Opinion: Can you brand in a pandemic?

One of the most devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic has been on the global economy. Key industries that depended on human traffic like travel, tourism, hospitality and retail have all been devastated. Financially strong companies such as Singapore Airlines have had to retrench people to save costs and even the most respected economist does not know when the troubles will come to an end.

With this economic background, the key question for any small business owner is inevitably one of survival. The key question that has to be on the mind of every business owner in a situation where markets have virtually shrunk is “How do I stand out in such a way that the customers come and spend with me without having to spend too much on promotions?”

In a conversation I had with Wesley Gunter, managing director of Right Hook Communications, he said: "In a cash crunch situation, cost-effective marketing communications becomes more vital to the survival of the business.” Health and safety regulations mean that big events are no longer an option and if you don’t have much cash, you are bound to question the value of an expensive advertising campaign. Where do you look? As a business owner, you are bound to ask if you can get your marketing communications efforts to ride onto something else and save costs.

So, what are the most cost-effective ways of getting a promotional message across? How do you convince people to buy when you cannot meet them face-to-face at events and you do not have the means to spend much of an effective advertising campaign? If you have a new product or service, the obvious answer would be to get third-party endorsements from experts and have them published. Traditional public relations (PR)/publicity is relatively cost-effective (no ad space costs) and third-party endorsements provide a certain amount of credibility that paid advertising cannot provide.

However, one of the key weaknesses with traditional PR/publicity is that it involves riding on the media’s agenda and in the present day and environment of various budget cuts, editors have become more conscious of companies trying to “sneak in” a product or service endorsement. Traditional PR has also been more about “indirect” sales communication rather than “direct” sales communication.

So, how can small business owners make the most of traditional PR in the pandemic? The obvious answer would be to ensure that your stakeholders are aware of the efforts that you are undertaking to make life easier for them. An example of a business that did this is Zencode, an app developer, which offered special packages to its customers that were specially designed for the economic climate caused by the pandemic. Shovan Sursuq, Zencode’s business development manager, notes that the heart of its business is having a good relationship with customers and when the business helps customers in difficult times, they will inevitably remember the brand and continue with their support.  

The second area that can supplement traditional PR efforts is social media marketing. As Zoom has shown, modern technology has allowed people to circumvent limits on physical meetings by moving those meetings into the virtual space. Kartik Mehta, chief revenue officer at Silverpush, a Singapore-headquartered adtech company said: "Humans are intrinsically social beings who need to meet and have contact with other humans. So, when lockdowns around the world prevented people from going out to socialise, social media platforms became all the more important." Social media platforms serve as an amplifier for word of mouth and the power of social media to do that became all the more so.

Another unexplored method of promotions for small enterprises is to leverage on platforms provided by larger organisations that have the clout to promote themselves. An example of the type of platform that small enterprises can utilise to promote themselves is ideasinc, a start-up accelerator program organised by NTUitive, the commercialisation and innovation arm of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) The programme takes the form of a contest where start-up ventures compete for cash prizes as well as have access to expert mentorship, funding and leverage on business networks and bodies.

Dr. Alex Lin, Interim CEO of NTUitive explained that while there is the obvious lure of cash prizes, along with mentorship and workshops, there is also the added bonus of giving participants the opportunity to build their brand by tying their brand to NTU’s where they can get their businesses featured in NTU’s publicity efforts.”

With the proliferation of media channels in recent years, promoting a business has become increasingly challenging. With an economic collapse brought about by a pandemic, it has become increasingly more so. As such, businesses, particularly the small ones need to work harder and become more creative in the ways that they promote themselves. There are ways of riding on platforms that make those efforts more cost-effective and in this economic climate, ultilising them will be crucial to success.

The writer is Tang Li, a PR professional who has worked with the likes Saudi Embassy in Singapore, Indian Institutes of Management Asia-PAC, Indian Institutes of Technology Asia-PAC amongst others.

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