Everything was fine, until literally one day everything changed overnight. Covid-19 had struck. No one was prepared for it or its consequences and no one has ever witnessed anything remotely close to this before. As we try to come to grips with this new reality, the question brands are grappling with is: “How do we stay relevant when the majority of the country’s population is struggling to eat to stay alive?” Clearly, as ad practitioners, we need to recalibrate our thinking – and do it fast. Here are some of the things I have learnt in the last few weeks.
1. Act Fast and Be Relevant
In the West, brands like Apple, Coca-Cola and Google reacted to the pandemic by changing their narrative overnight, while others stopped advertising altogether and diverted spend to CSR initiatives. In Pakistan, EBM was one of the first brands to do just this and their efforts were appreciated – others are following suit. Given that hand washing is critical, Lifebuoy is asking consumers to use any soap (not necessarily Lifebuoy) to stay safe, while P&G’s Commander Safeguard ‘addressed’ the nation about the importance of hand washing. McDonald’s in Dubai ran a campaign to thank and support healthcare workers by not charging them for their orders; the campaign has now gone global with other brands in similar vein – in Pakistan notably by Bykea and Ufone. The lesson here is that when we really want to, we can change a brand’s approach even within hours in order to stay relevant.
2. Be Empathetic
Advertising supports other services, such as production houses and studios, which employ people on a daily basis, be it the spot boys or the crew and they, and others in allied professions, account for tens of thousands people across Pakistan. Given that TVC productions have been halted they are struggling, even more so, as agencies are unlikely to be producing traditional TVCs in the near future. How can we as an industry sustain our people? Vogue’s Common Thread initiative led by Anna Wintour and Tom Ford is a great example of what is possible. They generated funds for the smaller retail businesses and designers most affected by the pandemic, thereby enabling them to stay afloat for the time being. Surely, we can do the same? The major brands and TV channels could come together and create an ecosystem to help the daily wage earners who are part of our community.
3. Learn to Change
Despite the increasing reliance on digital, we still do not know how to tell stories in the vertical format. Our reliance on conventional advertising remains very high, and we don’t know how to create ads without using traditional tools, which is why our communication efforts are largely limited to the 30-second TVC. However, we are already seeing change in a very short period; Emirates made an ad that did not show anyone flying in an airplane, Honda made one with no one driving and Nike with no one playing in the field. Furthermore, celebrities have been entertaining people while staying home (John Legend and Ellen DeGeneres for example), engaging them every day and helping them understand that this too shall pass. In Pakistan, Ali Sethi went on Insta Live every day to perform with Farida Khanum and then with Rekha Bharadwaj. This resulted in Cornetto sponsoring the content they created by sharing it on their own Instagram feed which made perfect sense; a brand known for love, spreading love via music. Clearly, brands can stay relevant and engaging and in a more meaningful way – and they do not need traditional advertising to do so.
4. Be Engaging
We need to harness the power of the cell phone – and more specifically that of TikTok (which has a massive following in Pakistan). In many ways TikTok is one of the most inclusive platforms in Pakistan. In addition to people from across all segments of society, TikTok attracts people with physical disabilities or who look different as well as the LGBTQ community. In my view, the platform gives a voice to the most vilified individuals in our society. That said, TikTok is incredibly entertaining; gay men are acting out kissing scenes to the tune of the Punjabi song Kissi Nou Na Dussi and cross dressers are lip-syncing dialogues from Devdas. Ad practitioners need to figure out how to use such portals and turn content into ads. One way would be to encourage consumers to create their own content. A few years ago, an episode of Modern Family was shot entirely on an iPhone, while integrating several Apple products. So rather than using celebrities, brands can give consumers a phone and ask them to send footage which can then be turned into advertising that is not aspirational but reflective of the prevailing reality among audiences.
5. Use the Power of Sound
Podcasts are becoming increasingly popular and brands should leverage the power of audio. We have an illustrious heritage, thanks to the heydays of Radio Pakistan, when we created amazing content, including shows such as Hamid Mian Ke Haan and Subha-e-Sarwar, so this should not prove too difficult. Radio is a medium that remains strong and can be used to create brand engagement with a wider audience. I think radio will become even more important in the near future, as we will be restricted to confined spaces.
Hopefully, once the pandemic is over, we will come out of the situation as better people and better storytellers with the realisation that we should not milk an opportunity to sell more products or increase the price of an item, but on the contrary, see our consumers as real people. Ideally, we should have learnt how to showcase a deeper point of view in our work – something that goes beyond asking the lead protagonist of our TVCs to wear a dupatta that is the same colour as the brand we are advertising.
Syed Yawar Iqbal is ECD, JWT | GREY Pakistan. firstname.lastname@example.org