“The future of marketing is going to be about finding a fine balance between what worked before and what needs to happen now, in a world altered by the pandemic,” says Sumit Virmani, chief marketing officer at Infosys. He holds forth on this emerging face of marketing underpinned by the confluence of purpose, people, and profits.
Covid-19 hugely disrupted the world of enterprise in 2020, pushing several sectors into deep quandary while providing unforeseen windfalls to a fortunate few. It accelerated a sweeping overall digital embrace, driven by the forced move to a homebody economy, and organizations were compelled to respond by quickly transforming themselves to stay in business. The ones with the muscle and resilience to do so live to take on the challenges of post-pandemic recovery and growth which continues to be overwhelmingly digital.
The tough times also brought with it shifts in consumer loyalty and the embrace of new brands; brands that ranked high on the convenience and value index, of course, but also those that measured up to somewhat higher standards – especially socially. The surge in ‘consumer activism’ triggered by the pandemic brought brands under the scanner – especially for their treatment of people, both their own and the community, and how they fared will continue to have a huge impact on buying decisions.
As connectors responsible for bringing together brands and their customers, marketers are keenly evaluating their strategies for the times ahead. They know that the future is about finding a fine balance between what worked before and what needs to happen now in a world altered by the pandemic. And this balance lies at the confluence of purpose, people, and profits - in that order of priority, as each feeds the next.
Brands will grow in strength by living their purpose
Brands with purpose and strong socially conscious values have emerged as more attractive to buyers over the past couple of years, with the recent crisis greatly intensifying this movement. A global marketing trends study that polled nearly 2500 consumers the world over, through the pandemic, found that purpose-driven enterprises are garnering more consumer attention than ever. Nearly one out of four survey respondents strongly agreed that authentic purpose-driven choices that brands made during the pandemic have positively shifted their perceptions and one in five strongly agreed that it shifted their buying preferences in favour of the brand as well. Not surprisingly, consumers are also well aware of negative brand actions that led to one in four of them walking away from a brand they might have previously endorsed.
The lesson for organizations is to make long-term commitments, reiterating their purpose, that guide how these businesses will operate and how they will support causes and interests that extend beyond their own economic pursuits. In the absence of such commitments, brand strength can quickly diminish. Marketers have their task cut out for them - choosing projects and partnerships that communicate their brands’ why unambiguously and consistently.
Intense people-focus will be a growing brand differentiator
As an employee, surveyed by the Fortune magazine for their Best Companies to Work for in 2021 rating, put it, “It can be easy to be a great company when times are perfect, but it takes a great company to do that when times are uncertain.” Whether it was Target’s unlimited backup care benefit, providing company-paid in-home or day-care coverage when employees’ families needed it most during the pandemic or the launch of Cisco’s digital care coordination platform – Wellthy – helping workers manage everything from supporting elderly parents to caring for a child with special needs, these moves are well-received not just by employees but consumers too. After all, it is the customer experience that sees a strong uptick when motivated employees understand their role and place in customers’ interactions with the brand.
Taking a stand in people matters is no longer optional for progressive brands or their custodians. In fact, not doing so comes at a cost; Gartner predicts that by 2022, a third of publicity budgets dedicated to crisis communications will be used in response to employees speaking out against their organization. In addition, consumers also expect that the brands they support communicate their ethical positioning on matters that matter to people of the community and more importantly, act to match their words.
It will take profitable work to make the brand work
CFOs are getting increasingly vocal. The reason, they say, marketing proposals had been declined or not fully funded in the past is that the proposals did not demonstrate a clear line to value. Based on a recent research report, nearly half the CFOs do not think marketing investments should be protected during a downturn. The challenge - even more significant in a precarious economic environment where businesses are less tolerant of fuzzy ROI - then is to not only track marketing ROI but also articulate it in a way that is appreciated.
Using a best-in-class marketing technology stack to support the groundwork of gaining clarity on measures and metrics, can prove invaluable in these recovery-focused times. Equally important is the need to establish a common language between marketing and other business stakeholders to articulate the value of these efforts. For example, convincing the CFO about the value of digital impressions and brand perception may prove futile, but demonstrating the direct impact marketing efforts make - in empirical terms - on the top and bottom line, will almost certainly work better.
Marketers would need to have a new lens to see and perhaps reimagine our playbooks for a world that has just been reimagined.
Sumit Virmani is the chief marketing officer of Infosys.