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Changes by brands and consumers during the pandemic will stick around

Omar Jamil is the CEO of Latitude (Pvt.) Ltd, the Pakistan affiliate for Grayling PR (part of the Huntsworth Group). Omar started his career in finance, moving onto journalism before establishing Latitude in 2010.

As a journalist, Omar has written for major publications in Pakistan and abroad and holds an MS from Columbia University’s prestigious Graduate School of Journalism. After several years working as a journalist, Omar segued into the field of Public Relations. He established Latitude in 2010 to fill what he perceived as a gap in the Pakistani PR industry. Omar is a member of the South Asian Journalists Association, the International Public Relations Association, the Public Relations Consultants Association, the Marketing Association of Pakistan, and the Council of Public Relations Pakistan.

BR research recently had a conversation with the Latitude CEO around the challenges marketers are facing due to COVID-19. Following are the edited transcripts:

BR Research: Let us begin with how corporate marketing and communications has evolved over the years - both conventional ATL, BTL as well as digital mediums.

Omar Jamil: The past few years have seen corporate marketing and communications evolve dramatically and exponentially. Whereas in the past marketing and communication involved brands and organisations talking at their consumers – a one-way dialogue – the advent of digital has enabled companies to now engage in conversations with their customers. At the same time, we have also seen consumers become a lot savvier; Internet access has provided all kinds of information about products and services, ranging from comparisons to reviews, all at the click of a button.

As such, marketers have also had to grow in turn, with communication tactics and strategies becoming more targeted and tuned to specific needs and requirements. Even conventional marketing media now use digital access to measure sentiment and gauge reactions and responses. Cleverer and better-informed consumers mean a one-size-fits-all approach no longer works. Marketing and communications campaigns need to be extremely fine-tuned in order to cut through the clutter and noise of modern life.

BRR: What are the key focus areas for Latitude CRS?

OJ: Latitude CRS is a pure play communications and public relations agency. In simple terms, this means not only managing the internal and external communication needs of our clients, but also ensuring that we manage their relationships with all relevant stakeholders, ranging from employees, customers, and vendors to investors and financial institutions. We have traditionally, as an agency, focused more on corporate communications and with relatively less weightage given to consumer clients. Our clients range from large multinationals to local corporates and start-ups.

BRR: As COVID-19 triggers a deep economic downturn, marketers around the world are faced with some tough strategic choices. In your view, what are the changes necessary for brands to adapt to survive?

OJ: I personally think that we still are too caught up in COVID-19 to truly gauge how deep the impact will be. Having said that, we are already seeing extreme changes in the way we live our lives; from lockdowns and (self-imposed) quarantines, to working from home and social distancing rules being applied in public.

As we move forward through and, past the pandemic, brands will no doubt need to adapt to the changing paradigm and the new post-COVID-19 world. Some of these changes will involve a greater involvement with digital; retail brands, especially luxury brands, for whom part of the consumer experience is being ‘in-store’, will need to adapt and find new ways to engage their consumers in the brand experience.

We may see Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality start to play a bigger role in how brands interact with their customers. From a communications and marketing point of view, brands and organisations will need to be savvier about how they reach out to consumers.

BRR: What have been the changes to media plans, PR activity, and ad spend in the local corporate sector due to COVID-19? Which segment has been better off and which is the worst hit?

OJ: I think it’s still too early to really determine the true depth of the impact. The media industry in Pakistan was already under pressure pre-pandemic, with increasingly shrinking ad revenues leading to mass lay-offs and many print publication cutting back pages. With COVID-19, we can likely expect further impact, resulting in fewer opportunities, and more competitors for a relatively smaller slice of the overall marketing pie.

I think retail has probably been hit the hardest, along with manufacturing. The service sector seems to be holding steady - notwithstanding the already depressed market. The real winners have been e-commerce; especially in markets such as Pakistan where online retailing is still in a somewhat a nascent phase. With more and more people confined to their homes, the Internet has become the safest way to shop for everything from household groceries to medicines.

BRR: How are SMEs holding up in terms of marketing during the current situation?

OJ: I think this is fairly obvious. it’s really a matter of survival of the fittest (and smartest) right now: those companies that are agile and able to adapt will make it through. Meanwhile, most marketing budgets are holding steady for the time being. Whether they stay that way – or shrink further – remains to be seen.

BRR: There has been a shift towards digitisation be it in media or in financial transactions or shopping. Do you think these changes will be permanent?

OJ: Undoubtedly. We’ve been hearing for the past few years now how ‘everything is digital’ or ‘go digital or go home’ – now really is the time to go big on digital. Behavioral changes usually take time to settle in; however, the pandemic seems to have sped things up a bit. I think the changes and evolution made by brands and consumers during this time will stick for sure.

BRR: What would the event marketing and entertainment industry during or post-COVID times be like?

OJ: For the time being, I think large scale events are definitely going to be put on hold. For the entertainment industry, quarantine and social distancing rules mean a far greater challenge in arranging shoots etc. I also think that once things finally do settle down, these industries may take their time to come back to normal.

BRR: This is an era of social media marketing. How can social media strategies adapt to COVID19?

OJ: I don’t think social media marketing has had to adapt so much as step up. With the Internet fast becoming the primary medium of marketing communications, social media is no doubt at the forefront. In Pakistan, where social media has been an afterthought for many companies and brands, it will now likely be the first point on any marketing agenda. This means marketers will need a greater understanding of the nuances of social media marketing; especially if they want to avoid looking like they are just jumping onto the bandwagon.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020