BrandSutra: Communicating in a crisis
BrandSutra: Communicating in a crisis

We in India are faced with a crisis of unprecedented nature. The pandemic is ravaging our lives like never before. And this is aggravated by the fact that the crisis has been ongoing for over a year now, with no signs of abating. The focus of the first set of COVID restrictions and lockdowns was to actively engage the people while they were ‘trapped’ at home. Telcos offered additional GBs to accommodate a higher consumption, DD ran special telecasts of Ramayana and Mahabharata and other reruns, Disney advanced the release of its Frozen-2, Amul ran a special cookery show called #SimpleHomemadeRecipes and so on.

Brands ran messages asking people to stay indoors – Fevicol said ‘Sabse Mazboot Door - Indoor’ while Durex cheekily asked people to ‘Come Inside’ – just don’t step outside. Lifebuoy urged people to wash their hands during the pandemic, “Please use any soap nearest to you. Not just Lifebuoy …” The brands tried to connect with their customers through an emotional thread and stayed visible without talking about the product directly.

However, the second wave of the virus in India has brought about a very different scale of impact and misery. There is not a single person I know who hasn’t lost a close friend or relative or colleague. So, while the mood during 2020 was about novelty - uplifting the spirits and wanting to stay positive, the mood in 2021 has turned sombre. It is laced with grief, consternation, agony and trepidation. A brand’s communication needs to reflect that sentiment to stay close.

IPL 2020 was seen as something that was soothing to the customer and provided an outlet to the stressed nerves of the people. However, IPL 2021, which coincided with the second wave, ran into rough weather and was criticised for the incongruity and gross lack of empathy for the context in which it was being held. Such was the situation that it got branded a ‘greedy and grotesque’ extravaganza and eventually got cancelled – not usual for a country in which cricket is religion and cricketers are demigods.

For a lot of people, the current situation is a double whammy, anxiety attacks related to COVID and the loss of livelihood or the fear of it due to curtailed economic activity.

During the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US too, news networks took regular programmes and commercials off the air for several days after the twin towers went down. This was to let the grieving nation soothe its people and provide reprieve from the talk of terror, death and destruction. It was an inappropriate time for ‘fun and entertainment’ to be splashed on television screens.

It is common knowledge that customers indulge in ‘retail therapy’, spend on things and experiences when they are happy and optimistic about the future. But on the other hand, customers hold back discretionary spending during uncertain times or when they are upset. The customer guards herself from ‘call to action’ stimuli which otherwise would have induced her to spend. This manifests itself into a more conservative, risk averse and even parsimonious behaviour.

Does this imply that brands - stressed for business as they already are - shouldn’t communicate? On the contrary, a higher level of connect with your customers with messages of cohesion, compassion and camaraderie will be remembered during these times and maybe much afterwards. But how do you strike the right note? Remember just two things:

Honest Effort and Support: Brands and organizations can garner a lot of goodwill by making an honest effort to provide relief to the community in which they are operating. This requires actions which are ‘beyond motive’ or ‘non-transactional’. Vistara’s e-mailer tells me how they are offering complimentary cargo space for transportation of medical supplies, PPE kits, vaccines, etc. How heart-warming is that!

A lot of brands out there are doing wonderful social messaging, offering pragmatic help to people, on-ground humanitarian work and lots of similar things. These are authentic trust-drivers and such brands are likely to be remembered and patronised much after the crisis fades away.

Empathetic Communication: If a brand has to communicate about the product or offerings, choose the right tone. This is not the best time for an ‘in the face’ sales pitch. A fintech brand prompts me to get vaccinated, enlightens me of its benefits, tells me how to go about it and sends me the links to the Cowin site, etc. Deepinder Goyal, promoter of Zomato, assures us that food delivery is safe and also asks us to stay at home and stay safe. If you have to convey the community relief work the brand is engaged in, it has to be done in a subtle tone - nothing loud and celebratory, nothing insensitive, not in the face and outlandish.

Marketers will get an opportunity to make a sale another day as the crisis will not stay forever. But when the clouds disperse, customers will remember the brands that stood by them in difficult times and that is trust, equivalent of which no mega budget campaign can get. Stay well. Stay safe!

(The author is a senior professional in the corporate sector and writes on varied topics that catch his fancy. The views expressed here are his own.)

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