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Rebuilding consumer trust, meeting altered expectations: Brands on the 2021 challenge

Service sector marketers spoke at the Brands and Consumers: 2021 and Beyond webinar.

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MUMBAI: Our world, as we know it, changed irrevocably last year in the wake of Covid2019. As people everywhere struggled to make sense of an evolving reality, organisations too were forced to reassess and recalibrate their businesses in a bid to survive and grow. Consumer behaviour having gone through a paradigm shift during the pandemic, has posed additional challenges for brands. There is understandably uncertainty on all fronts.

In order to understand the strategies devised by top brands to tackle the challenges of this global crisis and to look beyond it, the Indian Society of Advertisers (ISA), in association with the Free Press Journal and ABP Network, organised a two-part webinar - Brands and Consumers: 2021 and Beyond.

While the first part of this series on the manufacturing sector was held last week, the second part on the service sector was held on Wednesday with some of the best marketing minds from across the service sector. The panel discussion that followed aimed to share the best practices during the pandemic and the way to look forward with hope.  

The session was moderated by ISA executive council member and former Johnson & Johnson MD Narendra Ambwani. Panelists included Thomas Cook (India) president & group head-marketing, service quality, financial services & innovation Abraham Alapatt, Aditya Birla Capital CMO Ajay Kakar, Jio Platforms group vice president- advertising & innovations Mohit Kapoor, and Amazon India’s director, mass & brand marketing international Ravi Desai.

Opening the session, Ambwani spoke about how post-Covid, brands face many challenges with consumers‘ expectations as well as behaviours changing. He shared the main question confronting the industry today: “what are the lessons learnt in overcoming the disruptions posed by lockdown, WFH and fears caused by Covid.” Alapatt voiced his opinion on how the travel sector was the most affected in the crisis with the entire industry’s demand going down to “zero”, in part due to the physical restrictions in place. “The past twelve months have given a learning equivalent to twelve years,” he stated.

From a marketer’s perspective, he encapsulated the year gone by into six Cs of 60 days each, with the first 60 days being a state of “confusion”, turning to “concern” in next 60, then going on to “careful” where the initial paranoia had subdued, proceeding to a mix of “cautious + careless” when the lockdowns eased and finally learning to “coexist” with the pandemic and the restrictions.

Sharing Thomas Cook’s marketing strategy during the crisis, he highlighted the importance of staying connected to the consumer via newsletters and surveys, while reassuring them on the safety protocols being adopted by the company. The travel company also guaranteed the customer’s financial security by giving them the freedom to reschedule or cancel flights without monetary loss. 

Aditya Birla’s Ajay Kakar agreed with Alapatt on the importance of remaining connected with the customer, while also stressing on brand visibility and relevance. Being primarily from the health and life insurance sector, he said it was equally crucial to be there for existing customers and listen to their concerns, rather than only focus on new customers. He agreed that the sector benefited from people having time to spare to finally explore investing in the capital market.

Jio’s Mohit Kapoor was more upbeat regarding the past year, although he admitted that the April 2020 quarter was the worst in many years for the company. He shared the forecast of Jio’s smartphones reaching a market of 800 million from existing 500 million, paving the way for a ‘2G-Mukt Bharat’. He predicted that social is the way forward for commerce with social networking sites like Facebook and Instagram seeing a huge spike in users. He also touched on the upcoming relevance of social gaming and e-sports genres with India becoming one of the biggest gamers markets.

Amazon’s Ravi Desai was also quite optimistic about the e-commerce giant’s prospects in the past, as well as the coming year. As he put it, “consumers’ needs for a wide selection of products, delivered quickly and safely is not going to change,” even with local retailers opening up and customers stepping out to buy. His advice to brands: To look for the ‘permanent’ factor in their business module which will remain relevant to customers, and to focus on that core part.

Summing up the main takeaways for brands from the discussion -

u  Stay connected and relevant to customers

u  Reach out and reassure existing customers

u  With changed consumer-expectations, brands that step up will remain in the game

u  Trust is the keyword – rebuilding and reassuring customer’s trust in a crisis

After the bloodbath of last year, the travel industry is on the road to recovery, with a huge spate of bookings for the months of November and December, shared Alapatt. He added that Maldives, which had never figured in the top destinations for Indians now, had single largest visitors from India. Even enquiries post-lockdown were record-breaking, indicating that people were frustrated after remaining indoors for so long. With prices lower than ever and great travel deals, he concluded that things can only look up from hereon for travel and tourism. At the same time, he emphasised there was no compromise on the safety factor of customers, and that adding safety value to a brand where required will pay dividends with customers willing to pay for the extra. He cited the example of Thomas Cook’s partnership with Apollo, to enable the customer to avail the ‘doctor-on-call’ facility while travelling.

In conclusion, this optimism was shared by all other service sectors when it came to looking forward at 2021 and beyond. They surmised that this was a powerful opportunity for the hospitality and service sector, with the worst over and behind them. And that in this pursuit, the relevance and value of customer engagement has grown even more significant for all brands.

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