Opinion: Marketers’ role in Sri Lanka’s recovery

By Thanzyl Thajudeen

Despite the much-required socio-political changes, every one of us – whether its entrepreneurs, SMEs, corporations, institutions and individual citizens – have a crucial role to play in the country’s path to recovery. Instead of continuing to point out fingers to those responsible for the chaotic economic situation we are in – which by all means is fair and just – let’s shift our focus to the need of the hour where each and every one of us take charge both personally and professionally and doing the best of what we can and should. In this article, I will be sharing my thoughts on how we as marketers could play a pivotal part in reforming, reinstating and reviving our social, communal and economical values.

Weigh more on empathy while being analytical

Marketers here are now beginning to sharpen their analytical skills especially in moving towards the whole digital phenomena however in doing so, shouldn’t compromise the human connection that all consumers prefer. Being analytical also teaches one to remove all plausible biases and be critical in their thinking, but rather than just following only that avenue, try blending it with being empathetic and diverse. One of the best ways to begin with here, is to train your sales reps to be qualitative researchers where in return they can bring in quality insights, and if they are given a formal one- or two-hour customer interaction as part of their role, that multiplied by the number of reps will bring you hundreds of hours of insights. A 2019 study conducted by Reach found only 30pct of marketers were proficient in experiencing the world from someone else’s perspective. We think we are empathetic, but the reality is far away from this statement. For instance, consultants at Bain after studying nearly 400 organisations concluded that 80pct of them believed they give a superior customer experience but only 8pct of their customers agreed to it, hinting that there is a widening gap on truly knowing what the customer looks for. Empathy is something that cannot be passed on at all, it will be the single most powerful determinant in the future. A 2018 study by M&C Saatchi with 34,000 consumers across 225 large brands found that the empathy deficit in businesses cost the average brand over USD300mn in lost revenue annually.

Be responsible in all your marketing efforts

Marketing is all about creating genuine value for your customers and stakeholders, and not just to find clever and smarter ways to get attention or perhaps dispose or sell your products and services. Unlike those days, marketers today have a significant ability to influence public opinion with the rise of digital and sophisticated media, analytical capabilities and increased understanding of the consumers’ psyche. For long, whether we like to agree or not, we have or been a part of promoting unsustainable consumption and poor consumer lifestyle choices, polluting mindsets and contributing to non-communicable diseases, pursuing unethical business practices, manipulating media and public opinion and creating social disharmony, among others. I’m not saying that every marketer is such, not at all. But a majority of them. This is simply because of being too drifted in focusing on sales and profit maximization and the long indulgence of marketers in their egocentric mindset rather than really learning and evaluating the detrimental effects their strategies and actions bring about to the society and planet. We see this happening widely in Sri Lanka as in anywhere in the world, and marketers have a crucial role in undoing this entire approach by reinstating ethical, moral and humane values. Salsify found that 56pct of consumers surveyed say they will even pay more for brands they trust, and this is further confirmed by NielsenIQ’s corporate social responsibility survey where 55pct of respondents globally are willing to pay extra from companies committed to creating positive and social and environmental impact, and 77pct of them buy from brands that share similar values according to Havas Group.

Play fair by the consumers and public

The ongoing economic crisis is a test for marketers and organizations alike. It’s all about trust, and this single most important aspect rules out everything else. Marketers need to pursue inclusive marketing practices and have the willingness and ability to mass customize offerings that addresses varying needs, preferences, abilities and backgrounds, instead of just focusing on hiking their pricing strategy or downsizing quality or size, or unfortunately in most instances, both. We notice a few brands also pursuing scarcity marketing, hoarding and releasing later when prices soar or creating artificial demand by cutting down on the supply of their products that are on demand. Psychologically, consumers tend to go for things that are widely in demand and hard to get but marketers should not exploit their customer’s fear of missing out on their purchases in times like this. In Edelman’s Trust Barometer carried out during the 2020 pandemic, the report found that 83pct of people want ‘compassionate connection that communicates empathy and support with the struggles they face’.

Provide more value by sharing value

Marketers here are often lost into the competition mindset and to thrive through this recovery, marketers should take ego out of the equation. In one part, marketers should find the ways and means in how best to share their resources and capabilities with others in their ecosystem and achieve a more sustainable driven mindset in the long run. Collaboration doesn’t have to be about getting into a massive partnership deal, rather even simply initiatives such as sharing ideas, lessons learned, and best practices makes a big difference. Marketers need to always maintain an open mind, challenge themselves to grow and develops in ways that might not be understandable, get out of their comfort zones, and learn from as many different people as they can. In the other part, collaborative marketing is something to think greatly about in times like this. Marketers can find their partner brands that aligns with their values and have a similar audience and collaborate in their marketing efforts for the mutual benefit of both businesses. Some examples to learn from include Spotify and Uber, Doritos and Taco Bell, Kanye West and Nike, Disney and Lyft, BMW and Louis Vuitton, KFC and Cheetos, Burger King and McDonald’s, GoPro and Red Bull, etc.

Scale up and enter global markets

With numerous home-grown brands available here – blessed with the vast access to quality natural, physical and humane capital – only a handful of them have truly tapped and gone into international markets. This is understandable due to the risk-aversive culture, lack of resources and support, insufficient knowledge, among other reasons. And unfortunately, the many who does go global are somewhat very introvert in their journey. Instead, they could also share their cumulative experience and knowledge with others onboarding the industry, whether its exporting agri foods, textiles, IT/BPO services, or industrial goods. The big players, instead of just trade associations and not for profits, could join hands with each other and lend their hand to those who are embarking on their businesses, and export marketers could really convince the boards to do so. On the other hand, marketers who are considering taking their brand global should know that now is the ideal time to do so. There is so much information already available – do your own research, reach out to someone who can help, set yourself goals in small steps, and constantly push yourself whenever you sense you’re laying back. A study by Deloitte together with Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship found that 90 percent of startups ‘die within 5 years after conception’, and only a mere 5pct of them eventually turn into a scaleup, and about two-third of those companies’ strop growing or exit before the reach their eighth year. But do not be discouraged by this, it only shows how much difficult the atmosphere is today but with the right attitude, patience and perseverance, nothing is impossible.

Create brand experiences and not attention

The overall impression of a person whether a user or non-user of a brand is all that matters today. A recent PwC study found that ‘59pct of all consumers feel companies have lost touch with the human element of customer experience.’ The extent of damage caused by ignoring this is plenty, for instance Deloitte found that customers tell an average of 16 people about a negative brand experience in contrast to 9 people on a positive experience. Further, Stackla reported that 88pct consumers cited authenticity is crucial in brand likeability and support. When we take the context over here, marketers are far away from creating either an authentic brand experience or customer experience, as tremendous efforts go into just making noises to just get brand attention by often losing themselves in their promotional mix. During these trying times, a disappointing experience will not just add frustration but lead to negative word of mouth, even by those who aren’t having such a character trait. Its all about the emotional connection with consumers.

Embrace design thinking regularly

Whether we like or not, it is either ego, jealousy, greed or our long-associated comfort zone that has created workplaces and environments that often suppress ideas and openness. Many marketers in Sri Lanka are in this dangerous trap and greatly misunderstand the difference between the types of problems they face day-to-day. It is quite surprising to notice that many brands assume that their cumulative experience or brand superiority will continue to fulfil their goals, rather it does nothing but just maintain the status quo whilst no real change or innovation actually takes place. Marketers, especially those in the senior positions who think they don’t have time or see a need for such, must critically understand that design thinking and innovation is no longer an option but a dire necessity today. Adobe found that 50pct of design-led companies surveyed reported more satisfied and loyal customers, and 78pct of them have a defined process for coming up with ideas. Forrester found that such companies cut initial design and alignment by 75pct, enabling marketers get their products to-market faster for way less money. Further, data from McKinsey exhibited that those who adopt regular design thinking practices reported a third higher revenues and 56pct higher returns in comparison to those that don’t. Marketers need to step aside from their own paradigm and the know-it-all mindset and be very open to the paradigms of others, and have a well-defined process to proactively share ideas, feedbacks and suggestions. The amount of problem-solving and a higher sustainable marketing strategy resulting from it is priceless.

Boost your internal communications activities

Many marketers often spend a colossal amount of time and budget on external communications, and more specifically, on consumer communications. Some organizations don’t even have this aspect in their marketing agendas, and simply leave it to HR or have it outsourced to an external consultancy or agency during certain circumstances. Having an internal communications plan is fundamental to any marketer, and the need to work with all business disciplines and develop impactful inter-organizational policies and strategy to achieve a sense of direction and purpose. The pandemic has undoubtedly taught us how important this is. Since the pandemic outbreak, HBR found that over 90pct employees wanted weekly communication from their company and 29pct wanting daily communication. And scary enough, 60pct of companies have no long-term internal comms strategy, according to a study by Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., and a significant of those who do, don’t measure the communications’ effectiveness and its outcomes. Many of them talk the talk, but only a handful walk the walk. Research from Dale Carnegie found that 85pct of leaders say employee engagement is a priority but only one third actually make it one.

Automate wherever possible

Marketing automation is here to some extent and globally around 90pct of marketers regularly use more than one form of such software according to Learning Hub. Stats from Funnel Overload further confirms that 61pct of marketers use it to generate more leads – in fact Moosend reports that it generates a staggering 451pct more qualified leads – and that businesses that use such are 20pct more productive than others. Marketers could use an ideal cloud-based CRM or MKIS systems that are cost-effective, get into a freely available internal social network platform, automate all digital and social media marketing activities, and try testing certain omni-channel marketing strategy, chatbots, machine learning and AI. This also means that marketers here need to do away with unnecessarily printing materials, calling for physical meetings, using tremendous amount of paper, requiring one to travel often, etc.

Give your people good quality, meaningful work

Marketing is something that can either be interesting or a burnout to your people. Give them a sense of purpose and meaning in the work they do, communicate the impact and influence it brings about to your consumers and public and not just always deluding them with achieving sales figures or new accounts. Be externally conscious and oriented while managing the internal, and not vice versa. Give them good quality work. The Institute of Future of Work found that this promotes ‘health and resilience, including life expectancy, satisfaction and wellbeing across a range of measures’, and on contrary insufficient access to ‘good work’ correlates with ‘difficult work transitions, diseases and deaths of despair and even COVID-19 mortalities’. And that employers should create policies aimed for good jobs – work that promotes dignity, autonomy and equality, and just for the sake of ‘employment.’ Do not expect them to sell something that simply cannot be sold anymore, do not ask them to convince clients when they cannot be convinced anymore, do not tell them to reach targets and quotas when its not merely possible anymore. Do not simply criticize that you cannot understand this so called ‘new generation’ and do not make them yet another product of the industrial age. Do not create a stressful environment knowingly or more so, unknowingly because stress is without a doubt a major phenomenon among today’s generation. Numerous research has found that Generation Z has the highest stress and anxiety than any other groups, followed by Millennials.

Do your part to the communities and society-at-large

It’s heartwarming to see various companies and brands here are sending much-required food packs to their employees and asking to work remotely including giving them access to various mental health and wellbeing programs. Many are also both individually and collaboratively providing necessities to the public and advocating for others to join or contribute in any way possible. Some are even initiating programs to cultivate and grow fresh produce within their factory or office premises, partnering and carrying out various green restoration programs including beach and forest cleanups, building and donating equipment to schools and hospitals, developing recreational activities and infrastructure, initiating impactful educational programs among youth, reaching out to the marginalized and underprivileged, funding and providing business guidance for entrepreneurs and startups, sponsor and provide scholarships for higher education, provide meals and transport and medicals for employees working from office including paid off days to obtain fuel, and so much more. This certainly has a huge influence on your consumers. For instance, 70pct of consumers believe it’s important for brands to take a public stand on social and political issues, according to 70pct of consumers believe it’s important for brands to take a public stand on social and political issues and 66pct do so because they believe brands can create real change. A 2019 Aflac CSR survey found that 77pct consumers are motivated to purchase from brands committed to making the world a better place, and that 72pct of them are willing to forgive the repentance of brands with bad behavior. Further, this also helps in retaining your employees during these challenging times where it’s difficult or costly to find new talent. NPF mentions that 75pct of employees engaging in corporate giving programs stay longer with the company.

(Thanzyl Thajudeen is a senior marketing and communications professional)

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