In 1884 the world was different from what we know today. Hygiene was not as widely practised as we do now, it was common to see children dying before their fifth birthday, and women did the household cleaning and washing using dirty water.
So when William Lever, son of a wholesaler and future founder of Unilever, decided to produce soap and market it to the masses, he was doing something extraordinary in his time. Naturally people were curious and asked him why soap. His response? ‘It is to make cleanliness commonplace and reduce the burden on women.’ This is how in a difficult time, marketing innovation was borne and used to make life better for people.
[Image credit – Unilever]
From that beginning in faraway cold England to today under the scorching Ghana sun, marketing has always innovated out of necessity in hard times. Jokingly perhaps when Greek philosopher, Plato, said necessity is the mother of invention, he was speaking to marketeers.
If you are reading this article, it is safe to assume you were not alive to witness the Spanish flu of 1918. That makes COVID19, one of the biggest global pandemics many of us have experienced first-hand. So how did marketeers and their brands respond to the COVID challenge in Ghana? I propose a framework to answer this question.
COVID changed consumer behaviour in many ways. But since the consumer is the reason a brand exists, if consumer needs change, brands will have to adapt to keep serving the consumer. This sounds easy to say but COVID brought unique problems. First, no one saw COVID coming, and no one could ever adequately prepare for the damage it brought. Secondly, to make matters worse, our knowledge of the virus was changing by the day. So rationally, brands took a while to watch and wait before walking.
In Ghana, once the message became clear that a healthy immune system was the key to fighting the virus, marketing’s work was cut out to one difficult question – how do we do things to improve the health of people in our products, communication, and other marketing activities?
Based on this fundamental question, brands positioned themselves to adopt one of four approaches; – Existing product, New comms; Existing product; New twist, New product, New comms, and No product, Just comms.
Existing Product, New Comms
Many food brands reasoned like this- ‘If our existing product already contains ingredients that help support the immune system or overall wellbeing, then why don’t we tell people about it? This is a win-win because people will be healthy, and our business will grow.’ This is a science-shaped approach because it’s either a product contains an ingredient at the right level, or it doesn’t. Additionally, the mandatory regulatory approvals will ensure this will only work if the science is truly sound.
Brands using this approach can be identified because their communication messaging sounds like ‘Product X is fortified, enriched or contains A, B, C to keep you healthy’. Among all the four approaches, this has relatively quick turnaround time. The role of the marketeer here is to identify insights, craft relevant messaging, and land it with credibility. Among others, Royal Aroma Fortified Rice and Tasty Tom Enriched tomato paste, did a good execution of this approach. While it is possible that some of these products may have been launched before COVID, the media communication was clearly amplified during the pandemic.
Existing Product, New Twist
The difference between this approach and the first one is the addition of a new feature or element to an existing base product. Over here, the marketing thinking is ‘our basic product is good. However, COVID means our consumer needs extra requirements to make their life better. So what can we add or enhance?’
The role of a marketeer in this approach is to understand the consumer needs and identify the additions that will make the consumer’s life better. For years, technology firms have been masters of incremental enhancement. Their regular software and hardware updates are not only done to excite the user, but they are also a necessity to survive and grow with changing times.
It is therefore no surprise that Bolt, the ride hailing app, executed a masterstroke with this approach. The company introduced Bolt Protect, which is a physical glass barrier between the driver and passengers in a bolt cab. This extra layer of safety on top of the reduced occupancy made users feel safe, especially in the early days of the lockdown.
New Product, New Comms
In a normal year, good marketeers build something people want. In unusual times, great marketeers build something people need.
Brands that took this approach of introducing an entirely new product and new communication had to work harder than the rest. These brands were forced to innovate and develop products to meet the unusual needs of the consumer in an uncertain environment. As if innovation was not hard enough by itself, the circumstances made it even harder.
Over here, the role of a marketeer is to innovate under strange circumstances. Notable here is FanMilk, the company that produces yoghurt, ice cream and juice. As their response to COVID, FanMilk introduced a new NutriDay yoghurt, an innovative nutritious yoghurt which is fortified with Zinc to support the immune system. Once the product was launched, FanMilk took it to schools and freely served pupils to keep them protected at school. Parents and teachers were quite pleased with that gesture.
[Image credit – FanMilk/NutriDay Yoghurt]
No Product, Just Comms
While some of the approaches discussed earlier are tied to products, it was also observed that some brands focussed on putting out simple communications without any direct link to their offerings. This was particularly common in the service industry, where telecommunication providers and banks were most visible.
In this approach, those service brands maintained their basic services as usual and rather invested in communication. The role of marketing here was to drive awareness of the virus, promote preventive measures, uplift people, and assure users of safety while patronising the brand’s services.
The three large telco brands – MTN, Vodafone and AirtelTigo, all gave a good account of themselves and rolled out various communication campaigns in this regard. MTN however took things a step further with their WearItForMe campaign, built on encouraging people to wear the facemask for the sake of their mothers, and generally follow the protocols. In business, a good gesture in always a valid objective. Additionally, there could be long term gains from this type of move because in uncertain times, people are likely to choose a brand they feel cares about them.
[Image credit- MTN Ghana]
At the end of the day marketing is about satisfying the needs of a consumer profitably. So, if a pandemic forces the needs of the consumer to change, marketing must change to keep satisfying those new needs. This is a key that the most successful and sustainable brands understand. Some day in the future when the story of COVID19 is told in this country, let it be known that Ghana’s outstanding brands stepped up and made a huge difference. Indeed, when that strange virus challenged us to a match, we stepped up to play in the pandemic. May posterity judge us right.
>>>the writer is an award-winning Marketing Professional, who has successfully managed or consulted for some of West Africa’s most popular brands. Eric brings years of experience working in Marketing and Brand Management, Strategy, Training, Communications, Media and PR. He is an Associate Member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing Ghana, and a passionate industry analyst who believes in African excellence in all areas of life. Contact Eric on +23326 726 9806 or [email protected]
This analysis is based on publicly available information from media sources. Details of product formulations and strategy can only be verified by internal sources and regulatory bodies