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This op-ed was first published on WARC.

The new normal. Critical and unprecedented. Unlike anything we have ever experienced.

The pandemic has been described in many ways, but one thing is for certain: everyone is grappling with a new unknown. Converting business-as-usual methods to virtual platforms alone are not enough to capture the hearts and minds of consumers at home.

In the face of an existential threat that has prompted people to reassess their life choices, consumerist or otherwise, businesses have an opportunity now to hit reset and adopt a different posture by focusing on long-term goals, not just sales.

With Ramadan beginning on 23 April 2020 in Southeast Asia, observers of the festival will be looking for ways to experience this season without putting others at risk, as well as enrich their lives spiritually.

I can say with certainty that the playbook from previous years cannot be rinsed and repeated in our current context.

Be armed with sound data

Any move to reframe communications around what will be an unprecedented Ramadan and Eid this year, must first begin with sound data around current consumer habits and consumption patterns.

In 2019, an AppsFlyer report indicated that for most app categories, the hours between 3am to 6am before sahur are when Muslim consumers tend to be most active online and make the most app purchases. How might that change for Ramadan this year?

We could extrapolate and make some inferences based on secondary research. For instance:

  • When respondents in Singapore aged between 16 and 64 were surveyed in Q3 2019, they reportedly spent an average of 6.48 hours per day online. I would be surprised if this doesn’t increase by at least two-fold, as people are isolating themselves at home.
  • In December 2019, digital wealth management firm Syfe* published a report that polled 1,000 working adults in Singapore aged 25 to 60. It found that more Singaporeans save to go on a vacation rather than to buy a home or start a family. At a time when protecting lives and livelihoods are the call of the hour, most people today may be more inclined to save. With all travel being cancelled or deferred, money otherwise spent on vacations are likely either channelled into savings, investments or essentials.
  • More recently, a new mobile commerce report that looked at consumer spend in five APAC markets affected by COVID-19 revealed that average weekly increases were up to 40% week on week in the categories of social gaming, online goods, streaming and food delivery. Other research indicates that people globally are spending 20% more time in gaming and non-gaming apps (education, business, and health and fitness).

But the challenge with extrapolation is we won’t know how accurate our conclusions are. Now is a good time for a sentiment snapshot, which will help take the guesswork out of planning Ramadan communications, especially with messaging development. Quick surveys do not necessarily need extensive resources or time to be implemented, especially when brands already have a sizable customer database to tap on for quick insights.

Common use cases for a quick pulse check on customer sentiment include:

  • Gauging customer satisfaction with actions your brand has taken
  • Assessing customer expectation about what you could be doing better or differently during this situation
  • Determining customer interest for a new product, service or method of delivering customer experience
  • Validating a hypothesis you have about how your customers may be adjusting their preferences at this time

For these surveys to be succinct, they need to be very focused on a clear, attainable goal. Ideally it should take no more than five minutes to complete, so that consumers don’t feel like it’s a heavy lift. Incentives like vouchers, gift cards or subscription discounts are a tried-and-tested method of attracting consumers to participate and complete the survey, and will continue to be relevant during this time.

Understanding our customers’ new world views

Customer empathy should go together with meaningful customer data so that brands can better understand how this pandemic is impacting purchasing behaviours among observers of Ramadan.

The use of buyer personas here is useful in allowing marketers to understand customers the way they see themselves. With personas, brands would be more equipped to make informed hypotheses, and subsequently develop engagement strategies that speak to different subsets, rather than a general audience.

Marketing strategist Ardath Albee defines a persona as a composite sketch of a key segment of your audience. Brands stand to gain deeper insights by looking at specific members among target customers, beyond just a list of demographic and psychographic traits.

Below is a starter list of areas to investigate when developing personas within the target group of Muslim customers:

  • Brief day-in-the-life summary
  • Their main frustrations and pain points
  • What they use your product/service to achieve
  • Consideration and buying process
  • Trusted influencers in their communities/networks
  • How the above may change after lockdown/quarantine while the dangers of the coronavirus persist in other parts of the world

Once a brand’s core personas have been determined, they can then shift to crafting consumer communications with a level of meaningful granularity. Any recalibration of communications in the current context must first begin with brands putting on the lens of empathy and considering the following:

  • How can observers of Ramadan feel supported or less hindered so they can fulfill their act of fasting and enhance self-discipline during this global crisis?
  • How will their priorities, hopes, aspirations and fears change?
  • At a time of circuit breaker measures and restricted movement orders, what will be more challenging for Muslims to do? Conversely, what will be more convenient?
  • How might people get creative without breaking circuit breaker laws? In Manila, priests conducted ‘drive-by blessings’ by standing on truck beds and motorised rickshaws and blessed people who knelt along the streets of their homes on Good Friday.
  • What actions could Muslims take to replicate the feelings of closeness and community during Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr?
  • What contributing roles can non-Muslims in the community play during this festival?

​​​The messaging I’ve seen from retail brands (caveat: this is a comment about what I’ve seen on my radar, and not indicative of what’s happening with brands across the board) tend to be about “stay home to shop and stay safe” messaging or some variation thereof, as they proceed with seemingly business-as-usual Ramadan marketing campaigns. Personally, I find these to be shallow (since it is stating the obvious) and rather opportunistic.

However, some communicators are standing out amidst this “sea of same-ness.” The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) newly released a guidebook for Muslims in Singapore to practise their faith while doing their part to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

This is mirrored in other faiths: over the recent Easter weekend, church leaders, organisations and communities everywhere issued a rallying cry of hope and encouragement, calling on followers of the faith to find new means of ministering, worship and fellowship, while using this time to build up bonds with family members.

It is heartening to see organisations and community leaders that have the license to lead take proactive, timely and decisive actions to connect with consumers in meaningful ways during these extraordinary times.

Applying it all to COVID-19 communications

Applying insights gained from data and sound understanding of customer segments is where the rubber meets the road. A lot has been said about the value of creative or cause-driven campaigns to help brands stand out among the clutter. But without the right tonality, campaigns executed with the best intentions can backfire.

For-profit businesses run a relatively higher risk of coming across as insensitive or too commercial. Judicious care needs to be taken with word choice, timing of communications, channel of delivery, choice and treatment of visuals, and a well-trained yet authentic spokesperson – all while staying “on brand.” 

These collectively make up brand tonality. Cascading the same tonality across a brand’s multiple channels is critical because if one of these are out of step, consumers will sense the disjointedness.

For instance, if you are sending out an EDM to customers about how a certain percentage of revenue from sales will go towards donating surgical masks or helping an affected community, that message needs to be prominently displayed on the brand’s e-commerce site, app, and social media channels.

One misstep I’ve seen brands make in recent weeks is to bury their purpose-driven campaign messaging somewhere else on the website, which sends an altogether different message to consumers.

Brands need to take advantage of this period to train spokespeople as a channel of communications. Executives have more time on their hands than they did pre-COVID, given that all flights are grounded and in-person meetings are all done virtually. They too have an opportunity to re-skill and up-skill during this crisis.

I have seen an uptick in demand of virtual media training from our clients who have benefited from 1-hour facilitated Zoom or Microsoft Teams sessions for a small group of executives who are eagerly looking for guidance on how to carry themselves well in virtual interactions and learn techniques about message development.

The path to creating a difference, calls for brands to lean into what it can do to truly help people, especially at a time of a global public health crisis. Let us not miss this pivotal season in history to help build a business that endures.