Business & Marketing
How should brands approach the balance between performance marketing and brand building in India
Sidharth Loyal

This is being written in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic; clearly not a happy situation to be in. If it weren’t for COVID-19, I’d have perhaps framed a very different, linear argument on how performance marketing is fuelling and reinforcing the concept of growth hacking and converging with the overall brand strategy for marketers across categories.

However, this virus will change both India’s and the world’s approach towards brand building forever, if it hasn’t already.

And this gets even more interesting when it comes to Indian sub-continent, where there is so much texture in terms of demographics and psychographics given the vast population, area, and regional languages.

We are fortunate that we have a slew of well-respected, home-grown brands across categories and who are giving established MNCs a constant run for their money. 

A few obvious examples include:

  • Ola vs. Uber
  • Haldirams vs. Pepsico 
  • Mother Dairy & Amul vs. Nestle & Cadbury
  • OYO vs. Airbnb (Airbnb today also has some stake in OYO)
  • Marico & ITC vs. Unilever & P&G
  • Yatra vs. Expedia 

There are many, many more, but you get the gist. 

The question that then arises is, how can you now rely on growth marketing alone, without a firm foundation and/or strong support from the brand - especially in today’s context of political, social, and economic unrest?

It’s no secret that everything measurable is good. It gives us a sense of comfort and security, that we did the best we could in the predefined parameters created over multiple conference calls. Yet now, more than ever, (the virus is just the catalyst) we are slowly rewiring our mental makeup and are thinking hard and deep about some fundamental, existential questions, such as:

  • Do I really need to buy this product/service at this point in time?
  • Shouldn’t I be buying/investing in health products/insurance etc.?
  • Where will my next pay cheque come from?

What would the impact on the environment/community be if I were to buy product or service X from xyz company?

Now, one can argue that these questions might be applicable to a more economically influential strata, but that’s exactly the point. By their sheer influential nature, they unknowingly end up shaping how brands approach consumers across categories. This target group could be a businessperson, a CEO, a village chief, a successful farmer, a doctor… any person or any group that is doing well in a city, town, or village.

How? Simply put, they are what we call the “aspirational” target group. Consumers who are constantly moving up the value chain aspire to be like this lot. It becomes their internal social marker, so to say. As they keep reaching their milestones, their markers also keep evolving and becoming more aspirational. In a very strange way, it’s what keeps the world ticking.

For example, it’s open knowledge that luxury brands in India, especially premium car brands like Audi, BMW, and Mercedes sell a bulk of their volumes in T2 & T3 cities, apart from the main metros.

This should have set the context and help in adding perspective on how best to approach this balance between performance marketing and brand building in India today.

Let’s start with some statistics.

According to an April 2019* Economic Times report, “India will increase the number of internet users by about 40 per cent to between 750 million and 800 million, and double the number of smartphones to between 650 million and 700 million by 2023…” Weblink

The *International Monetary Fund states that India is still the fastest growing economy in the world, despite grim global projections. Weblink

* According to the global CEO survey in Davos during the World Economic Forum, India is the 4th best market for global companies looking for growth abroad. Weblink

These are all good indicators for marketers to hedge their bets that even in trying times, the Indian economy has strong potential to get back on track. However, this track is not going to be the same anymore - at least, not just yet.

Once the dust settles, there are three scenarios which I’m convinced will emerge:

  • People will be doubling down on work to make up for lost time (and money).
  • Brands are going to get more conservative in terms of spends and projections - the classic “wait and watch” game is about to begin.
  • There will be the introduction of a slew of new tech-driven brands (products/services) in the market (tapping into the opportunity gap, given that e-commerce sites/online services were in high demand during the lockdown).

In essence, moving on, everything is now going to be measured even more. While performance marketing will always be a part of the brand building process, it is now going to get superstar status from marketers.  

Traditional brand building will still have a role, but more for internal stakeholders, and perhaps a few key demographics. It’s the internal stakeholder who will now need to be more convinced and excited about the product or service they are selling than the external market.Performance marketing is going to evolve and be further integrated with AI across Siri/Alexa/Google Assist, and more advanced chatbots. 

According to Harvard Business Review’s recent article, “Marketing in the Age of Alexa” by Niraj Dawar, people will in the near future, shift their allegiance from trusted brands to a trusted AI assistant, and follow its product purchase recommendations. You can imagine how interesting all this is going to get!

Therefore, the new brand marketing playbook, if distilled to its core, should now very broadly look something like this:

Offline: Immersive Experiential Events / Pop-ups + Augmented + Virtual Reality supported by Editorials and Minimum Print / Digital Films
Online: In addition to native and programmatic advertising, which will still play an integral part, going forward the role of content is going to be of prime importance. Content will now play the part of what traditional media would do, be it native content, contextual content, curated, or crafted content. However, the balance is now going to be skewed towards a more metric-based brand building process- in effect, performance marketing with a little more soul.

The fact is that this is no longer a funnel conversation; this is now going to be a metric-based, content-strategy platform conversation. (Platform here refers to human, i.e. human platform.) The following model should help put this better in perspective.

This model is also a reflection of how Indian (mobile first) consumers today engage with content and given the country’s vast multi-cultural diaspora and internet / smartphone penetration, it only make sense for brands to ensure that they have a robust vernacular content strategy and a strong regional amplification brand plan.

However, this is not to discount the fact that in times like these, brands have to take a leadership stance, and keep reiterating their core values and purpose to ensure top-of-mind recall and market share.

History has always been a great indicator of the future and like always, it is brands that stepped up and consistently shared their values and vision that stood the test of time. This is not about stopping the production line and producing hand sanitizers; rather, it’s about being open and authentic about the intentions.

People will not remember the glossy, award-winning effectiveness case study on how a marketer shifted course, they will remember how they did what they did, and whether they followed through with consistency vs. just a one off, social gimmick.

So, to bring all this together, the balance between performance marketing and brand building will constantly keep evolving, primarily dictated by consumer sentiment and overall economic conditions, as we now cautiously move ahead into 2020.  Given the fact that the stakes will now be much higher in terms of getting a healthy return on investment, it makes sense to have more detailed product and pricing offerings, more investment in digital products + technology, and perhaps a more streamlined after sales/service support network.

Consumers will also (temporarily) be more picky, and by default might go back to trying the more trusted and frequented well-known brands - think of it as their security blanket. Herein lies a very interesting tension point. How will these well-known brands evolve and adapt in these tumultuous times, with a focus on staying relevant, engaging, and purposeful? 

The bigger ones will really need to rethink, reframe, and reimagine their offerings, hard and fast with attention skewed more towards a mobile-first, online product and service offering, all without diluting core brand values. 

The more new-age, tech-driven brands will also need to reimagine and rethink their business models with a more human-centric approach to start building a loyal consumer base, on the back of trust, transparency, authenticity, and empathy.

And if there is one magic word that has the power to bind all this together, it’s ‘trust’. It’s what makes the world go round, allows people to coexist and gives brands the permission to get personal and become an integral part of people’s lives. It’s exactly the pivot that brands need today, both online and offline.

Here’s to the interesting times ahead!

January 2021