First was COVID-19, which forced us to adapt and rethink our strategies to resonate with people’s “new normal” lives and prioritize the needs of communities. After a stressful year, we breathed a sigh of relief as Covid-19 restrictions began lifting, and we started advising brands on post-pandemic campaigns and content to reach out to a changed society.
These plans were quickly thwarted when Myanmar’s military seized power on Feb 1.
Today, three months into the coup, the work of planners and brand marketers has shifted in ways that few could have envisioned a year ago, as we seek to help our clients navigate this political and economic crisis while responding to changing consumer behaviors.
The crisis has been exacerbated by a nationwide mobile internet blackout including a ban on Myanmar’s key social channel, Facebook. Other social media channels soon filled in the gap – Twitter has become the main channel to share political updates and maintain global awareness, while Telegram is used to share information, news, and connect people in support groups. However, now that only fiber internet is available and netizens require VPNs to access social platforms, digital marketing has fallen by the wayside.
Despite these challenges, I believe it’s important for brands to explore ways to connect with consumers. In times of uncertainty, brands play an important role in providing both reassurance and support. Those that leverage rising channels to stay connected with consumers will come out stronger.
In the first week after the coup, consumer behaviors and values shifted with a rise in consumer activism unlike anything we’ve seen. There was a large-scale and immediate consumer-driven charge to cut all ties with the country’s many military-owned brands. Myanmar Beer, then the most popular beer brand in the country, saw its market share drop dramatically as people began posting about throwing away beers and shunning bars and restaurants that continued to sell it. Within days, the country’s largest retailer, City Mart, stopped selling all military-owned brands.
Consumers also began monitoring and keeping track of brands and influencers that have stayed silent or are against the pro-democracy movement, pushing back with boycotts regardless of military ties.
It’s clear that brands can no longer be bystanders in this crisis. People expect them to provide support to the pro-democracy movement and those affected by the coup. As for communicators, the ideas, messages, and channels we used before the coup now seem tone-deaf and ineffective. We have had to ask ourselves: what can we still say during this time, and how should we say it?
As the strategy director, I believe that there are four ways that brands can still make positive contributions to communities and employees without the risks inherent to making a political statement.
Focus on the service
For brands unsure how to resume communications during this crisis, a service-minded approach is the best place to start. Brands can refrain from pushing sales, and instead deliver content that provides the public with information that resonates with their needs and helps them stay connected, healthy, and safe. Samsung, for example, has pushed content on how smartphone users can send SOS messages to close friends and family in an emergency. This was published during the height of street protests and provided valuable information to those on the streets.
If brands are receiving pressure and threats from the military junta, one way to avoid backlash from consumers is to be transparent about the pressure. Consumers will appreciate the honesty and the brand will receive support. When telecom brand Telenor began receiving pressure on social media to stop complying with the junta’s regular demands for internet cuts, they chose to be forthright by releasing all directives received from the military junta on their website.
Standing on the sidelines risks boycotts and audience disconnect. Instead, brands can consider ways to support the public and build goodwill with positive contributions to communities – addressing major needs such as food security, health, undesirable living situations, lack of internet access, and independent journalism. For example, they can open spaces they own to the public and offer free Wi-Fi, as smartphone brand TECNO has done.
Respect your employees’ struggles
Brands must express care and compassion when communicating with employees. Share internal guidelines on where the brand stands and whether and how much employees may leverage that stance in their political actions, both in person and online. Provide means of support such as paid time off, information on the best ways to protect oneself while protesting and provide essentials such as healthy food and fiber internet access.
These are broad strategies, as they must have room to adapt to the ever-evolving situation. To stay relevant, planners and marketers should be vigilant and seek ever more creative ways to advise their clients, partners, and stakeholders on how best to move forward.