Rahul Sachitanand
Mar 31, 2020

COVID-19 pandemic sees brands rapidly recast marketing plans Asia-wide

Almost overnight, brands have shifted their focus to digital and social campaigns to capture consumers at home, but still need to land the right message.

(Shutterstock)
(Shutterstock)

For Chinese smartphone maker Oppo, early 2020 was meant to be a beehive of action, with a range of 5G-capable phones waiting to be launched and an avalanche of accompanying marketing activity planned to coincide with the Consumer Electronics Show and the Mobile World Congress.

The onset and spread of COVID-19 put the brakes on all these plans. Instead, the company found itself diverting its marketing dollars online as the world shut down and consumers found themselves homebound. In Oppo’s case the global launch of its first line of flagship 5G devices, the Find X2 series, was set to take place in both China and Barcelona prior to COVID-19 spreading worldwide.

Oppo converted the launch of its X2 handsets into a virtual event.


The brand's challenge, voiced by Dylan Wu, marketing manager for Oppo Singapore, will be familar to all brand custodians today: the brand had to adapt to allow customers to experience its latest offerings, while doing everything possible to ensure their safety and health.

The brand ultimately morphed its events into worldwide streaming launches, and despite challenges, over 160 million viewers tuned in to both launch events hosted from China and Barcelona. In Singapore, to reach consumers safely, the Find X2 Pro 5G was previewed through a series of small briefing sessions with media, and pre-orders were taken on the OPPO Shopee Flagship app.

Plans upended  

For Oppo—and brands of all sizes and across all industries—the sweeping COVID-19 pandemic has upended any such structured and coherent marketing plans. As we have detailed previously, the messaging by brands to manage the aftershocks of COVID-19 has been mixed. While there have been some calls for marketers to ensure their brands don't go dark, marketers themselves have had to tread carefully, ensuring their plans don't appear oppurtunistic at a rough time.   

Instead, marketers around the region have returned to the (virtual) drawing board and recast their strategies. In the place of glitzy on-ground plans, they have had to devise new campaigns focused on virtual, digital and video marketing plans and deftly shift adspend from segments such as out-of-home toward mobile, digital and social.

Out of home advertising has suffered as people have stayed away from public areas.


“COVID-19 is having a profound impact on many industries … we know this will be a year like no other,” says Francesco Lagutaine, Manulife’s chief marketing and experience design officer in Asia. “Covid-19 feels like a kind of super-disruptor. People are going out less, meeting up less and switching online more to buy."

To try to keep up with these changes, the insurer has launched a host of campaigns that highlight special measures, including simpler claims processes, waiving of medical deductibles, removal of exclusions and restrictions, and granting an extended grace period for premium payments.

"Given that the only certainty is uncertainty right now, companies need to figure out how they can continue to play a role in consumers lives during these periods of social distancing," says Jay Milliken, senior partner and Asia regional lead for brand consultancy Prophet. This could mean some brands will be compelled to find new ways to do business or finding a method of being relevant, even if your industry is in strife--as Marriott did with its 'We will travel again' campaign. 

The ground shifts

Every industry and brand is feeling the ground shaking under its feet and hustling to stay upright. Brands in sectors ranging from financial services to consumer goods are feeling the heat and retooling their marketing strategies to stay relevant. For example, in financial services, the AIA Group is channelling its spend to relevant and impactful digital campaigns that a spokesperson says reinforce the brand’s commitment to customers during COVID-19.

For example, in Hong Kong, Dr York Chow, AIA Hong Kong and Macau’s chief medical officer, shared his knowledge of COVID-19 and provided advice on its prevention through videos which the brand placed on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and other platforms. The videos have been viewed 750,000 times so far.

Elsewhere, the Hong Kong team launched a first-in-market innovative service. Upon downloading the “AIA Connect” mobile app, all registered users (both AIA and non-AIA customers) can receive the latest information and alerts about COVID-19 cases in different districts throughout Hong Kong. Also in Hong Kong, AIA launched an 'Unsung heroes' video to reflect its support for frontline cleaners in Hong Kong and Macau by providing them with free coverage against Covid-19. The video has received 2.2 million views.

Handwashing unites

With over 1.3 billion residents in lockdown, advertisers across India are also rethinking the way they approach consumers. For example, Hindustan Unilever has taken the unusual step of mentioning its competitors—Lux, Dettol and Santoor—in a print campaign urging people to wash their hands.

This campaign has taken off online too, with the consumer goods giant being lauded for putting safety in a public health crisis ahead of the chance to score some cheap marketing points. To promote hygiene and clean hands, Reckitt Benckiser's Dettol meanwhile, launched a #handwash challenge in India that according to some reports, saw a cumulative 18 billion views and generated over 123,000 user-generated videos.

Dettol's TikTok campaign logged over 18 billion views in India.


In The Philippines, meanwhile, brands are diverting their marketing spend to more worthwhile causes, building their marketing spend into COVID-19 relief efforts, as they try to keep their brands relevant during this churn. Coca-Cola Philippines has re-invested its 150 million peso spend (US$2.9 million) into COVID-29 relief, even as Ligo Sardines announced that it would reallocate its entire 2020 advertising budget to battle the virus.

Industry executives say these campaigns point to a noticeable and inevitable shift in plans. “The way that we are executing our marketing activities (is) a lot more digitally focused. This ensures that we are still able to connect with our audiences and raise awareness,” says Yu of Oppo. “Our first ever online launch of the phone allowed us to reach our largest audience ever.”

Lessons from China

As brands across Asia look to survive the COVID-19 maelstrom, they can take a cue from how some of their peers performed in China. For example, Nike Training Club partnered with Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, to stage a live-streamed workout event that saw it quickly accumulate over 350,000 followers and millions of user-generated videos.

Other brands have also used this time to rethink their marketing plans in the country. For example, JD.com and Chinese music label Taihe Music Group partnered to create an online clubbing experience, working with alcohol brands to enliven the experience. The Chinese e-commerce giant is hosting a three-hour show each week with talent from Taihe Music Group, during which it sells imported liquor brands that viewers can buy directly from the stream.

Then, when global luxury brand Louis Vuitton’s physical stores were closed in the lead-up to Valentine’s Day, the brand launched an online pop-up store within the WeChat app, with live chat for pre-sale consultations and promotions shared via store associates online. Online sales were double those of Valentine’s Day 2019.

Louis Vuitton's stores in China were shut for weeks, forcing the luxury retailer to pivot to other marketing plans.


These kind of successes in a grim time convince some industry executives such as Manulife's Lagutaine that COVID-19 is only accelerating trends already underway. “It is bringing forward the digital revolution and increasing incentives to radically rethink our industry’s ways of doing things,” he contends. “Crucially, it has demonstrated that while customers still want a personal connection, they are ready for digital.”

However, at the end of the day, these brand initiatives tread the line between driving sales and being responsible members of society. Consumers understand that companies need to continue to function despite the crisis, but brands must be authentic and empathetic in the way that they approach this reality.

Milliken believes the actions of two automotive brands sum up how brands can get it right and wrong in these fraught times. Hyundai recently relaunched a Job Loss Protection program that it started back during the 2008 financial crisis. "The advertising around this program strikes the right tone by being both authentic and empathetic," Milliken says. "On the other end, BMW was criticised for promoting its cars as part of flattening the curve."

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