, July 18, 2024

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Selling the Postponable Product during a Crisis

  •   7 min reads
Selling the Postponable Product during a Crisis

Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pixabay

by Vincent R. Pozon

"Bawal Magkasakit” or How to Beat a Crisis

The mind remembers recessions as dark and foreboding regardless of weather. You feel the Damoclean sword hanging over your head low and large throughout the day. At night, anxious and awake, you stare at the sword and worry: then it was, 'do I have a job next month?' Later, 'will we have to close shop?’ ‘Can I keep my promise not to retrench?’

Before Covid, I have been through two slumps — the one immediately after the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, after the country defaulted on its loans; and the other, the Asian Crisis, when the peso plummeted, from 26 to 46 to 53 pesos to a dollar.

“The Asian Crisis was precipitated by a tidal wave of short-term money leaving on a scale unjustified by the -- manageable -- economic problems of the region.” - The Guardian

The manufacturer ran a fever

All dollar-dependent businesses were hit by the “triple whammy”: easily 60% higher cost of goods, high interest rates and lower customer demand due to price increases.

And, yes, the 'postponable product' got postponed.

Most affected industries are those whose products do not require an immediate decision from the customer.

Normally a hopeful people

We are a hopeful people, research will tell you that, but during the Asian Crisis, there was a fear of the ghost of the earlier slump, and it affected the masses.

“How are you going to survive?”, researchers asked. “Leave the country”, suffer masters of less compassionate races, was the number one answer.

What was second? “Pray”.

Advertising is bellwether

Now advertising is an industry that lives on hope. It is the first industry to feel a recession, and the first to feel growth. When industry leaders are optimistic, regardless of the actual economic indicators, the advertising business grows.

When clients lose hope, regardless of the economic climate, the advertising budget is the first expense item withdrawn.

ADVERTISING IS BELLWHETHER. With the faintest whiff of dark days, advertising plans are the first to be postponed or put on ice. Photo by Storm Crypt via Flickr

We were handling Clusivol, a vitamin brand of Whitehall (later Wyeth, and decades later Pfizer); it was doing well until we ran smack into the brick wall that was the Asian Crisis.

Sales sank; people chucked the habit of taking supplements out the window. It was an expense they could do without for the moment. There were more basic considerations, like how to magically put food on the table.

The decision from clients was to suspend advertising for the brand, and understandably so. I remember going home dejected. How do you build concern for health in the mind of the consumer, get him to look at the bigger picture regarding a product he buys by faith? The benefits of vitamins are not palpable immediately, which makes it a postponable product.

The slogan would not sing

I remember scribbling on newsprint, Bawal Magkasakit, writing it over and over, hoping that maybe, with familiarity, it might look better. It looked rather ungainly then: it didn’t have the product name in it, it didn’t ‘sing’, meaning it didn’t have cadence.

But it was terrifically on-strategy: “getting sick is a drain on precious resources”, and it screamed, “you don’t need that now, brother”.

We brainstormed and presented an unsolicited campaign. We produced the commercial ourselves; I directed to keep the production at crisis rates.

We told the customer, succinctly, that the cost to repair health is inestimably more expensive than the cost to maintain it, that getting sick -- during these times -- is unnecessary, even foolish.

In a largely poor country, a country with no healthcare to speak of, the number one personal concern, according to research, was ‘to avoid illnesses and to stay healthy’. Getting sick is a quagmire that undermines the working man’s personal and family future.

We wanted something larger than a category promise. We didn't say, "take vitamins to stay healthy", we presented a belief, an attitude. There was hardly any discussion about the product's formulation. We sought to elicit a nod from the customer towards a change in mindset, to the idea that he cannot afford to get sick, and should not.

We wanted an "Oo nga."

It was a campaign of about twenty iterations and versions, usually sympathetic, sometimes admonishing, all reinforcing the message: you need to stay well, and Clusivol is ally to survival.

Whenever there would be news relevant to the story, be it an increase in the price of fuel, price of rice, the onset of the rainy season, school enrollment, a commercial would be made. The Asian Crisis was a reliable instigator of relevant news we could exploit.

Men and umbrellas

In the Philippines, because of the Hispanic macho breeding, it's "forma first before health". Men don't bring umbrellas, they are incautious about their health. Vitamins? "They can stay on the breakfast table and wait for when we're well and ready".

So we created a one-off to talk to men, to the breadwinners, to the stubborn, to the unhealthy Filipino macho.

The couple is a real couple, Nonie and Shamaine Buencamino. And they are consummate actors. Each second of the commercial -- every glance, movement --is eloquent. I cannot imagine any other couple for this role.

Did it work?

The results of that first, inexpensive production? 34% increase in sales after 6 months. This, during a crisis.

What started out as a tactical effort -- to keep people in the vitamin habit during a difficult period -- became an advocacy, and last I looked, it still drives the brand. It is gratifying to see Bawal Magkasakit still in use and still of value to the brand, and, more importantly, still an exhortation people use. The campaign has survived a change of agency and a change of ownership of the brand itself.

A subsequent iteration was awarded the gold in the 'Best Established Brand Campaign' at the 1st Marketing Communications Effectiveness Awards (today the Tambuli Awards), the only award-giving body in advertising that recognizes both “the business and societal value of marketing and communications campaigns”.

How do you make campaigns that last for decades?

Actually you don't. Longevity is a by-product of having a story that has sturdy legs. But it helps when your campaign promise works itself into the customer's lexicon; you become part of his day like a door and dinner (Even then, people started referring to the creative expression as a kasabihan).

Again, the lesson: If the battle is in the mind, it is a war we can win. Many of our challenges are really battles in the mind. While we cannot solve recessions overnight, we can fix people’s perception of their condition. Well-designed propaganda, and I use the word lovingly, can embolden, enable, empower, and can move a country.

At a lunch hosted by a television network, Gary Mendoza, the country manager of Wyeth Philippines, was asked how the Asian economic crisis affected his company’s business. His reply was, nearly, if not accurately, thus:

“What crisis? This has been the best year for the brand, and for the company, ever.”

Needless to say, but still better said: the agency is only as creative as the client will allow it. The client who allows and wagers during a crisis is one amazing client.

Selling the Postponable Product

We successfully persuaded the customer to take vitamins, take it by faith, during a crisis. We established and reinforced a mindset focused on protection and thinking long-term, about preventing death and debt and a drain on the resources that he has. Hopefully, our efforts helped our countrymen remain healthy and productive during those dark days.

A seed of this was published as a column of the author in the Manila Times.

Vincent R. Pozon

After a year of college, Koyang entered advertising, and there he stayed for more than half a century, in various agencies, multinational and local. He is known for aberrant strategic successes (e.g., Clusivol’s ‘Bawal Magkasakit’, Promil’s ‘The Gifted Child’, RiteMED’s ‘May RiteMED ba nito?', VP Binay's 'Ganito Kami sa Makati', JV Ejercito's 'The Good One'). He is chairman of Estima, an ad agency dedicated to helping local industrialists, causes and candidates. He is co-founder and counselor for advertising, public relations, and crisis management of Caucus, Inc., a multi-discipline consultancy firm. He can be reached through vpozon@me.com.

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