COVID-19: Every Leash Has Two Ends

Insight on Romanian post-COVID business ecosystem

One who looks from a distance at a dog on a leash might think “Poor soul!”, forgetting that every leash always has two ends. The person walking the dog is as bound as the pet itself.

Similarly, the Romanian business ecosystem after the anti-communism Great Revolution in 1989 has always been biased. How did the COVID crisis influence it?

 The Two Ends of the Leash

On one hand, businesses have been self-centered, the majority of them forgetting that the center of their PR strategies should be the client, the final consumer. After an era of practically no private business ecosystem, their owners’ lack of experience and lust for quick-growth is understandable. Thus, the consumers perceived most businesses as some untouchable entities run by some “men in black” whose sole purpose was to provide goods and services in exchange for money.

On the other hand, business owners perceived the consumers as being simply that: anonymous individuals who willingly gave their money for products and services they needed. Individuals that could easily be manipulated or, nicely said, persuaded to buy with the use of some marketing techniques and PR strategies.

This situation, with very slight variations, lasted for 30 years. It was about time for a change.

COVID-19: The Leash Tightened Up

February 2020: the month during which Romanian TV channels finally began to treat in a serious manner the subject of the new Corona virus. No more political fights on TV, no more reality shows – every channel was focused 24/7 on what was going on in Romania and in the whole world. People started panicking, businesses started panicking. All retail industry went down at a pace no one could have predicted and all the tourism industry disappeared over night like it never existed. Many employees began losing their jobs.

People stopped spending money for things other than food and drugs. Businesses stopped producing and importing goods, as there were no consumers for non-essential products. Also, the importing process became harder and harder. Then, the emergency state and lock-down were instated. All of a sudden, there was a huge void in everyone’s actions.

But what seemed back then as a damnation, proved to be, in fact, one of the biggest blessings. Interesting times for Romanian business ecosystem were about to come. Here is how the change of paradigm in communication and PR strategies unfolded:

Communication became more personal

Those “pedestal businesses” which previously had been speaking about their latest offers and new-entry items or services began to suddenly give advice on safety measures and ways of disinfecting our hands and faces. More than that, they scattered all over TV and internet genuinely honest messages of optimism.

Firstly, the public perceived those messages as ways of increasing awareness for the brands themselves. But then, people realized it was more than that. They began realizing that all of us, individuals and businesses, must fight this crisis together as one in order to return to our previous lives.

The TV ad I liked the most in that period (and for sure many Romanian people loved it as well) was the one brought into attention by the Golden Brau beer company. The ad copy touched many hearts in those quarantine times: “A wish from the depth of our hearts: let the day in which we will drink a beer together come faster. It doesn’t matter which beer. All that it matters is for us to be together at the same table.” This was the very same company that had never before had ad copies related to anything other than football. The revolution in communication was there. And it came the big way.

Another example of perfect communication strategies came from most banks. Yes, the same banks who had previously run ads about their interest rates and crediting conditions. Now, they were clearly explaining on TV (on their budget, presumably a huge budget) the way in which older people can be taught by their grandchildren how to use online banking for paying utility bills in order to avoid going out of the house. Oh, good times!

One can argue that the companies did all these in order to gain image capital for future brighter times. Well, yes, it was surely part of their strategy, that is why they are called businesses, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate their huge efforts towards a more personal communication with the customer.

Digitalization on all levels

Business communication strategy during COVID crisis also included the theme of digitalization. Romania has always been a bit slow in adopting online payments, online shopping or online streaming services. This pandemic crisis was the perfect moment for a digitalization boom to arise.

Every offline business had to make efforts to get in online literally over night, as all shops and malls got closed. Either they improved their online presence, or started it from scratch. People could see banners everywhere online, all with the same idea: “We are online now! Stay home and order online!”, “Come and visit our new online shop! Don’t get out of the house unless it’s really necessary!”, “Can’t come to us anymore? We will come to you!” and so on.

My favorite part was the way of encouraging online payments instead of the cash on delivery system. Ad copies like “Salute your delivery man from a distance!” or “Less money to touch, more chances to stay healthy” apparently convinced many conservative people to pay with their credit card. Analysts said there was a consistent increase in online payments compared to the same period of the last year.

Businesses realized they could not treat their customers like before: bring merchandise in front of their eyes and expect for profit to come. No. They started fighting for the well-being of the clients, so that they can continue to keep their businesses running.

New opportunities for delivery

For instance, an online shop that was selling dresses might have been in a little distress during quarantine. And so, a lot of businesses were forced to find new opportunities in order to survive.

The best example is Mini Prix online shop. Traditionally, it had always been selling clothing and fashion items. Well, they switched to selling grocery items on their official site! This was, of course, a financial decision too, but let’s look at the wider context:

During that period, people could not go out easily to satisfy their grocery needs, so they ordered online from big names like Bringo or Emag. Well, the truth is that these big players were not really prepared for such an incoming of orders: their sites were crashing, stocks were depleted, and even if you managed somehow to send the order, it took up to 7-8 days until the delivery was brought to your doorstep. And so, such help from Mini Prix and a lot others seemed like a breath of fresh air: their stocks were good, their sites didn’t crash because there were not so many orders placed at the same time and the delivery time was only 2-3 days. Financial strategy? For sure. Help for people? Yes, surely!

Speaking of Bringo (the home delivery service of Carrefour chain and the biggest name in groceries delivery services in Romania), they had one of the best PR and marketing strategies during the period of quarantine. Their Facebook posts were warm and close to the customer. They felt as if being told to you by a friend or a brother, not by some hot-shot business: “Having breakfast at home, finally? Enjoy your precious morning moments with your family! We’re bringing everything to your doorstep!”, “Working from home? Your plants enjoy the extra-attention you offer them! Let us bring you some soil fertilizer!”. Short, warm and practical messages which made the day of their customers.

And so, a company who used to sell computer parts began advertising for selling hand sanitizer, a fashion company had a marketing strategy designed to inform the public they were selling reusable masks too and a jewelry brand put up some good PR efforts into assuring clients they disinfect their warehouse daily. So what did COVID do for most small and medium-sized businesses? It taught them to adapt their communication and their marketing strategies to any crisis. A precious lesson, even if learned the hard way.

More content than ever before

During COVID crisis, most businesses adjusted to the new reality and began releasing valuable content on their websites or in third party publications. Their owners and strategy-makers finally realized that, during a crisis, people do not forget the brands that communicate information other than offers and discounts.

And so, every business improved their websites, the content on their blogs, started making useful “how to” videos for their customers and, most importantly, started investing in SEO as an alternative to PPC. Crisis times require better and more sustainable strategies and content marketing proved to be the best bet.

This is how COVID taught us, Romanian people, a valuable lesson: businesses cannot survive without customers and without a proper communication strategy with them. On the other end of the leash, people cannot survive without the products, services and help from private companies in such crisis times.

Another leash, more controversial

In the public affairs area, the relationship between people and political authority figures has always been tensed and controversial. Sometimes, it seems it is in our nature to criticize everything the leading party does. And when the leading party changes, we criticize the next one who takes the lead. Maybe it’s just human nature or maybe we’re still learning how to digest democracy.

No matter the reason, it is certain that COVID crisis could not change this situation.

When the Romanian President announced the emergency state, everybody said everywhere online that it was too late and that measure should have been taken a month ago. Of course, when the President prolonged the quarantine period with one more month, everybody was raging online that the authorities were cruel, ill-intentioned and dictatorial.

The way in which the political authorities communicated was not great, also. The Prime Minister declarations were in contradiction with the ones of the President, the Health Minister was constantly arguing in press with the Internal Affairs Minister. All official communication was dry and had a somehow superior tone-of-voice, in an unpleasing way.

President Klaus Iohannis, normally a very discreet character, appeared on TV more often than before. I think this was the only good part of whatever communication strategy the Government had at that time.

I’m afraid that this COVID crisis did not teach us anything in terms of political unity and official communication strategies. No one seemed to understand that the political figures and the people were two ends of the same leash. Not during the first wave of infections, anyway.

Conclusions

Money invested in marketing and PR right now might not bring the highest financial ROI, but it will teach everybody the most precious lesson of adapting in times of crises.

What used to work yesterday in terms of marketing and PR does not work today anymore. The safest word right now, post-COVID,  is adaptation. In any case, as long as humanity survives, businesses will survive. As Yuval Harari stated so well in Sapiens, “One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations”. People will always buy products and services. Businesses only have to be there for their clients in a personal, warm and friendly manner. It is a leash that will never be broken. A leash with two ends.

The perfect leash.

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