Picture: 123RF/Le Moal Olivier
Picture: 123RF/Le Moal Olivier

In a new and unprecedented world, brands that have a clear-cut definition of their purpose will fare best in terms of navigating and surviving the landscape, while supporting their customers during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond. 

At a recent FM Redzone digitised event, Arye Kellman, co-founder and chief creative officer at Tilt, interviewed Abey Mokgwatsane, managing executive of brand and communication at Vodacom, about how brands can help South Africans at this time.

Brands should be thinking about their role and purpose in the lives of their consumers, as well as in terms of making society a better place, said Mokgwatsane. Those brands that can prove utility value to both their customers and the world will come out on top.

He pointed out an interesting focus on spiritualisation and the forging of new connections during this pandemic. Covid-19 has accelerated the interface between the digital economy and spiritual connections, he said.   

Of course, it’s more challenging for brands that are not able to operate under the lockdown regulations to share their purpose and utility, such as restaurants or fast-food outlets. That said, while essential services may have an easier time of proving their purpose, there is space for all brands to play a role, Mokgwatsane said. He used the example of engaging with employees, important stakeholders of any brand. “This is a time when employees are anxious about their futures, with questions about how the brand will treat them when they’re vulnerable,” he said. “In addition, there are a number of organisations that have been able to repurpose parts of their value chains to make masks or ventilators, for example.”

In the case of Vodacom, Mokgwatsane said the purpose of the brand is, and always has been, connectivity. “Most of our employees recognise the fundamental role they have to play in keeping society connected to the flow of information they need at this time. This remains our key purpose, despite the fact that there is a change in the way in which people are connecting.”

Covid-19 may have accelerated certain Vodacom campaigns, but hasn’t actually changed the organisation’s marketing strategy. The telecommunications environment has long had to be hard-wired for agility, he said, adding that Vodacom’s position has shifted from a purely mobile player to a tech company that drives connection.

Vodacom recently forged a partnership with Discovery to provide free medical consultations to subscribers, for the first time playing in the telemedicine space. Vodacom’s ConnectU is another free service portal which provides, among other offerings, online e-schooling featuring the grade R to grade 10 syllabuses.

Vodacom, Mokgwatsane said, operates according to three key drivers to survive: speed, agility and scale. While a number of the business’s initiatives were already in the pipeline, they may have been accelerated in response to the lockdown with more immediate executions. Budget allocated to platforms such as out of home have been redirected towards digital, social and USSD, as well as customer experience, which is more relevant for the brand in the current environment. 

Brands that are intent on helping their customers during this crisis should have a clear purpose, he said. “If a brand’s purpose is clear, even if the circumstances change, the purpose will remain constant. Covid-19 is merely another environment in which to fulfil that purpose, which can be applied to any environment.”

The big take-out:

During the Covid-19 lockdown, the role of brands in SA is to align to their purpose and use this to inspire, support and inform their consumers in the most relevant ways they can.

Mokgwatsane urged brands that have not yet defined their purpose to do so now. “I’m a huge supporter of purpose,” he said. “It’s a time when there is a fine line between brand communications for the sake of it [and] communication that will be valuable and aligned to purpose.”

Purpose need not be seen as serious or draconian. It can be about helping people by entertaining them, making them laugh, allaying their fears and making them feel better. There is even space for brands that do not have a specific role at this time to lend a hand to others – Vodacom has been involved with helping the department of health to disseminate its messages around Covid-19 into informal settlements, for example.

While many people in the advertising and communications industry are experiencing a collective anxiety about their roles, Mokgwatsane said these jobs are more important than ever. “People are experimenting with new things, from online shopping to video chats. This is the best time to craft messages that will inspire behavioural change, which is why communications professionals are so important right now.”

Pointing out that marketing has always fought for its place at the boardroom table, he said now is the time that the discipline can play a direct role in how organisations are structured and how they do what they do. As cheerleaders of the world, he said, marketers have a critical, functional role in terms of providing people with the information they need when it comes to staying home and keeping healthy, but also to inspire them that this too shall pass, and that while we are going into a different world, we will all be the better for it.

Link to full interview here.

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