Brand choice will be defined by meaningfulness of brands in consumers' lives: Rana Barua

In today's edition of 'Beating All Odds', Rana Barua, Group CEO, Havas Group India, speaks with Naziya Alvi Rahman, Editor of exchange4media

e4m by Naziya Alvi Rahman
Updated: Apr 29, 2020 7:49 PM
Beating All Odds with Rana Barua, Group CEO, Havas Group, India

In our series 'Beating All Odds', we are speaking to leaders, who despite so many odds, challenges and constraints COVID-19 has imposed on all of us, are ensuring that work goes on.

Today we speak to Rana Barua, Group CEO, Havas Group India.

How are you keeping the morale of your employees high during these times of uncertainty?

A Herculean effort is being put into trying to keep the morale high. Anyone who is saying that they've gotten adjusted to working from home or that it's easy working from home, I will differ, because it is probably one of the toughest challenges we are facing. Yes, we've all adapted to working from home, but I think what we need to keep doing is create a culture of working from home. And if you want to keep the morale of employees high, you must 'space out' everybody's life and you must give each other a lot of breathing time.

In normal office days, you're used to saying 'I've packed so many things in my schedule' or 'I'm running behind my schedule'. All of those words have been kept aside a bit. I'm actually spacing out the way I'm working because you have to give breathing time to everybody because people are working from home and there are other challenges and constraints at home. So a lot of patience, breathing time and spacing out of everybody's schedule are things, if you keep doing, you can get your employees to be motivated. This is apart from talking to them and keeping a dialogue with them.

And how are you dealing with clients at this time?

Clients are also going through the same things as us. Most of these clients are also friends. This battle is not unique to us, it's everyone who is going through it. However, I think this is probably the best time to remove all your positions and just be at one-on-one with most of your clients. You have to speak with them more often, understand their issues and figure out their problems, it's not just about work anymore. They may have business or personal issues and challenges that they are facing. So the best thing to do is forget for the moment that it's a client-agency relationship and that we are doing a job. We must clearly understand that we are partners now. It's flat even ground now, that a lot of these conversations - if you are transparent and honest – are going to help the client-agency partnership.

What kind of strategy are you using for clients such as Reckitt Benckiser who have had increased or stable demand during this time?

There are two ways of looking at what you can do. This is probably the best time to sit with your client - whether the client is selling or not – to understand the business, the dynamics, the issues and challenges. It is also a time to relook at all the strategies and execution plans that were made earlier. It is a good time to look at the change of business plans and strategies because you know all business plans and objectives are changing. Apart from the marketing budgets being impacted, the entire business strategy is also changing. It has become a very moment marketing sort of business plan; in the long- term plan, for example, we planned for the next quarter, but now, it is about what the plan is for the next month.

So if I look at a client like Reckitt Benckiser, there is a lot of work going on. We are very fortunate to have such a client because there is work happening all across categories and mediums, although the main television medium might be on hold, there is a lot of work happening on digital and behind-the-scenes. The moment we got to know that there might be a partial opening up on the 20th of April, there was a lot of work that started because we knew that maybe the goods will start moving.

Can we expect new campaigns?

Yes, there will be some work coming out of Reckitt Benckiser pertaining to these times. Also, there is a lot of work from Durex on digital media, as well from Harpic and Mortein. That's a category that's extremely relevant and we are trying to do meaningful work. And that is one of our strongest brand philosophies at Havas: meaningful brands. So we will not be doing any work which makes no sense, or hard sell a product. You can understand that the psyche of the consumer is extremely garbled right now, he or she is under tremendous pressure, mentally, emotionally or financially. So the work we are trying to do right now is to ensure that there is some meaningful connection with the consumer in the brand communication. And that's with brands that are active.

There are many such brands that are active and stable where there is a lot of work happening. For example, another client, Fortis, a very reputed hospital chain; when you get into the depth of work that Fortis is doing, you suddenly realise there's so much work and interest that you can generate from a hospital chain like Fortis. It is a hospital where COVID and non-COVID patients are coming in, so you can understand the challenges a hospital faces.

If you look at the automobile category in Havas Media, we have a fantastic partnership with INNOCEAN and Hyundai, and in Havas Creative, we have PSA Groupe’s  Citroën,  which we are about to launch next year. Because one is a launch market, there is work happening behind-the-scenes. We are getting ready hopefully for a launch early next year. There was an official press that we were supposed to launch Citroen this year but it will be launched early next year. But does the work stop because the launch is next year? No. Because a lot of work is happening behind-the-scenes. Of course, the workload is less.

If we go back to work for a brand like Hyundai, or for Kia, with which we have a media relationship, a lot of the media spends and conversations are on hold. But there are a lot of conversations happening on the business and engagement plans because we are all hopeful that the lockdown, even if it's a partial opening up from 3 rd May, there are a lot more conversations that factories and manufacturing will start.

On the creative side again, we have Suzuki bikes and scooters, and again there is a lot of brand work that is going on behind-the-scenes and we are also expecting that manufacturing will start. So while you can see a bit of a standstill, because the spends have come down completely for many brands and categories across agencies and networks, what is also happening is a lot of revisiting of strategy and conversations on how to deploy media. We are also very hopeful that this will not continue for very long. The monsoons are coming and we are hopeful that this will be a good monsoon; it immediately changes the sentiment of the nation. We know that COVID will be prevalent for some time, but with a partial lockdown and opening up, and if dealerships start to open, we are hopeful that a bit of momentum will come back into everybody's sentiments.

How long do you think it will take the overall industry to recover from this crisis?

Although we are not putting a definite time, I think the next few quarters will probably be in the form of an up and down movement. What we are definitely expecting is that this year - quarter 2, 3 and 4 until December, will be an extremely challenging time. Maybe we'll see some movement happening from the end of this year and hopefully, we see a better 2021. But I will be extremely surprised if 2020 starts to look better before the last quarter.

What are some of the key things you think the industry should do to ensure the recovery is on track?

I was hearing another senior professional saying recently that if this was a pure recession you would've said don't stop spending and keep building your brand, which is the normal conversation we've had. Even when the market goes down, we keep saying to keep investing in building the brand. I don't think that's the choice here. You cannot unnecessarily spend money behind brands if the consumers are not going out. Also, what are we going to buy if all shops are closed? So we need to figure out very clearly the kind of objectives we have with our brands, for example, we are clear that there are mediums available where we can keep engaging with the consumer, which is why a lot of people have started using television.

We need to be very clear about what our objectives are for this year. What I'm also sensing and something which I'm trying to make a stronger conversation out of is something I am calling 'calibrated marketing'. This is basically marketing going in ups and downs. So you will not have a clear cycle as we did before. For example, in case the market opens up, you will have a bit of spending, a bit of sales, so we will also have some kinds of up and then if there is a lockdown and we have to go back into our homes, there will be a down again.

Also, a lot of our conversations will start becoming extremely more meaningful. If you look back at the past 1 month, where most of us in the country have been locked down at home, you suddenly realise that you can lead your life without a lot of brands. Are they important? Yes, they are very important. Do we need them? Yes, we need them. But the question is, can we live without them? If out of those brands that exist in your life today you can live without 50-60% of them, it means those brands don' have relevance or purpose in your life. Therefore, there is a finite number of brands which are important to a consumer's life. This is why we will now start focusing on meaningful brands. You need brands with purpose, relevance, brands which have a reason. So a lot of brands will start defining purpose because they have realised that these are the situations which can happen anytime. If they don't have clear relevance and need, they may not exist anymore.

So for me, it'll be the medium: excellent choice of medium that marketers will have to figure out, it can be digital, television, or can be content or OTT platforms, depending on how you want to use the medium. Secondly, it's going to be a lot of calibrated marketing, marketing which will probably come in bursts where we would see the relevance. Thirdly, we will see how meaningful brands are to a consumer.

Does this mean luxury brands should be worried?

If I look at the high-end luxury segment, it is going to be clear that there wouldn't be a plethora of luxury brands. Even in the world of luxury, you'll have a set of brands which will have far greater connect and meaning with the consumer. Because even though people are sitting at home today, it is not the case that they are not missing the presence of luxury brands in their lives. But if you were looking at multiple levels of luxury brands, today you would say I'm ok with those 2 or 3 brands. The brand choice might become lesser, but the brand choice will be defined by the meaningfulness of the brand in the consumer's life.

How has this crisis evolved you as an individual?

I've never worked from home, so I actually don't understand this concept. When I started working from home and I had to get used to technology such as Zoom, and video calls etc, it had taken me a while. But what I realised very early is that when I am working from home, I am a different person from what I am working from the office. I had to do that because I like to move quickly, I like to interact and meet people. So naturally, that working style had to go. So it took me about a week to change myself, I had to forget the way I was and unlearn a lot of things. I slowed down my life, I became a bit more patient and calmer because it is tough to keep talking and to keep managing. You learn to engage and listen more.

I've also realised that you must have a sense of humour, or at least say something that will lighten the atmosphere. So there has been a lot of unlearning. I have also learnt cooking and I spend a lot of time with my family. So I'm enjoying it.

You just need to sort out your mind and not follow it as a format. We have started guessing that such a situation may happen 3-4 times this year. We guess we may go back to work, but we may also get locked down again for 2-3 weeks. So let's be ready to accept this is how work will be for the next few months. If working from home is something we need to learn, then yes, it's a new habit, it's not like we were doing outside, it's very different. Just as you asked me how do you motivate your people, the question also is, who motivates you? So I need to wake up every morning in a very motivated and charged to ensure that the entire group is working in a very positive way.

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