So there is this balancing act that most consumers are faced with — what is okay, what steps do we take before we can go back to normal, what should we abandon, and so on. Consumers are also actually evaluating what they actually need what they really need and what they can do without. So, priorities are changing. Today, she is looking at, you know the things she really desperately needs. So you know things like everyday groceries, rations, your everyday food, milk, and medicines that need to be taken care of. The things that she is now looking to postpone are things like — do I need to buy a car, do I need to buy a new watch, do I need to buy a new phone. So are these absolutely necessary? That’s where I think the consumer has learned to trade off between what she actually needs and what she probably is going to postpone to a while and when things begin to settle to normal,” says SHIVESHWAR RAJ SINGH, National Creative Director, Innocean, in a conversation with Editor-in-Chief K.G. SREENIVAS.
Welcome to The Future’s Here special series hosted by Creative Brands. The Future’s Here showcases leaders, thinkers, and trend setters from the creative industry, namely advertising, media, communication, and branding. My name is K.G. Sreenivas and I am Editor-in-Chief of Creative Brands, a portal that covers the global creative industry and economy. Today, we have with us Shiveshwar Raj Singh, National Creative Director, Innocean, a global marketing and communication company. Shiv, a seasoned campaigner, began his creative career with Publicis as an Account Planner, before moving to Mudra to handle Nestle. He then joined Triton, where he first took up the creative baton. Shiv then moved to Rediffusion DY&R, where he handled Maruti and Airtel, before joining FCB, where he spent 13 years. Shiv has worked across brand categories, including consumer durables, FMCG, automotive, technology, e-commerce, social service, airlines, and tourism. He also handled HCL, Infosys, Whirlpool, Hero Pleasure, Boeing, Snapdeal.com, Lays, All out, Mr. Muscle, Baush & Lomb, and UNICEF. Along the way, Shiv also picked up awards such as the Campaign of the Year for Business Today, Abbys for Baush and Lomb, the Olive Crown for Whirlpool’s ‘Ek Jodi Kapda’, and the Effies for Whirlpool and Hero. He was also an entrepreneur, having launched Smoke Signal, where, he, as he says, “helps brands get into a relevant dialogue with the one person who matters — the consumer”.
CREATIVE BRANDS: Shiv, I think there couldn’t be a better start point: the Consumer. Where does the consumer figure in the cross-roads that we have come to inhabit. Brands need to reach out, creatives need to craft the communication, but the circumstances aren’t normal. Where does the consumer stand as we speak?
SHIVESHWAR RAJ SINGH: The consumer is actually at a crossroads, because you see they want things to go back to normal — they want to go out there and spend have a good time with their family. So, today, nobody is travelling, nobody is going to restaurants — the normal behaviour has been disrupted. Consumers are looking to get back to some sense of normalcy. That is the first thing, but the priority, right now, is keeping themselves safe and secure. So there is this balancing act that most consumers are faced with — what is okay, what steps do we take before we can go back to normal, what should we abandon, and so on. Consumers are also actually evaluating what they actually need what they really need and what they can do without. So, priorities are changing. Today, she is looking at, you know the things she really desperately needs — so whatever be the necessity, we are back to square one. So you know things like everyday groceries, rations, your everyday food, milk, and medicines that need to be taken care of. The things that she is now looking to postpone are things like — do I need to buy a car, do I need to buy a new watch, do I need to buy a new phone. So are these absolutely necessary? That’s where I think the consumer has learned to trade off between what she actually needs and what she probably is going to postpone to a while and when things begin to settle to normal.
KGS: This brings us to the question of sociological underpinnings — in the light of what you just said about consumers prioritizing what is absolutely essential or what is essential what is inessential in terms of consumption, which was comparatively different from say about three months ago or four months ago. So may I lead you to the other question of the quality and nature of communication given that it has been put to test in unprecedented ways as we speak. So how do you craft your communication around this sociological underpinning of what you have just said?
SRS: Well, the first thing that you got to understand is that the consumer knows what he is being sold… it’s not that you can take him for granted for he is going to prioritize. Maybe you are selling him health insurance that exists and then you are selling him a new phone that is yet to come — so these are things he is going to prioritize. Now the fact of the matter is that there are not too many interesting things that are happening, a lot of brands are getting into, you know, things that are socially relevant. Some brands have made a lot of contribution to general well-being of people and the consumer realizes this — so there will be a lot of affinity towards brands that they see making efforts to reach out and be relevant in a particular area at this particular time. So, those brands will definitely come out smelling far better than brands which have sort of either fallen silent or have just tried to push their products as though everything was normal. A lot of brands continue to do that! Actually, a consumer is looking for a lot of empathy, he is looking for brands to reach out and say that “I understand where you are… I know what your priorities are so I am not going to come and sell you something that you really don’t need right now… I am going to come and sell you something which is relevant and which fits into your life right now.” So brands that do understand this and are able to recognize it and then craft their communication will definitely be in a stronger position once you come out on the other side.
KGS: An interesting point of inflexion — of responsible communication and responsible selling. Tell us, therefore, the sort of conversations you have had with your clients, what have they sought, and what have you sought to give them?
SRS: See, even with our current client — our principal client is Hyundai —work hasn’t stopped, but the focus of work has changed. The focus of the work currently is primarily like when you step into a car what do you do? How do you sanitize yourselves? How do you keep yourselves safe? If you want to give your car for servicing, how are you going to ensure that everything is looked after and that you will not be at any risk. So we have put out communication that takes care of these aspects. We enter into a dialogue with the consumer telling him that you know we understand your insecurities and your fears and we are taking certain steps to tackle them. So, whenever you come out, when you step out, when you come to a showroom or a service centre there are certain protocols that you follow. We constantly pitch information which may not be directly related to selling our car. Like, for example, when you step into the car what are the surfaces you need to sterilize, what are the things you should carry with yourselves, suppose you take your keys from the parking attendant, how should you sanitize it and so on. So our communication is replete with little nuggets of information which is more about the situation our consumer is in it. It’s not about selling him a particular model or a particular variant or a particular car.
KGS: The automotive industry, like others, has been faced with probably the biggest crisis ever in recent times… naturally there is no demand at the moment, as you said just now the focus is on ensuring safety and security of the customer. Spends have been curbed, both brands and consumers are conserving cash. How do you view this crisis in the automotive industry and have you observed any uptick in the segment lately? What do you see in the coming two quarters?
SRS: Well, the automotive is going to be majorly impacted — it already has been. To begin with, it wasn’t in a particularly good situation anyway following a slow-down that began last year. In the first quarter, April was a total write-off. By May, things began to crawl back, so I am hoping things will pick up. But to assume that three months down the line we could be back to 2019 or the pre-pandemic levels is probably not going to be the case. So, there will be a slow burn where a lot of effort will be made both by brands as well as dealers, where we need to make an effort to reach out to the consumer. So the consumer is going to decide whether he needs more cars or new cars and when he needs it — that’s going to be purely his decision. We have to be there as a facilitator — to try and offer him certain assurances. If he has lost his job, he cannot pay his EMIs, so you know there are certain assurances, certain packages that we can come up with which we can help him if he is looking for a car for daily commute. So the automotive industry will have to see that, first, he is not exploited, second, the industry needs to be empathetic, and three, the industry needs to have certain tailor made customized packages people can use.
KGS: Shiv, although media consumption in fact grew substantially in news, leisure and entertainment during this crisis, ad spends even in digital have fallen substantially you know. What is your take on potential and latent spends especially with regard to digital and internet?
SRS: Digital and internet will come back. Digital and internet is not going to go anywhere regardless of the quantum of ad spends, but, yes, traditional media we don’t know. I mean newspapers are barely surviving right now. In fact, somebody told me newspapers are saying that if ‘I stop printing tomorrow I can never come back again’. So if a newspaper stopped printing today, I don’t know how many of it would actually come back. TV spends will continue, TV spends will come back as brands will have to spend. As a consumer I would need to get my regular things, so the cycle will come back into the economy. The media spends will go up, so, I think TV and digital are not going to be majorly impacted although spends have obviously been cut in the current situation. But I don’t know about newspapers and magazines whether they will come back.
KGS: At Innocean, have you sort of revisited your communication strategy, for the short to mid-term?
SRS: Yes, that is constantly happening — we are constantly revaluating, some things have been paused while others have been advanced… like I said we are laying a lot more emphasis on socially responsible communication, which sort of tackles the consumers’ immediate concerns. Regular brand communication will start as and when things start returning to some degree of normalcy. When people start stepping out, regular communication will come back at some point of time. Right now, the focus is more on continuing the dialogue with our consumers and assuring them… So, there are certain things that we have done which are tailored specifically for this period and which will perhaps continue as we move forward.
KGS: One final question: At this point, probably it will be difficult to look at the post-pandemic scenario from a creative perspective. From your perspective how do you see the consumer and the brand interacting?
SRS: I think this is going to be an interesting phase — the post-pandemic era could be euphoric, but at the same time I don’t know whether this would actually happen we don’t know how this pandemic will phase itself out. For the foreseeable future, social distancing and wearing masks will continue, people may not stay in a hotel or travel or eat out. Say, if tomorrow, the pandemic ends, in the current situation there may be a huge degree of hurry and people might just go out and splurge. People haven’t taken vacations, people haven’t bought cars, people haven’t been to restaurants… because they have been scared of spending as people have lost jobs… pay cuts have happened across the world and certain jobs have sort of disappeared. And there is this whole entire shift of culture to working from homes and a lot of people adopted it as a new normal… Whether we return to our offices after the pandemic we don’t know at this point of time. So all of this put together will also have an impact on how the consumer reacts. Today, a lot of people are talking about shifting to a smaller town and working from there —a reverse migration of sorts. Many people needn’t be in a big city. We will have to wait and see if we can come back to where we were in 2019.