Actions have spoken more loudly than words during the pandemic

Academic head of the IMM Graduate School, ANGELA BRUWER, discusses the impact, the fallout and the future of marketing in the wake of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic.

I don’t have a crystal ball. During 2020, I have, however, felt that I am holding a rugby ball, listening to the referee’s instructions before a rugby scrum: “Touch, PAUSE, Engage”.

Pre-COVID outbreak we were in touch, post COVID-19 outbreak we were paused, and now we are slowly starting to engage. However, our engaging is in a state of flux. The many changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown have forced us to be even more agile, to think on our feet (maintaining social distancing), to respond swiftly and courageously to the challenges confronting the entire marketing sector right now.

At the IMM Graduate School, we’ve had to do just that. We’ve been in the throes of exams and marking. To get to this point, in lockdown, we had to re-engineer our whole learning platform, get the final assessments onto the system in time and for the first time, mark them all online. Our online engagement with students has gone from being ‘an additional option’ to being core and instrumental to the success of our institution and ultimately our students.

It’s been harrowing but is, perhaps, part of the ‘new normal’.

Everyone is talking about the ‘new normal’. One piece I read resonated with the me; the writer said the ‘new normal’ is a bit like New Year’s resolutions; People will go back to their old ways anyway.

Perhaps so. Nevertheless, there are real challenges for industries such as travel and tourism, the restaurant business…never mind just finding a new way of doing things, their entire business models are going to completely change.

So from a marketer’s point of view, I think brand agility is going to be absolutely key.

Talking brands

The isolation caused by COVID-19 has given people a lot of time to reflect and, I think, almost go back to family values and compassion. Brands have functional attributes and emotional attributes too. The third component is self-expressive benefits. People will support brands that are seen to be supporting other people, and if I support these brands, it makes a statement about me. This is because people develop strong relationships with brands similar to those relationships we forge with people

This is a real challenge for marketers because you don’t want to be seen to be doing these things just as a marketing ploy. You are doing it because it’s the right thing to do. This will require using different channels, influencers, brand ambassadors, and people who can speak on your behalf. It won’t just be about someone endorsing your product. It will be people endorsing what you stand for. We will see more of this in future.

Some brands have stepped up to the plate, others not so much. Shoprite has been quite a socially responsible brand. They know who their target market is and that their stores are where a lot of vulnerable people would traditionally shop. They’ve absolutely gone out of their way with clear markings outside the store. They only let so many people in. The staff all wore masks, all the whole way through – before it became law. In a similar vein Pick n Pay introduced an early morning window for vulnerable pensioners to shop.

You could argue that they were following government instructions, but a lot of the other retailers weren’t. They were letting in people and the use of masks and signage was iffy. To me, that says something about the brand. It is the actions of brands that speak louder than their words during this time. 

Talking CSI and PR power

There’s going to be a bigger strain on marketers to try and make their money work harder for them, which has always been a marketing challenge. PR keeps people informed and creates brand awareness without necessarily punting products. It is critical as it builds trust in brands.

Social responsibility will play more of a role in marketing. In South Africa, we’ve always had a very strong CSI component, and this will be even more pronounced. There will be an even greater demand on corporates and big organisations to be seen to be even more socially responsible and socially aware. Whether in education or in news delivery, the social divide in our country has never been more prominently on display. South Africans have responded by getting involved and by helping where they can.

This will extend to the communities in which they operate, nationally and spill over into Africa as well. We’re going to have to assist neighbouring countries as CSI won’t be ring-fenced here. This, too, will fall on marketers who have products being sold in Africa, or retailers that have operations in those areas.

Talking innovation

WPP’s chief brand officer, Mark Read, recently said the coronavirus pandemic had brought forward innovation by a decade or more, that it had hastened digital thinking. I would have to agree. If you look at the whole notion of online learning, which is our space, people are suddenly doing courses through Harvard, Oxford and the IMM. Or they’re doing decorating course and learning to make sourdough bread. Children are doing virtual tours of museums, for example, which have been available for some time but not embraced.

In marketing terms, this is Roger’s diffusion of innovations (which explains how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread). The early adopters have been doing these things for a few years. Then there’s the normal bell curve and the laggards. But during this time, the lag period has shortened. Zoom, Google Hangouts and Microsoft Teams are the new way oranisations are conducting their meetings. One could argue that pre-COVID-19 you could Skype and use Google Meet, but most people opted to travel. The way of working has changed, so the need to travel internationally for meetings or even conferences is fast becoming obsolete.

School is being taught on platforms like Google classroom and playdates are being organised on Zoom. Even grandparents are using Google Meet or Face Time to see with their newly born grandchildren. As Plato said “necessity is the mother of invention” (innovation).

Talking consumers, ecommerce and mobile advertising

My overarching sense is that consumer behaviour is changing. People who were completely risk averse to online buying pre-COVID-19 have been buying online for the last few months and are enjoying the convenience and efficiency. I don’t think people will spend time in shops browsing or window-shopping until we have a greater sense of health safety, and this will impact on buying behaviour. Online buying is being enabled by the “door to door delivery” aspect of ecommerce, which is fast becoming so well-oiled now and out of pure necessity not convenience, far better than it was.

E-marketing will therefore continue gaining ground. As a marketer, what’s interesting to me is the separation of mobile advertising from digital advertising when one considers global research tracking ad spend. South Africa has not been overly aggressive in the mobile advertising space. I don’t think marketers have used it as opportunistically as they could have, seeing it as an invasive irritation. We need to get smarter in terms of the mobile side of advertising.

Talking ad spend

According to the WARC DATA Global Ad Trends, May 2020, there was a decline in South African ad spend in 2019 (-7.6%) and then pre-COVID 2020 it had gone up somewhat by 6.4%; however post-outbreak a drop of -19.6% versus the global post-outbreak drop of -8.1%. The picture in terms of marketing budgets, staffing and trading conditions have seen huge declines since February 2020. Researchers don’t predict an increase or positive growth in ad spend happening in the traditional channels, (TV, radio, press, OOH, mobile and digital (excluding mobile).

The closure of Caxton Magazines and Associated Media Publishing tells you a lot about what’s happening in the marketing environment right now. Those publishers relied heavily on ad spend. And, within a month of us being in lockdown, they shut shop. Of course there must have been historic factors at play too, but Covid-19 was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. 

Talking social media

Social media still a tricky space for marketers and they have to be more intentional in how they use it as a marketing tool. With all the technology available, you can be quite targeted in the social media that you use and who you’re targeting specifically.

But I think there is a point of saturation. Marketers need to be very, very careful. During this crisis, people have been on social media so much that I do believe an element of fatigue is creeping in. So from a marketing point of view, one needs to be intentional and targeted and tailor-make the message. Too often, marketers fall into the trap of ‘one size fits all’.

Talking shopper marketing

From a marketing perspective, shopper marketing is going to get interesting. The face of mall shopping is certainly going to change. Shopping malls will go through tough times because in the past they relied on their anchor tenants, but some of these retailers are sinking. The hairdressing and beauty salons, the small shops, the restaurants, the coffee shops…have been hit hard. I would be surprised if a lot of them didn’t open again in the shopping centres and will start working differently, possibly even trading from lower rent properties because they’ve taken such a knock.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens to the hotel industry and tourism because people aren’t going to be too happy to travel, feeling safer in their own countries. Many will also find themselves in financial difficulty as a result of either not getting paid during the lockdown or having to close their businesses temporarily or even permanently. So local tourism is where I would focus my time and energy. Marketers in that space need to think very cleverly on how they can promote South Africa to South Africans, to generate a rebirth of local is “lekker” tourism. This will be critical. We need to revive the Proudly South African spirit and buy local, support local.

Social media threads and memes have made all earth’s citizens aware of how nature has bounced back during the pandemic. From a consumption point of view, consumers are going to be looking for more earth-friendly packaging, for example. People are going to be less tolerant of wastage and will spurn the corporates and brands that don’t toe the line. The pandemic has highlighted just how vulnerable we are and the fragility of our planet. This is at forefront of people’s minds now, that they’re not just socially responsible citizens caring for their communities, but have to care for the earth too.

Talking employee branding

From an employee branding point of view, organisations will encourage their employees, and care for them. Good marketers will embrace that, and build brand loyalty and even brand advocacy with employees. This virus is having an emotional impact. People are interacting with each other wearing masks. We’re going back to work, but everything is different. In a way, we are grieving for that loss. Grieving for future loss, the things we were looking forward to that aren’t going to happen now.

Marketers should and will be looking at this more and more during this time. It is essential to have a positive workforce who are positively impacting on the country at this time. As organisations across various industries try and regain their commercial foothold, they will want to count on the contribution of every employee. The immediate past and the present moment, called for unparalleled feelings and acts of community by organisations towards their employees: a new bond has been forged and it could be to the advantage of both parties.

Angela Bruwer is the academic head at the IMM Graduate School. She has 27 years of professional experience and has held several executive management positions at major companies in the financial services, consulting and education sectors. Her areas of expertise include brand management, marketing and communications. She has started and managed three successful consulting agencies, and still consults to clients. Her work experience is in marketing strategy, all facets of branding, communication strategy, media planning, consumer insights, account management, corporate communication, public relations, stakeholder management, sponsorship marketing, marketing research, advertising, and classical marketing. Currently the Executive Academic Head of the IMM Graduate School and Chairman of the Academic Board and Executive Committee Member, Bruwer is a sought after speaker and a contributor to the textbook Introduction to Marketing: A Southern Africa Perspective (2018) published by Van Schaiks.

Subscribe to stay informed whenever a new issue is published

Subscribe now