Best Practices for Brand Building during COVID-19


“Should I stay quiet during this period, and conserve my budget for when things pick up?”

“Is it insensitive to go ahead with my planned marketing campaigns?”

“Should I be ready for heavy discounting and run lots of promos to get consumers to purchase?”

These are all common questions marketers are asking right now. None of us know for sure what’s to come but one thing is clear: changing consumer behaviours, a global slowdown, and social distancing will become the new normal.

Marketers are already and will continue to be under pressure to demonstrate that their work is directly contributing to business success. They will likely have to deal with budget cuts too.

The obvious reaction is to implement discounting and promotional tactics. Many will also be straddling the fine line between being sensitive about the pandemic’s effects, and promoting their services and products.

We believe that even in these unparalleled times, a few fundamentals remain true – continue to invest in your brand (while being a responsible brand citizen), but do so guided by data.

1. Invest in your brand while being a responsible brand citizen

Instead of discounting products and running special promotions to increase sales which may risk devaluing your brand, divert that money and time to brand-building through data-driven marketing strategies. As WARC explained in a recent webinar on how to tackle this pandemic, “don’t go dark at any time”.

With the shift in tourist behaviours due to COVID-19 (Coronavirus), the travel and hotel business has been one of the hardest-hit industries with many countries locking down travel. They literally are almost unable to run their business. But this doesn’t mean they can’t keep doing the right thing, and also investing in their brand.

As frontline healthcare workers were urgently dispatched to COVID-19 centres, they were left without proper housing. Tune Hotels and OYO in Malaysia stepped up to offer free lodging and breakfast to the frontliners. This hit the right note in many ways. Similarly, Airbnb has recently announced that it will provide free or subsidised housing to 100,000 frontline workers.

According to ADA data, as awareness and severity of COVID-19 in Southeast Asia increased in March, there is a group of consumers’ whose usage of travel apps increased accordingly. We suspect that they have caught the “Wanderlust” bug and are already fantasising about travel when this pandemic is under control. Travel and hospitality brands who invested in their brand-building during these difficult times will find they’ve increased their share of mind with this type of consumer that we call “The Yearning Traveller” persona.

2. Reimagine your business because there’s always opportunity in crisis

Now is the time for many to reimagine and restrategise their business operations through data insights and data-driven marketing strategies.

Retailers around the world have already felt the effects of the lockdowns, and those who haven’t are bracing themselves for the disruption.

Here’s what one company in China did at a time when cosmetics brands were severely hit. “Lin Qingxuan” was forced to close 40% of its stores during the crisis, including all its Wuhan outlets. They re-deployed over a hundred of their instore beauty advisors as social media influencers – leveraging on tools like the ubiquitous WeChat as a social media marketing platform; they were able to increase online sales by 200% growth relative to the previous year.

Don’t forget the “lipstick effect” which we discussed in our 2020 Outlook for marketers – it describes the phenomenon first spotted by economists, where famous beauty brands Estée Lauder and L’Oréal saw their sales beat estimates during the 2016 economic downturn in Hong Kong. Experts argue that in difficult times, small purchases of feel-good items still do happen, even if this defies rational thought. After all, we are all still human and are driven by our emotions. So, there are still opportunities out there for brands who can reinvent and reimagine themselves with digital marketing best practices.

3. Brand-building is still informed by data & insights – crisis personas

One of our fundamental beliefs is that marketing must always be guided by the data.

A belief that is more crucial in this time as we have no idea how consumers will react. Lumping them into one generic category, and going out with a single line of communication may end up with you getting lost amongst the noise – or worse still, coming across as tone deaf. 33% of consumers have already convinced others to stop using a brand that wasn’t acting appropriately during the pandemic, according to Edelman. Equally, 62% of these consumers feel that their country won’t make it through this crisis without brands playing their part.

Where do you find this data in the first place? It could be first party data you have on your own consumers; or second party data from social listening and search trends; or third party data from agencies and other providers.

ADA looked at how consumers’ behaviours have been shifting and reshaping across 5 Southeast Asia markets (Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, and Philippines). We assessed this through their digital behaviour and physical movements through the utilisation of data analysis. It quickly became apparent that different people act in different ways – there are some new consumer profiles that emerge, while others adapt their behaviours.

A graph of persona emerging in marketing for brand
Pic. 1 – “The Yearning Traveller” persona emerging in Malaysia
A graph of yearning traveller and social citizen persona emerging in marketing for brand
Pic. 2.1 & 2.2 – “The Resilient One” and “The Social Citizen” personas.

Take “The Social Citizen”. This consumer has increased their use of social and news apps to gather information. With 5 million of them based in the Philippines, these consumers are looking for reliable and relevant information on the pandemic. Comforting, shareable content that they can post up on their social networks would resonate.

How could brands respond to “The Social Citizen”? Publishers like The Economist and Harvard Business Review have made their COVID-19 content freely accessible to readers during this period. This move strengthens trust with their existing readers, and opens up new segments of readers who may otherwise not subscribe to them.

Then there’s also “The Resilient One”. Unlike the other consumer personas that have emerged, these people haven’t actually changed their digital habits much except for being physically confined to their homes. We found 450,000 of them in Singapore – waiting it out till things reach a semblance of normalcy. Light-hearted, playful, and fun content works best with this group targeted through digital agencies.

Time Out Singapore have rebranded themselves to Time In, which curates the best food deliveries and virtual attractions around. This is a great way of reaching out to the resilient ones and still remaining relevant.

In these times, it’s clear that marketing does not carry on as normal. But it also doesn’t mean that you pull the plug on your sales and marketing plan or resort to attention-grabbing headlines or heavy discounting just to help with business growth.

You must continue to invest in your brand.

Of course, the key is to do the right thing in a credible manner. It should be related to your business and not simply to make headlines. Remember that if you’re clear what your brand stands for and the value it brings to your customers, then it will be as compelling now as it is in other times.


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Rozy Laxana

Head of Business Insights

Rozy Laxana

A veteran professional, Rozy has more than 25 years of experience in Consumer Insights, Data Analytics, and Marketing across South and Southeast Asia with a recent focus on building the digital media landscape and introducing data-driven, outcome-based marketing in Sri Lanka.
Rozy currently serves as the Head of Business Insights at ADA, leading a team of passionate insight experts to provide data-driven solutions and harness positive business outcomes.
On a personal note, Rozy is exceptionally passionate about coaching and mentoring, and she looks forward to building the next generation of leaders.