Analysis: Despite playbook, MY marketers cautious about 2021 CNY spend

A year after the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, Malaysians are finding themselves having to celebrate Chinese New Year under another round of Movement Control Order (MCO), which has been extended to 18 February. Just yesterday, the Malaysian government altered festive health protocols to allow up to 15 individuals to attend the reunion dinner, after being criticised by politicians and Chinese groups, The Straits Times reported. 

Malaysians also poked fun at the restrictions on house gatherings while night markets were allowed to operate. Reunion dinners were initially permitted for members of the same household and no visitations as well as temple prayers were allowed during the festive period. That said, the atmosphere surrounding this year's Chinese New Year is different from the excitement experienced last year. The pandemic and MCO have certainly changed consumer behaviour and purchasing patterns. Luca De Nard, MD, intelligent analytics, Southeast Asia, NielsenIQ told A+M that given the change in consumer priorities, certain budgets would be reallocated to health-protective categories such as hand sanitizers.

While it anticipates that categories such as beer, chocolates, and biscuits may not experience the uplift seen in previous Chinese New Year periods, household cleaning products, hand sanitiser and personal care items should continue to perform well. He added that the sale of gifting categories such as abalone, mushroom, birds nest, chicken essence and liquor will likely move online, and therefore manufacturers and retailers should ensure that they have the right online promotional strategies to capture Malaysia’s rising online shoppers. 

Meanwhile, statistics from social media analysis firm Wisesight showed that while seasonal spikes in activities in eCommerce platforms are common and expected, the effect is compounded with the movement restrictions this Chinese New Year. Malaysians who are not returning to celebrate are resorting to purchasing online and have gifts delivered instead, resulting in an increase in Twitter mentions for Lazada, Shopee and Mudah last month.

Aside from the change in consumer behaviour, brands have also adapted their Chinese New Year strategies amidst the latest MCO. Izlyn Ramli, TM’s VP, group brand and communication, told A+M that the brand has not filmed TV commercials for Chinese New Year in a while and similar to Hari Raya last year, TM is still unable to carry out shoots due to movement restrictions. While its broadband service unifi is still running Chinese New Year promotions, TM as a whole wants to send a more hopeful and optimistic message to Malaysians this year through its film titled "Reach further, for a better Malaysia". This approach is slightly different from its Hari Raya and Merdeka Day messaging in 2020, which focused on gratitude and reflection.

"We all need a bit of light in our lives at the moment. It's about knowing our role as a telco and trying to help Malaysians reach further in terms of connectivity," she said. Izlyn added that TM does not want to dwell on the emotion of sadness any longer and wants to encourage everyone to return stronger. Playing with the idea of "reach further", its print ad for Chinese New Year focuses on prosperity and how consumers can help those around them prosper.

tm cny 2021 ad

"Several images are pieced together to form the outline of a strong and purposeful ox to signify perseverance. Within this outline is a family celebrating reunion. The background of the ad is orange and red - orange to represent TM and red because it's the colour of Chinese New Year. With this ad, we want to convey that the family is not only reunited but at the same time also supporting other individuals including frontliners and the small businesses which they purchase from during this time," she explained. At the end of the day, TM wants to emphasise the #KitaJagaKita spirit and help everyone prosper together.

Although the MCO came as a surprise, RHB Banking Group had no issues executing its Chinese New Year activities according to plan. Group CMO Abdul Sani Abdul Murad attributed this to early planning and executing the marketing initiatives earlier than usual due to the uncertain future. "Given that we have experienced a major disruption to our plans in 2020, we expected similar challenges to persist in 2021 as we are not entirely out of the woods yet," Sani said.

Therefore, to avoid similar shocks, it developed two action plans. Should the MCO been reimplemented, RHB could switch gears to the contingency plan to keep it alive. Therefore to a certain extent, Sani said the team is more prepared for Chinese New Year than it was during Hari Raya last year. That said, the bank is cautiously optimistic in its outlook. According to Sani, RHB's capacity to serve has been reduced significalty as it adheres strictly to the MCO's standard operating procedures. 

"It is of paramount importance that we provide an environment that is safe for our employees and customers. In view of this development, we will ensure our marketing investment and efforts are based on such circumstances in order to strike the right equilibrium," he explained.

Cutting through the growing online clutter

Digital has become even more popular during the pandemic. According to dentsu's ad spend report, the accelerated shift to digital that advertisers made in response to the significant restrictions placed on people’s lives through lockdowns will also endure. Digital will account for half of all spend for the first time, with social (18.3%), search (11.0%) and video (10.8%) expected to benefit the most. This makes it even tougher for brands to cut through the clutter. 

According to Sani, "flushing content down the pipe alone will not guarantee eyeballs", and that in a state of chaos, consumers seek assurances. Hence, the proof in the pudding lies in how brands remain useful to consumers in such a difficult climate. 

Brands need to ensure their product and services are more reliable than ever to build better brands trust.

"At times, repurposing your products and service delivery is needed to be done to meet the present circumstances. When this is done well, word of mouth will eventually influence customers decision making," Sani explained. When brand trust is in place, this would then protect the brand against any content clutter, he added.

Besides ensuring the company's products and services are more reliable than ever, authenticity is also another factor that Grab is relying on to differentiate its marketing. Country marketing head Hassan Alsagoff said Grab has prioritised brand acts rather than ads and aims to deliver authentic purpose-driven strategies for the benefit of the community. It is also striving to be agile and respond to changes in consumer behaviour through the introduction of new services such as Grab Supermarket. Hassan, however, did not comment on its marketing spend allocated for Chinese New Year and how its plans differed from last year's Hari Raya, which was also celebrated under MCO.

Additionally, it is also adopting a hyper localised approach during the festive period where businesses, especially those small and traditional ones, are still trying to adjust to the new climate and access to needs are limited.

Hassan Alsagoff explained that its Chinese New Year efforts are focused on bringing the traditions of the unique celebration safely and conveniently to Malaysians, while helping businesses sustain. For example, it is introducing special edition Chinese New Year gift cards and GrabExpress subscription packs for those who are looking to surprise their loved ones. It is also helping consumers embrace social distancing by sending digital red packets via GrabPay. Concurrently, Grab is offering discounts for Chinese New Year necessities for brands such as Zalora and Milkyway.

"With the pandemic in mind, we want to ensure that we are even more community-centric by focusing on what is important to help Malaysia rebuild herself. This is why our strategy is and always has been geared towards out-serving our ecosystem merchants, drivers, delivery partners and Grab users," he said.

While digital is all the rage nowadays, TM's Izlyn said it is optimising its TV spend as more consumers are at home now, leveraging its sponsorship of Buletin Utama. According to her, while TM's budget has increased this year, focus of corporate spend lies on maintaining its positioning as Digital Malaysia. The rest goes towards supporting the business and ensuring the brand is still close to its stakeholders. "We have to get smart and make that dollar stretch a bit harder and sweat our assets more," she explained.

According to her, communications nowadays have to be "concise, punchy yet meaningful", resulting in the team creating more bite-sized infographics. "While we are apart, we still want to bring our brands closer to consumers through communications by being more emotive and meaningful but also providing entertainment," Izlyn said.

A tough marketing call between brand building and sell

When it comes to the debate about building purpose versus selling, Grey Malaysia's head of strategy Nishant Mehta said this year's Chinese New Year has been "a tough marketing call" between the usual brand building and selling. Marketing budgets have been slashed as a result of the pandemic and the latest MCO has led to brands further slashing their production spend.

"Their main concerns are how do we keep sales numbers up yet ensuring marketing budgets are leaner compared to the year before. Fewer clients are doing brand pieces but gearing toward more tactical sales efforts for Chinese New Year," he said. Drawing an example from one of its clients, Carlsberg, Mehta said the brand is currently offering prizes to maximise sales and consumption with its underneath bottle cap promotions.

In general, Mehta said there is a push for sales during this festive period and the belief that there will be more ways to remain relevant throughout the year from a brand perspective.

Currently, a vaccine has been developed for COVID-19 and Malaysia is expected to receive the first batch of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines on 26 February, Channel NewsAsia reported. Despite this, Mehta said the economic effects of the pandemic are "alive and fluctuating", leading to budgets remaining stringent due to the uncertain economic landscape. Hence, brands are treading with "cautious optimism", he said.

"Budgets are reallocated based on the consumer media consumption trends. There has been significant decline in traditional media spends with print, outdoor and radio budgets being slashed," he explained.

On the other hand, MediaCom Malaysia's MD, Saurabh Chandrashekhar said while the budgets are by and large similar to last year, the media mix will be "dramatically different", with some categories seeing a much higher budget. This comes as brands seek to get a really strong start to the year and tap on pent up desire to spend, he said.

According to Chandrashekhar, the general theme for 2021 has been about crazy ideas, and the disproportionate focus on digital during this time has allowed for ideas that a year ago would not have passed. Be it the use of technology such as AR to augment the very deficient physical world experience during this year or the creation of more pieces of content allowing for better engagement opportunities, Chandrashekhar said these have allowed teams to think about Chinese New Year more creatively.

"The other important difference is the level of preparedness which 2020 has taught us. Almost everyone now has a plan B which can be executed in case the situation with the MCO changes. More importantly all partners in the ecosystem including platforms, clients and agencies are united in this flexibility," he added.

Similarly, Trapper Media Group CEO Lim Sue-Anne said while there is no huge shift in budget compared with last year, more consideration is given to online channels. Clients that have implemented a DTC strategy over the year will now focus on using digital channels to push for sales since there is direct accountability of investments. However, clients can still be smart about media buy despite the tepid situation, she said, adding:

Given that ad clutter is low, if a client sees an opportunity to dominate airtime, they should be able to do so without spending a lot as everyone else is cutting back on spend. Creative tactics are very effective regardless of budgets.

Lim explained that being agile in media planning means having the ability to switch campaigns to focus on in-home executions whenever there is a lockdown. As video content becomes more pervasive, Lim said it is important for memorable production and story-telling to come through.

How Chinese New Year plans differ from last year's Hari Raya

Celebrations for Hari Raya last year were limited due to the MCO enforced and visiting banned. This time round, however, brands are more prepared when it comes to marketing. Grey's Mehta said its clients has two sets of plans, one where the impact of the pandemic was less severe and a worst-case scenario plan. Due to the current MCO, in-mall, in-store, on ground activation have been cancelled, and radio buys are reduced as listeners were not on the roads like before. At the same time, Mehta said brands are skewing their buys more towards digital and TV where the eyeballs are.

"There seems to be a surge in digital videos during this period. It is natural to see a big decline in outdoor, radio and newspaper ad placements. Whilst long form content is immensely popular during festivals; the focus is also shifting towards inclusivity and allowing opportunity for user generated content, for example, TikTok and Instagram," he said.

It is increasingly popular for brands to leverage influencers for live videos, give tips in how-to-videos and offer discounts and promotions during live streaming. Meanwhile, e-wallets also play an important role in facilitating the impulse or spot purchases during live videos, Mehta said.

Similarly, Mediacom's Chandrashekhar said there is a similarity between this Chinese New Year and last year's Hari Raya in that digital will take centre stage with social and eCommerce leading the charge. As such, there will be more integration between social and eCommerce.

According to him, eCommerce will become an internal part of the communication strategy as against being a landing page. "This Chinese New Year, we can also expect some exciting integration of technology into media to bring to life some engaging ideas," he said.

If there’s one thing that’s accelerated is the speed of consumer decision making on purchases, so traditional media driving call to action and faster conversion should also come to the fore.

On the flipside, Chandrashekhar said some non essential product categories which were de-prioritised during Hari Raya are expected to come back this time during Chinese New Year. Being a year, into the pandemic the uncertainty around the economic consequences is lesser this time. Hence, consumer spending will be reflective of that.

Meanwhile, with overall budgets increasing for Chinese New Year, Chandrashekhar said traditional media such as OOH and radio might still see spending but at rationalised levels since movement of people is restricted. Social media, video and TV would also see an increase in spend.

Trapper's Lim also said it is seeing non-digital channels returning to the plan albeit the MCO because clients realise that a solely digital campaign does not prolong impact. This was slightly different than last year's Hari Raya, which Lim said saw clients quickly shifting budgets to digital. 

Also weighing in on the conversation is Kenni Loh, CEO for VMLY&R Commerce in Malaysia, who said it is making social content work harder by combining brand love and product conversion messaging.

"Typically during the festive period, many clients use social content to drive brand love and affinity, but now they are combining both and are focusing more on promotional messaging that drives sales and conversion," Loh said. According to him, clients have redirected their focus and spend to online Commerce, primarily social and eCommerce. With uncertainty on how long the MCO will last, Loh said clients have made little effort at the trade level and/or experiential area.