Watch out! Big Changes ahead

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Or how the coronavirus will change the communication business

After having looked hopefully and then a bit fearfully at the future we now turn our attention to the present and to the business of our business. The world of brands and branding. The nature of the question we ask however remains the same. What will this virus do to the world of brands and branding?

There is an obvious catch in the question. Since the rise of digital and social, there has not been ‘a’ world of brands and branding. There have been two. The older, bigger, more established traditional media world. And the younger, smaller more agile world of new media. Brand thinking happens differently in these worlds. Time moves at a more leisurely pace in the older world. The world of new media is a little different. Concepts aren’t researched to death here. Committees do not debate endlessly on every little detail. One could say that brand owners are more willing to experiment when it comes to new media. One reason for this is that investments are lower, making fun and cool possible, regularly.

So the real question that we should be asking is – what will this virus do to the two worlds of brands and branding? And the answer to this is that they will collide and collapse into one world.

The collision of traditional and new media

In the short run, the combined world will be smaller than the sum of the individual worlds. In time, it will grow to be much bigger. There are two reasons why we anticipate this collision and collapse:

1. New media consumption is growing

If you take the staircase from the basement parking to walk into a mall, you’re likely to see shop assistants taking a break on the steps, hunched over their phones. Over 560 million internet users, more time spent with smaller screens, rapid growth in OTT subscriptions. These numbers by themselves have been making a case for brand owners to go beyond the role that they have assigned to new media so far. But so far most have resisted it. They have turned to digital and social to perform three tasks: technical analytics-driven engagement, routine Happy Diwali type of messaging, and the inspirational like the Flipkart Penguin Dads.

2. The compulsions of cost and social distancing

With high street and every other street remaining shut, business grinding to a halt, and monies running dry brand owners will be forced to question, evaluate, and reimagine the way they have been engaging with consumers. New media will no longer be about technical, routine, or inspirational. It will be the platform to launch and build brands. It will do the heavy lifting. It will actually be the only viable medium for a lot of brands. 

The new world of brands and branding

So what then will be the nature of this new, now collapsed world of brands and branding? And how will this new reality force brand owners and branding practitioners to relook at the way they do their brand thinking? We see five defining traits:

1. Digital First

Digital will be the go-to platform to drive business as well as to engage with consumers. Coronavirus will ensure that people do not throng retail outlets long after the lockdown is lifted and even ‘non-essential’ stores are opened. Even businesses operating in very traditional sectors like 22 karat jewelry and silk sarees will have to evolve their own digital sales platforms. Work, learning, and even religious congregations have gone online. Brands will have to do so as well; not partially but in full measure.

2. Switch from advertisements to content 

Brand owners will have to shed their instinct to go for the hard sell. They will have to start seeing themselves as ‘content creators’ and work towards creating content that is meaningful to consumers. Something that adds value to their lives. The fight for attention and affection online will not just be fought with immediate competitors. It will be fought with Netflix, makeup tutorials, and everything in-between. There will be a place for hard sell –  on e-commerce sites and on your e-store. But everywhere else, the attempt has to be to charm and woo.

3.Always on 

There is no 9 to 5 in the digital world. It will be a constant battle for attention and affection. Brands cannot afford to wait and watch. As social and cultural phenomenon unfold, brands will have to engage consumers with their own unique point of view. Just like the most influential people online do all the time.

4. Brands as people 

The digital-first, content-oriented, and ‘always on’ nature of this new world leads us to only one logical conclusion. It is time to see and define brands as human beings. Existing tools focus on personality, tonality, and purpose but there is a quantitative and qualitative difference in looking at aspects of a person and in looking at a person in entirety. We can no longer behave like those blindfolded men around an elephant. 

What we are suggesting is something that authors do routinely. When they create a character, they conceive him or her in toto, every little nuance is thought of. What irritates them, what makes them happy, every quirk and every flaw is defined. This is true in all forms of content from Manga to pulp fiction to highbrow literature. How does this help? It empowers your brand management to respond quickly and effectively to the world. It helps you avoid tone deaf faux pas that are unfortunately easy to commit on Twitter or Facebook.

5. The key doesn’t quite fit  

Current models of defining a brand will come up short in the new ‘digital first’ world. We need a broader framework. When brand owners become ‘content creators’ they will have to grow out of narrow product and category focussed thinking. They will have to go beyond a proposition or purpose-based approach to brand thinking. They will have to put on their ‘author caps’ and think deeper about the nature of their brand. Not only will it help brands create meaningful content, but it will also help the multiple teams that look after the different aspects of consumer engagement pool in and work towards creating a force multiplier for the brand.

About the author

Suresh Mohankumar

A seasoned strategist with 26 years of experience conceiving, launching and growing some of India’s biggest brands, Suresh, has worked as the head of Strategic Planning in large advertising agencies.

He is known for breaking down complex situations to bring meaningful insights to the surface in order to arrive at a water-tight strategy.

He has handled a variety of categories like Automobiles, Jewelry, FMCG, AlcoBev, Leisure, Food, Fashion, Retail, Technology, New Media, etc.

By Suresh Mohankumar
© The Strategy School 2020