E-commerce: India may see something similar to Alibaba’s rise post-SARS

Prof Seema Gupta, IIM Bangalore, emphasizes that the online channel may be the only option in the foreseeable future for retail, and companies must be prepared to alter supply chains and push for digital marketing.

Seema Gupta

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?

Prof. Seema Gupta: COVID-19 might change the work environment and the shape of the economy. The timeless skill of marketing – building and nurturing relationships with customers would always remain eternal. 

This is a time to show your mettle as a marketer. Are you able to show that you care for your customers? Companies should look to keeping profiteering aside and focus on well being of the customer. In these difficult times, brands should create content with a social perspective looking to create awareness or helping out with relief work. This is a great chance to show you are more than just a profit-centric organisation and are a contributing part of society.

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

Prof. Seema Gupta: In these tough times, the best supply chain plans would fall apart. Social distancing is a must to avoid the further spread of the virus. The first step would be to identify your critical supplies and determining a clear pathway with a contingency plan for various situations. Focus on keeping multiple alternate sources to avoid overdependence. Forecast a realistic demand for the future and prepare accordingly. Maintain the safety of all workers with PPE and avoid as minimal human interference as possible. Manage liquid cash effectively and run stress tests to look for any potential problems that may arise.

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?

Prof. Seema Gupta: While it is good to be optimistic, there is a very real possibility that the economy could be heading towards a recession. This being said, there is always a certain amount of demand for any products. Companies that have really connected with their customer showing that they had genuine concern and took part in social causes are likely to be favoured by customers. There will be a drastic increase in prices of essentials and FMCG products before it settles down. Brands should definitely consider lowering their margins and work on generating bulk sales. Consumers would favor brands offering discounts, deals, cashbacks as there will be liquidity crunch. 

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

Prof. Seema Gupta: Just like how Alibaba rose after the SARS outbreak in China, a similar situation is possible in India. With large malls and markets shut, there is a huge gap between demand and supply. Consumers will flock to e-commerce as they are left with no option. The biggest challenge would be altering their supply chain and handling inventory. Companies would have to shift their focus on digital marketing to attract customers. Just the sheer logistics behind starting to go online can be cumbersome. If you already have an online presence then look to target users from various channels. Optimise your page and marketing campaign to get maximum benefits. For the foreseeable future, online is the only solution. Affiliate marketing will grow even further as ecommerce companies would seek marketing support from affiliates and wouldn’t mind paying commission for every sale through their link. 

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?

Prof. Seema Gupta: The lockdown will force companies to reduce their annual expenditure, and marketing is one of the sections that will receive a major cut. Companies will be forced to look at cheaper and more versatile options. Digital marketing could be the ideal solution for all. It is cheaper and has a greater reach. It allows you to target your most valuable customers effectively. In this testing time, many are under a state of panic. Brands should look beyond short term gains and look at this as an opportunity to grow their brand image. They can even look at keeping the users engaged with online contests and videos. Focus on providing useful content that either creates awareness or entertains the user.

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?

Prof. Seema Gupta: Brands should work on showing the safety precautions they are taking such as PPE, regular testing, no-touch delivery etc. Companies could make short videos or a commercial that showcases the stringent safety measures undertaken. Work on generating content online in the form of social media posts and ads that further emphasise the point. Create an awareness campaign and focus on educating people on principles like social distancing and the use of masks. This will be a time-consuming process, but is need of the hour for many brands.

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?

Prof. Seema Gupta: Marketing has never been about how big your budget is but how effectively you use it. With many companies struggling to stay open, marketing budgets are likely to be a bare minimum. In times likes this one needs to clearly define the goals of your campaign. Working towards increasing your brand image and keeping a social angle to your campaign will work best.

The most vital part of the process would be to target and retarget your well-defined consumer base. Focusing on retaining present high-value customers should be your number one target.

To help you establish your goals, digital marketing would be the best option. It offers flexibility and more importantly is much cheaper. Shifting of focus towards content and social media marketing would be ideal.

Seema Gupta (www.profseema.com) is an Associate Professor of Digital Marketing at IIM Bangalore. She conducts digital marketing training, provides consulting and does agency fulfilment for companies. Prof Gupta is the author of popular textbook Digital Marketing published by McGraw and is a keynote speaker to many high profile digital marketing summits and panel discussions. She is also a visiting faculty of digital marketing at ESAN University, Peru and EGADE University, Mexico.

With more than 10 years of experience in digital marketing, she has trained both CXOs and senior professionals of companies such as John Distilleries, Arvind Brands, 3M, Aranyani, Union Bank, Lifestyle stores, Harman, Naturals, Adobe, Hersheys, TV Today, Lintas etc. She has consulted for companies such as KW Group, Mapsko, INDCOSERVE, Gaursons, Nilonu2019s, KHSDRP, NVT group, Karnataka State Seeds Corporation etc. You may also listen to her views on how to come back from Corona at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NpGR5jV2T6k

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