With the world facing trying times due to the coronavirus outbreak and several countries coming to a stand-still, it is being predicted that the economic impact of COVID-19 are going to be similar to that of the global financial crisis in 2008. It is apparent for most brands to avoid a hit on their business due to the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic situation. Brands in the aviation, hospitality, travel, oil and gas, restaurants, and the retail sectors appear to have been impacted the most. However, there are a few names in some industries that have witnessed a substantial surge or at least consistency, in the demand and supply of their offerings since the beginning of the pandemic, besides the obvious ones like the food and the healthcare sectors.
This article deliberates how a few enterprises in some of these sectors have realized growth in their business even during the pandemic and the resulting lock-down, how these enterprises, along with the behavioural changes of consumers, are going to transform the industry and how taking suitable branding and promotional measures now to create brand value and trust in the minds of consumers would help enterprises regain their growth in the post COVID-19 era.
I. COVID-19: An onward gear for some, and how that is likely to shape the future of their industry
(1) E-commerce of food items and groceries
Electronics, books and garments have been the most popular items in the e-commerce segment among Indian consumers. However, COVID-19 seemed to have altered this situation, as e-groceries have taken the centre stage, ever since the pandemic (and the panic shopping!) started in February 2020. As per a press release by Razorpay, one of the largest payment gateways in India, online grocery shopping in India grew by 9% for the first time in just one month.1 The Indian e-grocery stores, such as BigBasket, Grofers and Amazon India Pantry were allowed to continue supplying groceries, and have seen a skyrocketing rise of their app downloads and new customers in each of last months, as per MoEngage, an AI-based customer engagement platform.2 Their businesses are bound to shoot up and this is when their operations have not been smooth due to the lock-down and their sites are consistently slow due to high traffic.
A large percent of consumers who now finds online grocery shopping easier, convenient and, more than that, safer, is most likely to continue shopping groceries online post the pandemic situation. This consumer behaviour would lead more businesses to digitise their business operations, especially in the food and beverages industry.
(2) Digital Conferencing
With more enterprises offering their employees the options to work-from-home as 'social distancing' is being practiced, video conferencing platforms, such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, Skype, WebEx, etc. provide social 'office-like' company. Even though privacy and security concerns have emerged in using said conferencing platforms, especially in case of Zoom, and the Government of India has issued advisories and safety guidelines for users who want to use it for 'private meetings', such platforms have become the new favourites in the business world. As per Attopia, a popular data vendor, enterprises are not only using them for doing virtual meetings with clients, but also for doing meet and greet sessions and occasional parties with colleagues and friends.3
Despite grave productivity concerns when work-from-home policies are enabled, benefits like reduced commute time, availing freelance services and working with better talent cannot be ruled out while allowing work-from-home options. More and more enterprises are exploring the positives of work-from-home now; and would implement work-from-policies post COVID-19 situation. While doing this, conferencing and especially video conferencing, appear to be the future of connecting officially. Traditional telecom companies are likely to explore business potentials through conferencing platforms in the future.
(3) Entertainment platforms
As more and more people are forced to stay indoors and are unable to seek entertainment outside, indoor entertainment through the usage of television as well as video-on-demand (VOD) services and over-the-top (OTT) platforms has increased. Television viewership has gone up due to COVID-19 related news predominantly and most television channels seem to be attracting viewers with the re-run of their popular old shows.4 In contrast, all digital media platforms, such as Amazon Prime, Hotstar, Netflix, Eros Now, Apple TV+, and the like, are luring viewers with new content for children and family, free shows relating to the coronavirus pandemic and complimentary subscriptions for Indian viewers. Airtel Xstream (Airtel's Digital TV) has gone a step ahead and launched CuriosityStream channel in India (focusing on documentary films and series, including an ongoing series one on the coronavirus outbreak) and for all its subscribers freely.5 Said media platforms have seen a surge of around 20% viewership and this number is expect to have a further rise in coming days.6
Until recently, it was believed that both television and digital media platforms would see equal trajectories in India, due to the diversity of Indian viewers as well as the content requirements.7 While television has a wider reach in rural India and offers more regional content, a majority of urban viewers in the country prefer digital media platforms as their main indoor entertainment source because of availability of contemporary content, and flexibility of accessing the content anytime, anywhere and in any medium. During the lock-down period, almost all digital media platforms now competing on a gigantic scale with quality and diverse content for different types of audience, advertising and promoting their platforms widely and focusing on creating new userbase. An eventual shift in the behaviour of Indian viewers can be expected and digital media platforms could witness a substantial upsurge in viewership; and the traditional mode, the television, could see a considerable wipe-out in its viewership.
(4) Online banking and payment options
Social distancing and lock-down have led to the consumers not spending on travel, hospitality, restaurants, in-store shopping and general commerce, which that has resulted in a steep decline of financial transactions, both online and offline. Due to such restrictions, most digital payments systems noticed a drop in their traffic and payments. Unified Payments Interface (UPI), an instant real-time payment system regulated by the RBI, also noticed a drop in the value of payments from previous months, but recorded more than 100 crore transactions in March alone. Additionally, Bharat Bill Payment System, which allows for online bill payments, recorded an upward curve in the volumes of their payment transactions.8 Razorpay witnessed an increase of about 10% in payment transactions between mid-February and mid-March only, merely due to online grocery shopping and online bill payments.9
Although the digital payment industry is facing the aftermath of the coronavirus, contactless payments could be the next big thing, as people have now become more aware and cautious of the germ-ridden cash! Before the lock-down started in India, even WHO and RBI had strongly pushed for making use of digital payment systems, i.e., using online banking (including payment gateways), mobile wallets, cards, etc. to contain the spread of the coronavirus, and avoid modes of payments are not hygienic and safe. It does seem that the contactless payment modes would be preferred and become more widespread in the days to come.
The above examples give out a clear hint: 'being digital' is the key. Thinking out of the box and using fantastic tools and resources are how all business grow and compete with one another; however, post COVID-19 era would need the creation and implementation of more digital platforms and modes of presentation to consumers, as the consumer behaviour would have drastically changed by the time we reach the post COVID-19 era.
II. COVID-19: Branding and promotional activities:
The pandemic situation has put tremendous pressure on enterprises for sustaining the trust of consumers by building brand value. The changing consumer behaviour is contributing enormously to build up this pressure. Almost everyone is making endeavours to deal with and survive the COVID-19 situation in the best possible manner, and going the extra mile to create brand conscientiousness. In order to do so, while most have taken this opportunity to provide help, assistance and essential resources to the needy and fulfil their corporate social responsibility, a few others are raising awareness on COVID-19 through innovative awareness and promotional campaigns.
For instance, Amul has been launching advertisements containing its iconic Amul girl and giving specific messages on COVID-19 prevention and safety measures. Dabur has been issuing advertisements promoting their oral care products for oral hygiene and preventing infection from germs. Tata Health, a leading healthcare solutions provider, started a round-the-clock helpline InstaDoc with doctors, to provide mobile consultation and assistance on COVID-19 related issues. Zomato through its push notifications, has been informing its users about the steps it took with restaurant and delivery partners on safety practices, besides launching contactless food delivery options for its users. LinkedIn launched 'Coronavirus: Official Updates' section under which its editors have been curating content from official sources such as WHO, UNICEF, and the National Health Authority of India. Facebook launched 'COVID-19 Information Center', which could be followed by users for correct information and updates, and provides a direct link to the COVID-19 dashboard set up by the Government of India.
However, there are some promotional activities which have been negative and are being considered opportunistic. One brand promotional effort even ended up in the middle of a legal tussle and is being touted as the first Indian case surrounding COVID-19 situation. Reckitt Benckiser (RB) launched a television commercial wherein it promoted the use of its Dettol Liquid Handwash while also specifically mentioning that the same should be preferred over any soap, as soaps are ineffective in killing germs. The soap in the commercial was red in colour and resembled Lifebuoy red soap of Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL). The commercial was also similar to an earlier television commercial of HUL. RB had made minor tweaks with respect to product references of the HUL's earlier commercial, which was enough to show that RB is targeting HUL directly. HUL moved the High Court alleging that RB is damaging the reputation of its Lifebuoy soap, which is a market leader, through its disparaging advertisement. Additionally, HUL pointed out before the court that RB is spreading false information regarding soaps being ineffective for killing germs, when WHO in its COVID-19 related advisories had urged people to wash hands with soaps and water to protect themselves from infection; and that other products, such as sanitizers have been recommended for handwash by WHO, in case of non-availability of soap and water. HUL called out RB through the proceeding for issuing an irresponsible advertisement in the times of crisis. During the proceeding's first hearing, RB by itself agreed to suspend the advertisement in question from March 22 to April 21. The legal battle is presently pending disposal.
The post COVID-19 era would witness an exponential increase in the digital channels through which commercial offerings would be offered and served. India is already leading the Fourth Industrial Revolution through its technology-based start-up landscape.10 The pandemic situation would increase this role of the country in the whole gamut of things. Enterprises would need to keep a strong focus on developing digital assets and offerings, and this along with the steps they take to strengthen their brand value, would help them regain growth in due course.
The Dettol Liquid Handwash advertisement is a classic example of how branding efforts could go beyond the pale. While every other enterprise is trying to establish their brand value, Reckitt Benckiser invited reputational risks for its brand by a negative promotional activity.
In times like these, it has become extremely crucial for enterprises to be extremely careful of the messages they are trying to relay for raising awareness while undertaking promotional campaigns. At the least, they should not be spreading fake or unreliable news and information; should also not get to the level of coming across as opportunistic; and lastly, not be tarnishing the reputation of other brands by doing incorrect or condescending comparisons. Having said that, it would be completely alright to spread information about counterfeiters and suppliers of fakes, but not before the facts are confirmed from reliable sources!
Besides working with marketing and creative teams, it is also vital for enterprises to consult law experts for the use of promotional statements, taglines, and third-party names or products therein, before launching their promotional campaigns. Law experts would not only give strategic counselling on branding, promotional activities, commercialization and association with other brands, they would also suitably advise on when to enforce rights against violators and when to let things go in the public interest.
When brand value and brand equity are to be focused on the most, an enterprise that prudently looks at all perspectives can beat the odds and emerge stronger.
1 Razorpay's press release; available at https://www.outlookindia.com/newsscroll/coronavirus-leads-to-30-drop-in-online-travel-bookings-9-rise-in-grocery-purchase-razorpay/1773159
5 Vineet Washington "Airtel Digital TV Launches CuriosityStream Channel, Available for Free"; available at: https://gadgets.ndtv.com/tv/news/airtel-digital-tv-curiositystream-channel-419-set-top-box-2205741
8 Ashwin Manikandan "UPI crosses 100 crore transactions in March despite COVID-19 lockdown and Yes Bank crisis"; available at https://m.economictimes.com/industry/banking/finance/banking/upi-crosses-100-crore-transactions-in-march-despite-COVID-19-lockdown-and-yes-bank-crisis/articleshow/74933992.cms
9 Supra note 1 (Razorpay's press statement)
10 Arvind Gupta "How India is leading digital revolution with speed and scale"
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