Are Asian brands ready to lead the post-COVID-19 new world order?

Written by
Marc Ha

We have entered the Asian century. According to UN data, this region makes up more than half the world’s population, and half of the world’s middle class. Importantly, Asia is the world’s engine, currently accounting for more than 60% of economic growth worldwide.

But this next century will look very different from the last ten years, or even the last year alone. The profound effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are, as described in this McKinsey article, changing industry structures, consumer behaviour, market positions and sector attractiveness. And quite literally, normal life as we know it.

What will the next normal look like? And when will that kick in? While the jury is still out, it would be remiss if our marketing and communications industry didn’t use this opportunity to reassess our role in this new world order. Amidst all the uncertainty, there are some valuable learnings to be gleaned for the direction of our industry.

  1. Brand stewardship > brand purpose.The COVID-19 pandemic is an existential crisis that has shown the stark reality of the global inter-dependencies that exist between countries, and within countries and society — from access to medical and food supplies to getting the rubbish cleared.
    In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy, we are seeing self-actualisation giving way to basic needs. Conversations have shifted from lifestyle to livelihood to life itself. When the future of humanity is at stake, every single person on this planet needs to act like a steward.
    Brand purpose is about the problem or human need we’re addressing through our product or service. It is a powerful source of motivation (our ‘why’), and helps us to find our ‘how’ and ‘what’. But stewardship is about organisations growing their businesses not only for profit and the benefit of shareholders, but also for stakeholders and the society at large. Stewardship strips out all the cosmetic glamour attached to purpose – and focuses us on serving our customers, community, and society in a sustainable and socially responsible way.
    How can companies marry profits with purpose? How do we balance short-term financial objectives with sustainable long-term goals? It is high noon for authenticity and purpose. Gone are the days of short-termism, and paying lip service to purpose and sustainability. Building trust and lifetime value is fundamentally more important than short-term lead generation.Communications will play an intrinsically important role in helping redefine the social contracts between citizens, consumers, shareholders, investors, employees, business owners, business partners, company executives and government leaders alike.
  2. Humanity trumps empathy.How Airbnb’s CEO announced their layoffs was not only a masterclass in communications, it was also a demonstration of humanity in thoughts, words and action. The honest and heartfelt note published for all the world to see conveyed empathy, transparency,  and clarity for their employees – both the ones leaving and those staying. Their commitment to supporting those affected (through equipment, compensation, healthcare, and the talent directory) were human and humane.
    As a result of Airbnb’s commendable management of this difficult decision, reactions to this news was overwhelmingly positive. According to Meltwater’s sentiment analysis, over 80% of reactions in APAC were positive to neutral.
    While we live in difficult times, how can brands be even more helpful to our constituents from now on? Let’s do CSR to address a real need, not for opportunism or publicity. Positive stories about genuine intentions will always find their way up to public consciousness.
  3. Brands built from the inside out are best positioned to weather any crisis.The subtext in the Airbnb example is that a strong corporate culture and loyal employees builds psychological and organisational resilience. Through interviews conducted this April by McKinsey and FCLT Global with long-term investors, their primary advice for business leaders was to look after employees (then suppliers and partners). The logic is simple – not only is it the humane thing to do, looking after people during difficult times engenders greater loyalty and motivation, builds psychological resilience and enables a company to bounce back quickly after periods of crises. Conversely, in these days of growing employee activism, companies have more to lose if they don’t act according to the expectations of employees.
  4. Embrace the distance and bridge the divide.The COVID-19 crisis has propelled new technology usage across all aspects of life, from remote working to eLearning to telemedicine. For example, ZumVet, an online veterinary service launched in Singapore last October, has seen a 200% uptake since the onset of COVID-19.
    The irony is that while technology can bridge that social distance, there are segments of society that will fall further behind due to lack of access or know-how. While this gets addressed (we hope) at the policy level, the public and private sector play an important role in helping to bridge this divide. Inclusivity, outreach and engagement needs to be a central part of our stewardship ethos, messaging and programmes.
  5. The pandemic is global but the response needs to be hyperlocal.An existential crisis of this nature has shown that every country and even regions and cities within a country are on a different time continuum in terms of COVID-19 recovery. McDonald’s suspension of marketing activity and re-prioritisation of budget towards the COVID-19 relief effort is a good example of how a brand has taken a nuanced approach to responding in the Philippines as opposed to Malaysia.

COVID-19 has also led to a trend in hyper-consumerism. Partly due to shorter commutes, consumers like us are supporting the local businesses and neighbourhood shops we love through our wallets. We are voicing our support for our local communities through clicks and actions. We need to think about how we can tap into this new cultural zeitgeist in an authentic way. Resources, such as McKinsey’s consumer sentiment pulse survey, will be useful references as brands chart their future plans.

Written by
Marc Ha