Will the COVID-19 era see the rise of influencers?

With a 12% increase in content consumption on smartphones, brands are spending close to 50% of digital marketing budgets on influencers

e4m by Christina Moniz
Published: May 5, 2020 8:32 AM  | 7 min read

Life as we knew it has changed. During this time of the post COVID-19 lockdown, chances are you’re spending more time on your smartphone than you ever did. With added time on their hands during the lockdown, most people are turning to social media, OTT platforms and news channels to make sense of their new normal and find productive ways to use their free time.

This is particularly evident from the latest data released by the Broadcast Audience Research Council of India (BARC) and Nielsen. The report shows that content consumption on smartphones has increased by 12% with users spending an average of 4.3 hours a day on their devices in the week that ended on April 10. A good 15% of the time spent on smartphones has in fact been on social media platforms, a fact that brands have been quick to recognize. Given that the average consumer spends more than 25% of his/her time on social media platforms, the role of the influencer in the online space has never been more critical. Sometime back, there had been a question mark over the role of influencers, fake followers, reliability, et al, but all that seems to be a thing of the past.

Keeping the consumer connect alive

While some brands have always been strong on influencer marketing over the years, there are several categories that are recognising its potential to drive consumer engagement during this time of distress. While typically the end objective of influencer marketing was focused on driving sales or product awareness, today brands are adopting a more empathetic approach in their messaging or are looking at putting out a larger social message.

Take for instance ice-cream brand Havmor, for which the summer is a key season. Shekhar Agarwal, Head of Marketing, Havmor Ice-creams explains that the brand is staying away from any kind of pushy, sales-driven content. “Havmor is a consumer-driven brand and we pay major attention towards keeping our consumers happy. Considering the current situation, we are looking to create more exciting, engaging and interactive communication around the brand Havmor with the help of influencers. These associations will help the brand in reaching out to consumers in a more effective way,” Agarwal explains.

 Both brands and influencer platforms are clear that sensitive messaging is the way to go – this includes messaging that is largely positive, entertaining or even educational. Ashutosh Harbola, CEO & Co-founder, Buzzoka, notes that it is important to recognize consumers across the country are frustrated, angry and anxious now that the lockdown has been extended until May 3. “Brands must be mindful of the consumer’s mood. In fact, campaigns have become more personal and subtle in nature. Not many brands are associating with products that they offer but they are instead focusing on the experience the product can bring during such difficult times.”

 For instance, alcohol brands in the country are creating entertaining experiences that revolve around music for their consumers. Kingfisher has rolled out a campaign that promises to bring the ‘good times’ to their consumers – the brand has introduced the AR filter on Instagram- Build your own Beat, as well as live acts from Sunburn and Kingfisher Storm Bollyboom. Sunburn@home provides the audience a chance to view artistes such as Paul Vandyk, MADDC and Lost Frequencies perform live every day on Facebook, Instagram, Twitch and YouTube. Likewise, Diageo India has partnered with stand-up comic Vir Das to entertain and invite consumers to #SavourThePause brought on by the shutdown.

 Some brands are helping parents and kids bond during this time with innovative influencer-led campaigns. Cereal brand Kellogg’s has rolled out a ‘21 day, 21 recipes’ campaign with consulting chef Ranveer Brar. Sumit Mathur, Director Marketing, Kellogg South Asia states, “Given that our business falls under the category of essential services, our supply chain is working diligently on that front. As a brand, it’s our simultaneous responsibility to keep solving a consumer problem in the current context. For example, the ‘21 day 21 recipe’ campaign offers one such solution. Moreover, with these 21 interesting recipes using Kellogg’s cereals, I encourage consumers to either follow the recipes if they have the right ingredients at their disposal or get more creative because you can create magic through a simple cornflakes pack.” Mathur adds that Kellogg’s has earmarked close to half of its digital spends to influencer marketing as the brand is clear that this is the need of the hour.

 Mondelez India, too, is leveraging its tagline for Cadbury 5Star – telling consumers to ‘Do Nothing Outside’. The brand has tied up with stand-up comics like Abish Mathew, Rohan Joshi and Sapan Verma for the 5Star ‘Do Nothing Outside Challenge’.

 Edutainment takes centre-stage

Brands are not just investing in influencer marketing but are also reaching out to influencers for content creation. One of the ways they are doing this is through the edutainment route. For example, Panasonic has recently rolled out a virtual photography workshop series titled #PassionNeverRests with photography experts. In addition, considering it is the Indian summer, the brand has developed a DIY video for their digital platforms to help people clean their ACs and service them. “Currently, brands need to drive conversations that facilitate a sense of community and social support to people, while staying true to their brand promise and philosophy. Digital advertising plays a very important role in our overall marketing mix attributing to 35-40% of our marketing spends. Influencer marketing gets a big chunk of it considering the power of this medium to connect with consumers,” says Shirish Agarwal, Head- Marketing Communications & Brand, Panasonic India.

OTT platforms, too, are responding to the growing consumer demand for new content and entertainment during this crisis. Global content platform Lionsgate has been working with influencers to build local connect, to create content with local influencers and stars and promote its movies in English and regional languages. The company has worked with Zoya Akhtar, Taapsee Pannu, Ananya Pandey, and TikTok stars like Jannat Zubair to promote its content and make staying at home fun for all.

“Influencers help us widen our audience by speaking to the fans in their language. Currently we look at deploying about 15%-20% of our budgets towards influencers to produce local content and promote our offerings,” says Rohit Jain, MD, Lionsgate South Asia.

Additionally, ed-tech brands like upGrad and Disney+ have also adopted the influencer marketing approach during this time, particularly since consumers are looking for up-skilling programmes. Disney+ Hotstar also hosted a virtual red carpet for its premier in India, featuring stars like Sonam Kapoor, Parineeti Chopra, Hrithik Roshan and Shahid Kapoor. The brand is also taking the opportunity to bring back childhood classics during the lockdown. Several brands in the OTT, ed-tech, essential consumer products and social networking categories have more than doubled their spends on influencer marketing in the current situation.

Pointing out how the influencer route has been particularly successful in these past few weeks, Julie Kriegshaber, COO, Chtrbox.com says, “Due to captive audiences at home, there have been massively successful influencer engagements, especially with social media challenges which are really popular these days. The Dettol handwash challenge on TikTok got billions of views and went viral quickly because of the timeliness and importance of its message, right when lockdown was just happening in India. We've also seen a number of cooking challenges using specific food brands that have taken off.”

Pranay Swarup, Founder & CEO, Chtrbox.com, says, “From a different angle, another influencer marketing approach we have seen was to launch a new OTT product via influencers. The product was rolled out to top macro influencers as well as nano influencers in a creative way talking about specific content pieces that are relevant for quarantined viewers, as well as a promotion to download the product.”

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