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What now? Some insights from China

What can we learn from the Chinese experience on Coronavirus?

Let’s admit something alien to us in the industry: we don’t know what the next six months hold. With studies indicating social distancing or ‘suppression’ measures potentially necessary until a vaccine is available – itself potentially 18 months or more away – plus the unpredictability of an event without modern precedent, we are all flying somewhat blind.

While ‘staying put’ is the advice, ‘sitting tight’ is not an option. Thankfully, we do have a light to guide us on this journey: China. As China sees new COVID-19 infections continue to drop and life begin to turn some normality, it has become a goldmine of information on consumer behaviour and media consumption throughout the outbreak, stabilisation and recovery stages of the crisis. While no two markets are identical, it offers, perhaps, the beginning of a roadmap to recovery for brands and their partners alike.

In China, it was unsurprisingly the offline retail and tourism sectors that saw the most immediate and apparent consumption declines during the initial outbreak and its stabilisation. New figures from the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics point to an overall spending decrease of -20.5% across January and February, although some businesses – such as restaurants with a -43.1% decrease – were clearly hit harder than others.

It’s worth noting that even – perhaps particularly – during these stages, consumers were eager for small daily enjoyments such as indulgence food or fun digital moments. Brands have capitalised on these through promotions and by leveraging digital channels, particularly livestreaming, which has contributed significantly to the sectors that saw a rebound. Cloud businesses themselves have boomed, and there has been an explosion in short video content.

During the recovery stage, as consumers’ daily activities and their buying sentiment return to normal, several categories are now forecasted to see up uplift – including health and hygiene products, entertainment products, apparel, beauty products, domestic travel and both adult and child education. The overall travel category is expected to rebound, quickly shifting to destinations as soon as they appear to be safe to visit. Fliggy, the Alibaba-owned online travel platform, reports an increase in website traffic, indexed particularly highly toward searches for destinations across Southeast Asia.

Emerging habits

It’s also interesting to note some of the new habits consumers have developed during the outbreak period, particularly around safety and health. 52% of people claim they have begun to focus on health and products which can strengthen the immune system, 41% that they now prefer environmentally friendly and organic products and 35% that fresh, safe products are more important to them than ever before.

Beyond that, 30% stated that they will now choose to buy ‘reassuring’ brands. Looking West, we’re already beginning to see such brands emerge – with companies including cosmetics firm LVMH and brewery BrewDog manufacturing hand sanitizer, McDonalds and Pret providing free hot drinks to health workers and supermarket chain Iceland reserving an hour of shopping for the elderly. Fellow UK supermarket Morrisons, which has made immediate payments to its small suppliers, has even changed its brand purpose to ‘feeding the nation’.

There are many more examples of companies doing what they can to help. This is meaningful stuff. And at Havas, we’ve been saying for years that brands that are meaningful outperform the stock market – by 134%, according to our 2019 study. While current events are unquestionably difficult for brands, perhaps they also represent an unparalleled opportunity to cement their role in people’s lives.

Tracey Barber is group chief marketing officer at Havas Creative Group

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