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Marketing’s Next Big Moment, by Unilever’s Asad ur Rahman

By Asad ur Rehman, director of media & digital transformation, North Africa & Middle East at Unilever

Covid-19 lockdowns have been referred to as ‘The Great Human Pause’. This period has had a wide-ranging impact – from social and economic, to environmental and technological. While it has certainly been a pause for some, it has also been one of hyper-activity for some of the others. The lasting impact of it all is beyond ordinary foresight.

The positive and negative impact of Covid-19 has popularly characterised businesses into two ranks: ones that are shock-proof and future-fit, and ones that are fragile and rooted in traditional market structures.

Whichever way we decide to look, net impact on GDP of various economies is a good measure of the havoc caused by Covid-19. It has ranged from -37 per cent in the US in the second quarter of 2020, to -6.8 per cent for the equivalent Covid-19 period in China. MENA probably sits somewhere in between, with the compound impact of lowered global oil demand and lesser consumer spending.

Whether we classify this as a recession or not, the economies need bouncing back. The good old Keynesian theory suggests that “increase in marginal propensity of consumers to spend” is what brings economies back to growth. Behind that increase in spending is the enhanced confidence in mid-term recovery. No discipline does the job of stimulating consumer confidence better than marketing and communications. Government stimulus, unemployment benefits and furloughs, and tax breaks will provide for the spending power, but not the purchase intent. That job falls upon us as marketers.

I will outline here a few thoughts for our industry. These are rooted in what we have gone through in the past months, and a personal reflection on near-term challenges to come.

There is a direct relationship between people’s ability to physically move and the decline of certain sectors. Whilst the ability to physically move comes back gradually, it comes back with a fear of a much worse second wave. What could we do to separate that fear from the demand for our products? The answer might not lie on “greater volume of advertising” or in “becoming more performance-focused”. We may need to dig deeper into behavioural science in how we craft messages that spark confidence. This does not mean that we advocate careless consumer behaviour; it means creating a distinction in the minds of consumers between being watchful of the virus spread and fulfilling their needs and wants.

Some sectors’ ad expenditure in digital accelerated and became performance-focused. This might not be the de facto continuum. There is something about big brands and consumer trends being rooted into collective social consciousness that goes beyond a targeted digital campaign. The point I am making here is not against digital spending, it is about investing in building back large-scale demand. Digital does it but with a weaker heart than some of the other media. Digital’s legacy will be its strength in performance, and we will see most digital advertising become performance-focused. This cannot be at the cost of bringing back consumer confidence at scale. What I am highlighting is the difference between the immediate ROI of a last click of a banner ad before conversion, and a message that builds lasting connections between consumers and brands.

Our brands’ sense of responsibility was tested during Covid. Our sense of authenticity will carry us forward. During Covid, a lot of societies experienced much more than just the lockdowns. Issues of diversity, racial inclusion and justice, toxic and fake news culture, and topics of environment and sustainability amplified. They amplified not because they had not been acknowledged before; they amplified because when humans are down to survival, courage manifests itself differently and voices become stronger. Being a responsible brand in such times is not about doing a social media post on a movement or a trend; it is about looking inwards and seeing the impact that a brand has on society, and then having the courage to take a stand that will make a difference. The authenticity with which we do this will define the share of growth our brands get.

It is said that hindsight is always perfect. If there is one thing, I wish we had known pre-Covid, it is the lasting impact of the “fear” Covid-19 has caused in consumers. This fear has instilled years, in some cases decades, of behavioural change. Not all of that change is negative, but then not all is positive either. The job to do will be a fine act of balancing the two in alleviating that fear to stimulate the growth. The act I call ‘The Great Demand Resumption’.