By Mark Ritson
Almost every brand you’ve ever purchased from is now sending you personal, heartfelt emails asking: are you all right? Your inbox is now stuffed with COVID-19 “updates” that talk about the unprecedented challenges of the virus, then reinforce the message that you should wash your hands, maintain social distance and stay indoors. Australians are besieged on all fronts from brands wanting you to feel their pain, tell them what to do and remind you how much they care.
In reality, brands should be occupied with a bigger mission: selling stuff. The pandemic is a massive societal threat. But after it comes the equally unsavoury prospect of a global recession. The good news is this is something that media and marketing professionals can actually do something about.
Advertising and marketing are a selfish pursuit. They serve a single brand and a single organisation. But if you step back and look at their overall impact, they perform the broader function of helping to turn the wheels of our economy. And right now — other than clean hands, more respirators and two metres between you and your best mate — we need that more than anything.
You might hate the advertising that targets you and resent the marketers that spend their lives attempting to persuade you to buy more. But don’t underestimate what that annoying advertising does for the national purse. Accounting firm Deloitte took a long, hard look at the economic impact of the $13bn spent on advertising in this country back in 2017. It’s bean counters concluded that investment in advertising added $58bn to the national economy.
We need that money, now more than ever. But the problem — as you might have noticed — is most brands are not attempting to sell you anything at the moment. They are too busy communicating how unprecedented everything is and how much they care.
The reason for this is that most marketers aren’t really marketers. They are communications people. When marketing was invented as a discipline around 60 years ago it originally centred on four distinct tactical levers — the famous “Four Ps” — that enabled companies and consumers to get the most value from each other.
The product (or service) was designed by marketers to fulfil the needs of target consumers. Marketers then did the pricing and worked out the optimum level to sell the product at. Then they worked out the place — or distribution decisions — to enable it to be accessible to as many consumers as possible. Finally, they worked on the promotional P — and devised a communications campaign to publicise the product.
But that was 60 years ago. Today most Australian marketers couldn’t set a price if their life depended on it. Long ago their employers took away the more tangible tactical challenges of product design, distribution and pricing, rendering them glorified communications people with neither the skills nor remit to do anything more. It’s a problem Michelle Phillips, managing partner of prestigious headhunting firm 100%, runs into on a weekly basis. “Most of the marketers we look at are communications people or digital marketers and not commercial or strategic enough. An executive search for a good senior marketer these days is like searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack.”
That lack of commercial “needles” has become all the more apparent as the coronavirus haystack has been dumped on top of Australian brands. All most of the marketers at these firms can do is launch plaintive public messages that look very much like every other brand at the moment. What they should be doing is stepping back to reassess the new normal of COVID-19 and changing products, services, distribution models and pricing to enable their companies to survive and our economy to rumble on. Companies aren’t going to thrive in the difficult months ahead but marketing, the real stuff, could help them survive.
Take Uber Eats as a prime example of how to do a better job of marketing in coronavirus crisis. Their marketing head, Andy Morley, is a proper marketer having grown up at Campbell Arnott’s and then Diageo. Morley has not been doing a lot of communications this month. Instead he has been making significant changes to the way Uber works with local independent restaurants. Those changes now enable these smaller businesses to join the delivery network without any of the usual fees and to receive their revenues from deliveries on a daily basis to help with liquidity. Morley has also been busy changing the software of his app to enable deliveries to be left on the doorstep rather than exchanged in person to help with physical distance requirements.
This is what we want from marketers in the age of coronavirus. Not earnest advertising about the problem, but tactical solutions that allow consumers to buy, companies to earn and our economy to eventually recover.