by Andrew Barnes (@ebonyads) Brand choice is a luxury that poverty doesn’t tolerate.

Optimists are predicting a V-shaped economic recovery after the covid-19 crisis. This is unlikely. Henceforth, many people will hesitate before visiting shopping malls, will think twice about eating in restaurants and forego airline flights where possible. Not all economic sectors will be equally constrained but, on average, the V-shaped recovery won’t happen.

Compounding the improbability of a V-shaped recovery is that, at an aggregate level, we’re all poorer now and will be more so as the lockdown continues. Many people have lost incomes, many more have increased debt levels, and still more are dealing with business closures.

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Loss of affluence not new

Despite the optimists’ claims, trends show that the loss of affluence in South Africa isn’t new. This trend, even while ‘lumpy’ at times, has been underway for a couple of decades. Research by Broll shows that white-collar wages have declined in real terms over the past 10 years while, overall, the middle class has stagnated**. Personal debt levels have inched inexorably higher, the residential property market has stagnated and the precariat (those living precariously from day to day) has mushroomed with our perverse cheerleading for the new entrepreneurial class, the wastepreneurs.

In this environment of diminishing discretionary choice, is it wrong to suggest that we’re the emergent nouveau hunter-gatherers? Are we not the 99-percenters with an ever-narrowing economic horizon? Whether we can only plan one day ahead or one month ahead, similar limitations impact how we buy and what we buy.

Choice is a luxury that poverty doesn’t tolerate. In the branded arena, it means avoiding the disappointment of underperformance. We wave the flag of brand allegiance, avoiding experimentation. We use price-points as proof of diligence while acknowledging that our money might get us to month-end, where the cycle starts again, but not always. This is the modern interpretation of the nine-tenths of our time on earth spent as hunter-gatherers. But with a little advertising thrown in.

Significantly different

Our recent branded past was significantly different. The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the emergence of truly inspired creative advertising and, with the birth of the Cannes Lions Awards, the advertisement became celebrated objet d’art. If ads were liked, the brand was bought. A simple straight-line correlation was in play, with massive investment underpinning the creation of brilliant brand vignettes used in media channels you could count on one hand. The industry rewarded creativity, almost to the exclusion of any other measurable marketing gain, while globalisation peaked and cheaply made goods flooded the freshly built western suburbia.

Delayed-cost economics was embraced with fervour and dictated advertising best practice, where the words of the late actor, writer and comedian, Carrie Fisher, ring abundantly true: “Instant gratification takes too long.”

This is changing very quickly now. Covid-19 brings new marketing challenges into stark relief. The time-tested mantra instructing brands to maintain a share of voice during the crisis is questioned. What about brand presence? Does the fact that your brand is actually in the store staring back at you with commensurate devotion not count for anything during this crisis?

Brand presence is critical

Professor Byron Sharpe at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science has made it clear that brand presence is critical — “showing up”, as he calls it. Similarly, what’s the role of clutter-busting creative adverts at a time most people just want to get to the end of the day, week or month in one piece with some joy in assured regular brand performance?

The answers aren’t clear. Advertisers have used and dismissed many insights on why people buy and how they relate to brands. The importance of factors such as humour, relevant news, and liking have all been shown to be essential in advertising at one time or another. Most of these, however, have been underscored by a period of excess, of overconsumption and the cult of consumerism.

Covid-19 might bring us closer to our genetically imprinted forager roots. Marketing goals have morphed into the pursuit of engagement rather than exchange, story rather than instruction, empathy rather than aspiration. The brand, as an abstraction, is now a conversation and wider brand investment extends to CSI, CRM, CTA, SEO, B2C, and so on.

The search continues

The search continues for the holy grail — the thing that works best. In this time of declining affluence and risk aversion, the actual moment of purchase, the instant of selection, still offers scope for marketing encroachment. At the point you choose one brand, the seduction by another is most likely. It’s an instant when, as the hunter-gatherer, you might pause and switch to another fruit. ‘In the moment’ marketing invades this instant with increasingly powerful technology. It explains why search engine optimisation (SEO) is important, why pop-ups work, why digital connected billboards are appearing and why the measurement of attribution is more important than before.

At this time, albeit of crisis, marketers have a wider range of tools and new frontiers to explore and develop their craft. It seems unlikely that what worked well 30 years ago will work equally now. While ad creativity was a pre-eminent goal in the past, the frontier has moved to media and tech. These are the creative playgrounds of today as the luxury of surplus and choice escape most consumers.


See also


Andrew BarnesAuthentic thinking and fresh insights are what Andrew Barnes is known for. At Ebony+Ivory Advertising, he’s deeply involved with clients such as Brand South Africa, JSE, and TransUnion; he also contracts privately to a range of companies on strategy and assists the CGF Research Institute with board evaluations for prominent SA corporates. Before this, he headed his own research business handling leading local and international brands while concurrently managing a portfolio of commercial property interests.

This MarkLives #CoronavirusSA special section contains coverage of how the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and its resultant disease, covid-19, is affecting the advertising, marketing and related industries in South Africa and other parts of Africa, and how we are responding. Updates may be sent to us via our contact form or the email address published on our Contact Us page. Opinion pieces/guest columns must be exclusive.

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