Why marketers should not self-isolate during crisis – Emma Agu

Paper presented at a recent Advertisers’ Association of Nigeria (ADVAN) digital conference.

Much as I will not want to bore our distinguished marketers and stakeholders in the marketing field with a long speech, I think it will be laxity on my part if I fail to observe some protocols and give honour to whom honour is due. On this note, let me start this conversation by welcoming the President, Advertisers’ Association of Nigeria (ADVAN) and members of her executive council, head of sectoral bodies of our great industry, marketing professionals in the house, who have over the years used their experiences, not only to market products but also to build the nation’s economy.

Having said this, let me quickly appreciate the organisers of this event for considering me worthy of being given this task to rub minds with our colleagues at this crucial moment, when a global pandemic is redefining our approach to marketing and other day to day activities.

The term VUCA, which stands for ‘’Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity’’ originated in the US Army War College in the late 1990s, but spread to the business world as there are striking similarities in terms of rapid change and uncertainty.

Taking Nigeria into context, what then can we say that constitute a VUCA environment? A VUCA environment in Nigeria’s context is not limited to the followings:

The activities of Boko Haram insurgents, herdsmen/farmers’ clashes, banditry, and unprovoked ethnic conflicts leading to unnecessary bloodletting, the import of which leads to the suspension of the execution of a marketing plan to an entire part of the country. A distressed population may not necessarily take notice nor partake in your marketing campaigns.

What about persistent high foreign exchange rate due to the depreciation of Naira for raw material/finished goods import?  We have seen many businesses fold up as a result of foreign exchange volatility leading to job losses of which marketers are not immune to. These are businesses with genuine intentions and great marketing plans. The media was recently awash with news about a major South African retail giant communicating its intention to leave Nigeria.

What can we say about policy somersaults by government of the day – we sure cannot forget in a hurry that GOKADA, Max.ng, Opay and their likes have marketeers that probably have consolidated their three- five years marketing plan. Unclear economic policy direction took them by storm and flung them into the already saturated labour market.

Multiplicity of taxes, licenses, charges of all sorts, import and trade restrictions, trade and labour union pressures, energy and power issues has caused companies’ operational costs to go high and marketing budget in most cases gets cut as a result.  What happens to all the amazing plans that have been built? Hence, marketers begin to cut or scale down on their planned activities earlier budgeted to accommodate the new reality.

Low GDP growth, High unemployment/underemployment rate, supply chain disruption, low purchasing power due to high inflation rate and the last but not the least, public health concerns like covid-19 pandemic has serious impact on consumer behaviours which constantly puts  marketers under pressure in trying to adjust to these shift in consumers’ decision journey. The marketer cannot plan or forecast with the exactitude of a Jewish prophet in an environment that is heavily prone to this kind of frequent changes in consumer landscape.

There is a whole gamut of issues that constitute a VUCA environment that has made the ease of doing business and operating as a marketeer in Nigeria very difficult. You can add your own to the unending VUCA list.

VUCA environment, with reference to Nigeria situation, is not necessarily being at war with an external aggressor. Most of the issues mentioned are created by us and the cumulative effect of them, of course, impact brands and shape our marketing agenda. With high unemployment/underemployment rate leading to low disposable income/purchasing power of the consumers, brands and marketing efforts continue to take a toll as companies bottom-line continue to shrink unabated setting up a vicious marketing operating environment.

How do we explain the monumental corruption going on in both public and private sectors in our country by political jobbers and economic buccaneers? How do we begin to rationalize or quantify the impact of these on the common man whom we all, as marketers, speak to on daily basis?

Global marketing templates, to a great extent, don’t perform well in Nigeria because of these anomalies that defy logical reasoning. How do we market to teeming youths that have completely lost hope and faith in their country and whose sole interest is on how to secure Visa to relocate abroad?

As the VUCA situations persist, we are all reminded that the rate of change in society, consumers and technology are growing very fast and will not wait for Nigeria to catch up. The VUCA environment may well explain why top100 brands in Africa are not African but global brands. When are we going to start removing the trade barriers, currency barriers, commercial barriers and bureaucracies that have kept Africa apart & underdeveloped? When are we implementing the African continental free trade area (AFCTA) so marketing can move swiftly and smoothly across boundaries within the African continent?

I have attempted to x-ray the VUCA environment and also to categorically inform us that we are all Vucarised (If there is ever a word like that), that again we are all being affected one way or the other by the impact of VUCA environment. Is there any hope for a marketer operating in this kind of environment? Is all hope lost? How then should marketers conduct their marketing activities in a VUCA environment? Below are my thoughts of what a marketer should do to survive.

Put your marketing department in order: Encourage the right values in your marketing team and ensure the right kind of culture. It is important to promote the culture that rewards correct behaviours and reprimand erring ones. Create an enabling atmosphere that gives people freedom to air their views without restrictions or fear of victimization. Again, you must get the recruitment right, first time and always by hiring creative and agile thinkers. The marketing team must be fit to fight and ready to soak their feet in the mud in other to confront VUCA environment. Charity they say begins at home.

Put your Company in order: A house divided against itself cannot stand. Thriving in a world of uncertainty and complexity means being adaptive and with a clear sense of vision to discern between a true paradigm shift and market noise. Build fluid and collaborative structures to respond to the forces of change. Remove internal barriers and build internal bridges. Break down every silo be it mental or physical and destroy internally imposed bureaucracies. Enforce marketing and sales team collaboration and alignment on key strategic initiatives.

Expand your business models: You can win a fight with a single bullet but you can’t win a war with that. Build for yourself multiple business models if you want to survive and excel in a VUCA environment. A reputable research firm Brand Z shows that brands with five or more areas of business are on an average 4x bigger and growing 10x faster than others. Marketing in a VUCA environment requires the pursuit of multiple business models. Examples abound about companies that have adopted multiple business models. SUBC (Seven Up Bottling Company) recently moved into the production of sanitizer and surface cleaner as covid -19 pandemic continued unabated in Nigeria. Africa’s pay TV giant DSTV evolved their business model from subscription to on-demand (Showmax) and local content development (Africa Magic Original Movies). What about Uber moving into the home delivery with UBER EATS & Scuber for under water ride hailing? Dangote’s multiple business models and that of GOKADA (Logistics) come to mind.

Create Meaningful disruption: Disruption has been proved overtime to drive brand value growth. Meaningful disruption is key to scalable relevance. What do disruptors have in common? They offer original product and services which meet evolving consumer needs and expectations. We have seen recently how Zoom, Netflix, LG Electronics, Techno Mobile, Indian Jio Mobile, Uber, and AirBnB to mention but a few created meaningful disruptions and got rewarded for it. Brands must strive to be in a position where it is more relevant than well-known as that space portends an opportunity versus been in a position where it is well-known but not been relevant. Like Martin Guerrieria said and I quote: ‘’The power of the consumer will always be more powerful than the power of the brand.’’

Predict consumer behaviour: Brands must evolve along consumer choice, taste and medium of communication. Understanding the consumer in the midst of information explosion, plethora of media & channels coupled with intense competition must be based on data and analytics. Data and analytics have become more critical than ever to accurately forecast demand across product segments. Consumer responses to VUCA environment have made demand more difficult to gauge accurately. The past is no longer a predictor of future demand that means essentially starting from scratch on strategies and plans because marketers are facing such a divergent market dynamic that previous assumptions and accepted truths may no longer apply. Through the use of analytics, marketers should develop a robust comprehension of cyclical patterns and its impact on consumer behaviour. And with this accurately predict behaviours.

Delist non performing brands:  You can’t fight & win a battle with multiple local guns. One good sophisticated gun or bomb is more effective than multiple local ones. And so it is with brands. Brands with low prospect for growth and profitability will generate negative returns and as such are less likely to achieve their original aim. The cost of delisting far outweighs any future benefit. Investment efforts that will drive the top level growth will require the weeding out of those brands that doesn’t work from the portfolio to allow focus on fewer, bigger and stronger brands. Consolidate and concentrate your marketing efforts on your winning brands and become category kings with those brands. This is a typical war principle. ‘’Fight and take over a territory, consolidate your win, then move to another territory to conquer.”

Shape emerging habits with focused innovation: Be bold with new Innovation approaches. Identify expansive new demand led opportunities. Target these opportunities with bigger and more scalable innovation product(s). In a VUCA environment, innovation decision must be by preference and must be executed with scale and speed. Covid-19 has thrown up a white space opportunity in innovation around affordability, health, safety & hygiene through the use of contactless solutions with strong functional benefits. Unilever reported a sales spike in beverages that contain zinc and vitamin C, such as Lipton Immune Support tea. It is also aligning its innovation priorities with consumers’ emerging health-and-wellness concerns.

Tailor your messages to align with consumer mindsets: The heightened emotions and increased polarisation created by a VUCA environment could drive lasting changes in consumers’ behaviour and shape their long –term preferences. Marketers should ensure that all their brand communications are attuned to consumer sentiment. The quality of the communication and its ability to strike the right tone and chord will increasingly become a competitive advantage when things return to normal. Consumers will see through and reject messages and actions that are theatrical and seek to commercialise social issues. A brand’s communication must align with the mood of the moment; otherwise, the message will not ring true. Consumers are taking notes of brands that demonstrate care and concern for people during crisis periods. This may have a long term implications on how consumers connect with brands.

Deconstruct consumer beliefs & behaviours: Consumer beliefs, habits, occasions, and emotional need states will continue to evolve during crisis period. For marketers to stay abreast of these changes they must always conduct primary research work, with focus on identifying changed behaviours, associated changed beliefs and motivators to get a comprehensive picture of the changing consumer decision journey. Marketers must keep closer eyes on the evolution of consumer behaviour at a granular level like, week on week or bi-monthly basis. Gone are the days of quarterly brand tracking. Marketers must, as a matter of necessity, bring consumer data and creativity together. Data and analytics must be at the heart of decision making. Creative solutions inspired by human truth must be developed from it.

Spend Smarter: Investing to create and sustain a competitive advantage is still the best recipe for dealing with VUCA environment. Of Course, spending on marketing tactics that do not work is never wise and should not be encouraged. Marketers should consider prioritising and scaling up new digital capabilities to enable digital touch points with consumers. Marketers must, as necessity leverage on the abundance of fallow inventories that abound during crisis period and negotiate hard nose discounts for their brands. Cash is king. Marketing/marketers should not go on isolation during crisis period because of budget cut. Be creative with what you have and let the voice of your brand(s) be heard. Marketing still remains the Holy Grail that holds strategy and sales together and has the potential to rescue any business from crisis.

Emmanuel Agu (FNIMN, FIMC, FIPMA, MSC, MBA & Ashridge Alumnus) is the Group Marketing Director at Jotna Nigeria Limited – The LaCasera Company.


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