Opinion: Are Asian brands ready to lead the post-COVID-19 new world order?

We have entered the Asian century. According to UN data, this region makes up more than half the world’s population, and half of the world’s middle class. Importantly, Asia is the world’s engine, currently accounting for more than 60% of economic growth worldwide, according to the 2018 regional outlook for Asia Pacific by the International Monetary Fund.

But this next century will look very different from the last ten years, or even the last year alone. The profound effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are, as described in this McKinsey article, changing industry structures, consumer behaviour, market positions and sector attractiveness. And quite literally, normal life as we know it.

What will the next normal look like? And when will that kick in? While the jury is still out, it would be remiss if our marketing and communications industry didn’t use this opportunity to reassess our role in this new world order. Amidst all the uncertainty, there are some valuable learnings to be gleaned for the direction of our industry.

1. Brand stewardship is here to stay

The COVID-19 pandemic is an existential crisis that has shown the stark reality of the global inter-dependencies that exist between countries, and within countries and society -- from access to medical and food supplies to getting the rubbish cleared. When the future of humanity is at stake, every single person on this planet needs to act like a steward, and play the long game. Stewardship calls for organisations to grow their businesses not only for profit and the benefit of shareholders, but also for stakeholders and the society at large.

It is high noon for authenticity and purpose.

Gone are the days of short-termism, and paying lip service to purpose and sustainability.

Building trust and lifetime value is fundamentally more important than short-term lead generation. How can companies marry profits with purpose? How do we balance short-term financial objectives with sustainable long-term goals?

Communications will play an intrinsically important role in helping reshape the expectations and behaviours of citizens, consumers, shareholders, investors, employees, business owners, business partners, company executives and government leaders alike.

2. Demonstrate humanity in thoughts, words and actions

The COVID-19 pandemic is a human tragedy of epic proportions, uncovering unaddressed gaps in many previously hidden segments of society. It is yet another reminder of the importance of not just communicating with empathy, accuracy and transparency (principles of crisis communications), but demonstrating humanity in our thoughts, words and actions.

According to Google’s search data in Southeast Asia, help-related content made up the majority of searches in March. So how can brands be even more helpful to our constituents from now on? How can our industry help shine a spotlight, tell these stories and mobilise action? Let’s do CSR to address a real need, not for opportunism or publicity.

Positive stories about genuine intentions will always find their way up to public consciousness.

LVMH’s move to convert their perfume factories to manufacture hand sanitizers not only received widespread publicity, mainland Chinese consumers rewarded the brand with a 50% rebound in sales in April as the country emerged from the epidemic, according to media reports.

3. Brands built from the inside out are best positioned to weather any crisis

A strong corporate culture and loyal employees builds resiliency. Through interviews conducted this April by McKinsey and FCLT Global with long-term investors, their advice was to look after employees (then suppliers and partners) first. The logic is simple - not only is it the humane thing to do, looking after people during difficult times engenders greater loyalty and motivation, builds psychological resilience and enables a company to bounce back quickly after periods of crises. Conversely, in these days of growing employee activism, companies have more to lose if they don’t act according to the expectations of employees.

4. Embrace the distance and bridge the divide

According to a Harvard study, the new normal might involve on-off social distancing until or even after a COVID-19 vaccine is found. We have seen phenomenal uptake in telecommuting, virtual events, eCommerce and even telemedicine. For example, ZumVet, an online veterinary service launched in Singapore last October, has seen a 200% uptake since the onset of COVID-19.

The irony is that while many more creative technology-led solutions emerge, there are segments of society that will fall further behind due to lack of access or know-how. While this gets addressed (we hope) at the policy level, the public and private sector play an important role in helping to bridge this divide. Inclusivity, outreach and engagement needs to be a central part of our brand ethos, messaging and programmes.

5. The pandemic is global but the response needs to be hyperlocal

An existential crisis of this nature has shown that every country and even regions and cities within a country are on a different time continuum in terms of COVID-19 recovery. McDonald’s suspension of marketing activity and re-prioritisation of budget towards the COVID-19 relief effort is a good example of how a brand has taken a nuanced approach to responding in the Philippines as opposed to Malaysia. In the Philippines, McDonald's launched a COVID-19 response fund while in Malaysia, it sponsored food to about 50 hospitals nationwide throughout the Movement Control Order period.

More than ever, our messaging and campaigns need to be nuanced and hyperlocal.

Resources, such as McKinsey’s consumer sentiment pulse survey, will be useful references as brands chart their future plans. So as the world’s economic epicentre shifts from West to East, and with Asia quite likely to emerge from this pandemic ahead of the West, the world will be watching how we navigate unchartered territory. Is Asia ready to show the way?

The writer is Marc Ha, MD, APAC, client strategy at Archetype. 

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