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When Covid first hit, people felt a kind of collective hopelessness they had never felt before. Even though the situation wasn’t as grim as during the second wave, there was an undeniable sense of despair at losing a lifestyle previously taken for granted. For the first time ever, a consumerist society had to get used to meeting their responsibilities without getting to balance out that daily pressure with the pleasure and relief of consumption.

So, when the situation started getting better and the lockdown began to ease up, brands responded through communication that brought hope and enthusiasm back into consumers’ lives. They painted the new normal as a renewed chance at a fulfilling life. They encouraged consumerism through heavy discounts and deals that were context-appropriate – ‘Tired of having to cook all by yourself every day? We’ve got your back, order in’, ‘Bored of wearing nightwear while you work from home? We’re introducing loungewear’, and ‘Need to look good for zoom meetings? We’ve got the jewellery for you’.

Of course, all of this was done while including and highlighting WHO’s list of safety precautions. But overall, the approach was one of unrestrained optimism. It suggested that people live life as close to how they did before the pandemic.

Now the situation has changed. With the second wave, people have incurred the kind of losses they couldn’t have imagined the first time around. Surely, many of them are still itching to get back to life as they knew it. But they are better aware of the cost that their lack of caution can come with.

What does this sudden need for reserved enthusiasm mean for brands and the role they need to play in consumers’ lives? How has it begun reflecting in branded communication? And what are some marked changes in thought between then and now that brands need to consider?

We’ve found our answers by comparing two sets of branded content, one comprised communication released post Unlock 1.0 and the other of communication released after the second wave began subsiding.

Take a look.

Brand as the messenger of hope vs brand as the cautionary figure

Released after the first wave in July 2020, Colgate’s ‘Begin again with a smile’ asked viewers to ‘celebrate a new kind of freedom’:

Its storyline was about a widowed grandmother’s choice to remarry. But it was obvious that the film had been consciously crafted to simultaneously address the general hesitation and fear surrounding Covid. When the grandmother spoke about permitting herself to step out of her fears (of social judgement) once people were allowed outside again, it was clear that the brand meant that sentiment at a broader level.

Even the setting of the storyline mirrored this thought – the characters were shown meeting in a restaurant, mask-free, instead of their own home. They weren’t shown looking nervous about being around strangers in a public place. They were shown seated around others like them who were sitting carefree, eating and chatting. It was as if Covid wasn’t a threat anymore. 

The brand was clearly painting a scene of unbridled hope.

Dettol’s anthem ‘Mil ke Harayenge’, released at the end of May this year, is a complete contrast to this:

It has children singing about a better future, collective resilience and determination – and in that it is hopeful. But it is hope in a measured amount.

Dettol’s use of children hints at the third wave and its possible impact on them, thereby recalling the fear about their safety. It doesn’t show the kids to be playful – as they usually are in onscreen portrayals – but seriously addressing a heavy topic. The monochromatic colour scheme is intended for consciousness-raising. And the closing reminder about safety precautions and vaccination recommends constant care and vigilance. The cautionary undercurrent is apparent. 

The economy as the priority vs safety as a concern

After the first wave, a slowdown in the economy turned into a major concern. The worry was that we had saved lives but not the livelihoods needed to sustain them. Titan’s ‘Let’s Get Indian Ticking’ from August 2020 seems like it was created in response to that concern:

It showed how a little girl’s purchase of a yellow watch for her birthday set the wheels of the economy whirring through a domino effect. An example of how even the smallest purchase could breathe life into the next and the next, and get the country ticking with prosperous productivity.

The little girl was captured in her life as a consumer – right from the moment she selected her watch to the point it sat on her wrist as she sliced through a yellow birthday cake at home. It was Titan’s way of saying that every purchase goes both ways, it brings the consumer joy while improving the financial health of the country.

The second wave challenged this compared valuation of life and livelihood. It took so many lives so unexpectedly that concern about sustaining jobs and the economy suddenly receded. This grim turn of events can be found reflected in Rapido’s video message titled ‘Zaroori Hai Kya?’ released early this June:

Rapido asks its viewers to display greater consideration for the delivery persons, riders and in-home service staff who put their safety at risk each time they fulfil an order. It asks viewers to examine if their orders and purchases are truly necessary and can justify another person stepping out during a pandemic for their sake.

Unlike Titan, it doesn’t show the worker as just a worker but as a person who has a life back home and loved ones who wait for them to return from their job – just as it holds true for the viewers. That in the moment of consumption, viewers may simply see them as facilitators but it is important to remember that they are more than that.

Rapido has put out this message knowing fully well that it translates into fewer orders for them. Yet they are willing to take the hit to ensure the safety of their workers and, in doing so, promote safety over unrestrained consumption.

Revival of the individual vs protection of the community

Hero MotoCorp’s ‘Hum Mein Hai Hero’ came out in October 2020, well into the unlock:

It showed how invigorating it was for young professionals to get back into their groove after the lockdown. How the chance to be out and working again gave them the sense of purpose they had been missing ever since they went into quarantine. The video was about celebrating the freedom of the individual that had been put on hold for the safety of the community but could now be enjoyed again.

The sentiment was justified but its unbound representation by brands like Hero (Nescafe came out with something similar in July 2020) gave the impression that individual choices could override collective security. 

Mankind Pharma’s ‘Leave excuses, Be responsible’ from May 2021 is not a direct opposition to this narrative but questions its prioritisation of personal choice over collective safety.

It has actor Angad Bedi assume the role of a doctor as he reprimands viewers for choosing not to wear a mask and putting the safety of the community at risk. He tells them to not make excuses to justify a personal whim, and instead consider how their individual slip-ups can come at the cost of lives lost and a burdened healthcare system. The video wraps with real footage from the second wave that shows people struggling for Covid resources and medical support.

Wrapping up

All three shifts highlighted above indicate that brands sense and understand the need to speak to consumers differently than they did after the first wave. That they need to do more just than inject pleasure and enjoyment into consumers’ lives.

This realisation needs to be taken forward by more of them. They need to impose the importance of living cautiously upon their audience. Now that we have collectively learnt our lesson about living with unrestrained optimism, it would be a grave error for brands to revert to encouraging that way of life. Brands need to speak as citizens talking to their fellow citizens and not as sellers first, selling products, services and a consumerist way of life.