     

TPCI: Given the emphasis on social distancing, what key adaptations do you deem necessary for companies in their supply chain management?

Dr Venkatesh Shankar: The impact of social distancing on supply chain management will be significant. Manufacturers and retailers will have to adopt safe inventory management, inspection and delivery practices. In addition, they need to effectively communicate these adaptations to their stakeholders, including employees, customers, and vendors. Companies will have to embrace automation more as it allows greater social distancing. They will have to embed AI in more devices and operations and accelerate AI adoption at a faster pace than before. 

TPCI: What major changes do you anticipate in customer behaviour, approach to consumer brands and buying patterns when the lockdown opens? What kind of opportunities does this open up for marketers?

Dr Venkatesh Shankar: Covid-19 has changed consumer attitudes and behaviour forever. Consumers are getting used to online ordering and delivery—they are warming up to the convenience. They are also wary of shopping in crowded stores, eating in packed restaurants, or hanging out in busy malls, theatres, and stadia. They are also caring more about cleanliness and sanitation while shopping. They will trust and embrace brands who appear to incorporate these revised attitudes and behavior in their marketing and be stewards of the society. Marketers have a huge opportunity to shape the dialog and practices in this emerging post Covid-19 world. Assuming the economy opens in a safe and steady manner, marketers will have to “talk the talk” and “walk the walk” with customers on their new journey.

TPCI: The role of e-commerce is expected to increase drastically in the coming months, as retail stores and malls become more or less forbidden territory. What should Indian consumer brands do to prepare for this shift?

Dr Venkatesh Shankar: Indian consumer brands and marketers have a golden opportunity to reshape the scenario. Brands should use e-commerce to directly connect with consumers, engage with them, create valuable offerings, and enhance customer experience. Rather than rely heavily on mass media advertising and celebrity endorsements, they should deepen use mobile, social media, and other digital marketing to deepen connections and be game changers. Direct-to-consumer brands and digitally native retailers have a great opportunity to be game changers.

TPCI: What impact do you expect on allocation of media budgets post-lockdown, especially the role of digital channels? How do you perceive the importance of content marketing in this context?

Dr Venkatesh Shankar: Companies will accelerate the allocation of money to digital and mobile channels.  Content marketing will gain traction, in particular, in crowded markets and media spaces, where capturing consumer attention is key. Content marketing will raise the authenticity of brands, which will be key in the post Covid-19 world. Around 45% of India’s population is 25 and under. This audience is digitally native, so digital and mobile channels will resonate well with them.

TPCI: Consumers are facing a crisis of confidence on product safety, hygiene, etc. due to the Covid-19 outbreak, which could affect purchases across consumer durable brands. What can companies do to assure consumers and build brand preference?

Dr Venkatesh Shankar: Companies will have to first adopt high safety and hygiene standards in their operations. Importantly, they will have to communicate these practices effectively and quickly to their target audiences. They will have to show how they are protecting their employees. They should bring out safety and cleanliness guidelines and make them transparent to the public. However, to differentiate themselves, companies will have to go beyond and be leaders and change agents in the community, spreading safety awareness and demonstrating best practices. Doing so will generate positive user generated content in social media that would help brands in the long run. 

TPCI: Marketing budgets are expected to be under pressure as businesses try to revive their fortunes in a post-Covid world. What should be their approach to marketing budget optimisation in this period in your view to maximise impact at minimum possible costs?

Dr Venkatesh Shankar: During crisis, it is tempting for most companies to cut their marketing budgets. However, they will be wiser to use this opportunity and leverage their budgets to communicate through social media, mobile media, and digital channels, where they can achieve greater targeting and higher ROI.

In addition, my own research linking Covid-19, the US stock market, and the US President’s tweets, offers three powerful lessons in leadership and marketing communication during a crisis. First, it is important for leaders to reduce uncertainty rather than magnify uncertainty. They need to consistently communicate real progress on the initiatives to reduce uncertainty and instill confidence. Second, the key is to set the right expectations for followers, whether they are investors or the general public. Third, leaders should use Twitter wisely as it is a double-edged sword. Retweets of communication content that realistically address expectations may mitigate the adverse effects of a crisis, but those that are inconsistent with the audience’s expectations will only aggravate the negative outcomes.


Venkatesh (Venky) Shankar  (http://www.venkyshankar.com/is Professor of Marketing and Coleman Chair in Marketing and Director of Research at the Center for Retailing Studies, Mays Business School, Texas A&M University. His areas of specialization include Digital Business, Marketing Strategy, Innovation, New Product Management, Retailing, Services Marketing, Pricing, International Marketing, Branding, Mobile Marketing., and Artificial Intelligence. Shankar has a Ph.D. in marketing from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University and has corporate experience in the areas of marketing and international business development. He has been recognized as one among the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds by Thomson Reuters and one of the Top 10 experts on innovation management worldwide. Shankar has consulting or executive teaching experience with organizations such as Allstate, Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, Colgate Palmolive, Deloitte, GlaxoSmithKline, Halliburton, Hewlett Packard, HSBC, IBM, Intel, Lockheed Martin, Lucent Technologies, Marriott International, Medtronic, Microsoft, Northrop Grumman, PepsiCo, PNC Bank, Philips, and Volvo.

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