A View of India Under Lockdown: “We Are Privileged That We Are in This Industry”

Opinion and Insight 137 Add to collection
Lockdown poses unique challenges to brands in a market the size of India. Isobar South Asia’s group MD tells LBB’s Natasha Patel about the changes that will stick, the urban-rural divide and an ecommerce boom
A View of India Under Lockdown: “We Are Privileged That We Are in This Industry”

With over a billion residents and many holidaymakers stranded there, India is facing the world’s largest lockdown. With the Prime Minister set to announce further amendments to the way of life soon, creatives and agencies have had to find new ways of thinking outside the box to deliver campaigns that are both timely and sensitive. Plus, with a host of influencers and Bollywood stars easily contactable at lower prices, it seems this country may be at the forefront to utilise innovation and technology to its best.

 

LBB’s Natasha Patel caught up with group managing director of Isobar South Asia, Shamsuddin Jasani to hear how he plans to take the company forward and why he thinks this will be the country’s biggest Diwali yet.

 

 

LBB> Tell us about lockdown in Mumbai.

 

Shamsuddin> Mumbai is the virus hotspot of India and with the lockdown extended it doesn’t look like it’s going to end by the end of the month – by then we’ll have been locked down for 75 days.

 

 

LBB> How has this affected the mood of the country?

 

Shamsuddin> For the first 45 days we said [as a country] we can come back from this. We still do. But it’s going to be a little difficult, in particular for the smaller and medium enterprises because they still have to pay people and don’t have any income - and the government hasn’t really come up with any solution towards support.

 

 

LBB> That’s interesting about the government. What impact has this had on livelihoods?

 

Shamsuddin> It is going to be very, very difficult to survive. A large population of India might be in the bigger towns and cities and their families are in the villages so, because they’re daily wageworkers, lockdown has meant they are without any work. They’re stuck in the cities and are trying to migrate back to the towns but there’s no work there as well, so it is a little difficult right now. We are privileged that we are in this industry with a lot of work.

 

 

LBB> What do you think will happen to the economy due to the effects of Covid-19?

 

Shamsuddin> I think with the cost of livelihood versus the actual virus  - the offset is now gone. You actually want to get back to work because unfortunately people die because of unemployment and not having food. Now it’s time to ‘live with the virus’ so to say, if there’s no vaccine I think that’s what the new reality is going to be like.

 

Yes, people are struggling but I do feel that a large population of India still is very young. The average age of India is 26 – 27 years old so people are not really thinking so much in negative terms. The liquor shops opened for a couple of days and there were huge queues. I do feel that as soon as lockdown opens, for the first 10-15 days, consumption is going to shoot up. And then you’ll need to maintain social distancing. A lot of changes are going to happen.  So I don’t personally feel it’s that depressing right now but the situation is bad for a lot of people.

 

 

LBB> That’s a great stat that the age is so young, how will this impact the country post-lockdown? Will they all flock to stock up on luxury items in a surge of ‘revenge spending’?

 

Shamsuddin> I wouldn’t call it revenge spending. We will see a pent up demand really coming back with categories seeing a surge that we haven’t before. An example of this is automotive, which will have a huge demand because people will stop using public transport. People will want their own vehicles so auto, which was facing a large problem for the last year, will see a revival. There will be spends. People just want to go out and buy. The government needs to back ecommerce – something which it is not doing right now. That’s a big thing that needs to be backed to the hilt and the spends will come back.

 

I have a personal prediction that this Diwali – when India spends the most – will be a better one than last year. It’s just that people will be cautious for a couple of months and due to the festival being in November it’s going to be a better one than last year.

 

 

LBB> What about brands, how should they alter their campaigns during this period of uncertainty?

 

Shamsuddin> From a brand perspective there a couple of things that we recommend clients to start doing. At Isobar, we are ready for business as usual, so tomorrow if the client says ‘go!’ we are ready to do that. But one thing that is going to boom is ecommerce.

 

Pre-Covid , was not a big thing in India. Most brands would be selling through Amazon, but now a lot of brands are realising that they need to jump onto the first party bandwagon and they need to sell directly to consumers because that’s a big ask now by consumers: “I want your product in my house. I don’t want to step out and buy it”. That in itself is going to be a big part of what the brands are, so we are working with to equip them with how digital is transforming their businesses. Covid-19 is only accelerating that change.

 

The second thing– and one that’s going to happen across the world – earlier you would have a brand communication, a film, great communication strategy. I think a large part of the communication now that’s going to happen is ‘how are you keeping safety in mind when your product is being consumed by the customer’? If I use the auto category as an example, test drives are not going to happen so how am I going to have a seamless way of delivering the car to your doorstep with minimum amount of intervention from people.

 

 

LBB> Tell us more about the communication strategies brands can implement.

 

Shamsuddin> A lot of communication in the next two to three months is going to be focussed around this world where we need much more hygiene and need to be careful of what’s happening.

 

How are we showing products in the right kind of manner? That communication is going to be very important. Everyone will be speaking about how they’re delivering this - they need to cater to the ‘at home’ demand. India is unlocking in different ways, the bigger places are still under lockdown but the smaller towns and cities are opening up.

 

This month we hit 500mllion users using the Internet – the world’s largest by far. For the first time ever, rural India has over taken urban India in terms of the number of consumers that are connected. That means that even if the major cities are locked down, I can still reach out to the smaller towns and cities to continue my business.  My strategy with my clients is “how do I tailor my communication to different places?”

  

 

LBB> Those changes are so interesting and relevant right now. Do you think they’ll be sustained in the long term?

 

Shamsuddin> It will never be back to what it was before the virus, the next six months are going to be very different. Digital will play a huge role but that will also not sustain. The pendulum has swung to the complete other extreme - it can’t go back to where it was, but there are some things that are going to change now forever.

 

Digital transformation now is a necessity; you need to have a great asset on your phones, especially because India is a mobile first market. How are you making mobile commerce and understanding data to process what you’re doing?

In this whole scenario one big thing to happen was the Facebook and Jio deal [Facebook bought a 10% stake in India’s largest mobile service provider]. That is going to change the dynamics.

 

People now order groceries through WhatsApp, stuff like that is already happening because WhatsApp is able to pick up your location and help you order what you want from the nearest store. People who were not participating in the digital revolution are now participating; smaller business owners, those who are sixty-plus as a age category – all who are a little resistant to understanding what digital can do now don’t have a choice. They will go through this by force and this will then become a habit.

 

 

LBB> The digital revolution is fascinating, but how will this be implemented in a country the size of India? Do campaigns need to be so specifically altered for each type of consumer?

 

Shamsuddin> For the next three months rural India is going to drive demand, not urban India because urban India has shut down. Rural India is open for business and all of the residents have mobile phones on their hands.

 

Because of the data revolution, a large majority have access to data, videos and ecommerce so the growth is happening in smaller towns and cities. Brands need to have a different strategy for the urban and non-urban India and from a communication and product perspective those are things they need to rethink.

 

 

LBB> Tell us about production, we can only imagine how it’s been affected. Have you seen any interesting ways around restrictions?

 

Shamsuddin> A lot of campaigns have worked around social distancing. We did a very simple thing for Kia motors – it was such a simple thing. We had shot a film for them before the lockdown about a guy going for a getting in his car and going for a date. All we did was reverse that. It was as simple as that. It’s a great campaign but it was just something we did because we needed to think quickly.

 

Animation is something that’s going to come to the forefront. A lot of repackaging of videos is also happening - that’s a simpler and easier way of getting around the issue. I’ve seen a rise in the newer ways from TikTok to Facebook Live and even Instagram Live.

 

I think you need to use to all of that - and influencers are still going to be important and a big pull. People are hungry for content and they see their stars and are influenced by that – in a big way. I think we need to use influencers in the right way and actually get them on board during this time.


 

LBB> With a host of stars and influencers in India, do you think you’ll be able to remotely produce a lot of campaigns during this time?


Shamsuddin> It is easier to get time from the top influencers than before. The challenge is that what do you advertise? What products can you actually use right now, half of those products are not available. Simple stuff like beard trimmers, there are so many influencers talking about it because it’s relevant.

 

Prices for a lot of digital celebrities have come down because people are sitting at home. It’s a good time for marketers to lock in these celebrities for a while and say “we’re promising something for you now in this situation but I want you to be with us for the next year or so”. So it’s a good time to evaluate from a marketers perspective because influencer marketing is growing in leaps and bound and its here to stay.

 

 

LBB> So, what have the team at Isobar been working on?

 

Shamsuddin> We’re launching our consulting practice as Isobar in India, we were wondering whether to launch or not during this time. We’re working on how digital is to be very important in your business and not just your marketing. That’s where the change is really happening.

 

We are kind of going all guns blazing on the commerce part of our business. Ultimately what we’re doing is telling the clients “let’s take a breather now and plan for being relevant three years down the line and not just now”. When are we doing business as usual, our heads are down in the sand and we’re doing everyday work – we don’t have time to strategize and look the three years down the line.

 

Now everyone’s at home, everyone’s thinking, there’s a lot more involvement on the strategy side of things. The products are not there on the shelves, they’re not able to sell but that doesn’t mean that all of them are not hungry. They are, they want to do something. We’re asking: “are you going to be relevant three years down the line? Are you going to be there three years down the line?” Let’s plan for that and plan on starting as soon as this thing ends, yes we’re ready for that but let’s also plan for the future. That’s the most important thing we’re looking for right now.

 

 

LBB>  In your opinion, what will be driving the future of production and communications in India?

 

Shamsuddin> I mentioned the Kia commercial earlier, this kind of creative thinking is going to come from the younger creative lot because while we are thinking of the big creative idea and concepts – the next three months are not going to be about that.

 

They will be about great execution and using platforms that are available right now rather than looking at the big concept that you have. You will not have the ability to make great scale creative campaigns right now. It will be about quick, tactical campaigns that you can do using TikTok or Facebook or Instagram and how can you use them very nicely, or how can you use physical and a digital combination –there’s a lot more connectivity across screens happening. The next few months are more tactical in terms of campaigns than the bigger creative campaigns.

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Isobar, 2 months ago