Sensitive Marketing Strategies to Promote Better Customer Engagement

Authored by Alok Kohli, Business Director – DSM India.

India’s lockdown due to COVID-19 has introduced many new elements on a mass scale. These include working from home, having essentials dropped at a residential complex’s gates, venturing out only once in few days, wearing of masks being mandatory when stepping out, having hands sanitised before entering shops, washing hands with soap at periodic intervals during the day, social distancing and other such lockdown do’s and don’ts.

While some of these may stay on even after lockdown restrictions are removed, marketers need to be cautious in gauging the long-term impact. Short-term gains or losses may not necessarily be reflective of the long-term impact on consumer behaviour.

Decoding the New Normal

Though many districts and states are trying to contain the COVID-19 curve, a note of caution is in order. This is because some analysts believe there is a possibility of a W curve. In other words, the virus could reappear later or at seasonal intervals. In such scenarios, even if the lockdown is lifted, shoppers will continue being cautious while following social distancing norms and undertaking shorter shopping trips, etc.

Shopper behaviour: Many data points suggest that consumers are adapting to the new normal. People are resorting to increased online shopping and home deliveries for pantry-loading via the safe confines of their homes rather than venturing out in person. These purchasing habits are expected to sustain even after the lockdown is lifted, limiting their trips to offline stores.

Since traditional shopping outlets are temporarily shuttered and will be strictly regulated in the near future as well, brands need to revise marketing and advertising strategies taking into account the new ground realities. Strategists should factor in such eventualities by ensuring a proactive stance even in the post-COVID-19 era.

Consumer behaviour: Marketing plans need to incorporate changes in consumer priorities, reactions and psyche that the current circumstances are bringing. For instance, personal safety and well-being now top the customer agenda. This is reflected in the rising sales of health, hygiene, disinfectants and house-cleaning category products.

Given the economic uncertainty, potentially lower salaries and curbs in discretionary spending are imminent. This will play out in the following ways... First, spending ticket size will come down for many categories – at least in the short term. Down-trading will be the second way this plays out – i.e., consumers will stay in the category but choose offerings with greater value and/or lower price points.

Such changes will result in new insights and opportunities as well as threats in every category. Marketers will continue confronting the challenge of tweaking their offerings and communication from the prism of the current reality. From a business lens, this will be a double whammy – the inability to charge premium despite increased costs.

The Way Forward

Pondering dispassionately on the pandemic’s long-term impact is critical. Panic buying and the subsequent disruption resulted in empty shelves for many brands. It’s easy to misinterpret this as a change in consumer sentiment. The following example illustrates this best. Google ‘toilet paper shortage’ and one sees multiple sites screaming ‘when will shortages of toilet paper end’. This is incredibly reflective of a category where panic buying is high. While most people might hoard it, it’s unlikely to change ‘consumption’ in any way.

Conversely, small categories such as hand sanitisers that most would have considered ‘too small/too niche’ are booming. The pandemic has forced trials in a population that would never have tried it. Many may move out later but the retained base will probably be much higher than pre-COVID.

Therefore, the first imperative is obtaining the right insights into the category. One needs to ascertain whether the current choices will make a substantial change in the long-term behaviour vis-à-vis one’s brand or category.

Second, the media mix needs rethinking. This is due to factors such as print moving online, TV reaching record highs and retro making a stunning comeback. As a result, the ROI of advertising can change substantially. It is critical to get the digital mix right. One will also need to rethink the role of micro- and macro-influencers. This is because digital and social media could get out of hand with lightning speed. Accordingly, all communiqués need to be crafted keeping credibility as the company’s core concern. At all times, credibility should be non-negotiable.

A change in the retail mix is imminent with e-commerce coming out on top while small grocery stores in the neighbourhood regain some of their lost glory and long-term significance. As online retailers have faced hurdles in making deliveries through far-flung vendors because of the lockdown, the importance of local kiranas and retail stores is apparent.

Soon, a new normal will come into effect with the focus on retail stores and those located in malls. While malls may be closed currently, once lockdown restrictions are removed, customers will prefer shopping in malls rather than open markets thanks to the better safety practices in the former. Likewise, retail stores will be preferred on account of safety concerns as the use of hand sanitisers before entering the premises and adherence to social distancing norms are more likely to be practised there. In contrast, open markets and mandis could be crowded, with no or limited compliance to social distancing norms.

Irrespective of the time a bounce back takes, there will be a new focus on higher hygiene levels. Masks and hand sanitisers once alien to our culture will become more acceptable. Lastly, ‘Namaste’ may gain greater prominence even among the handshaking elite…


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