The mind remembers recessions as dark and foreboding. You feel the Damoclean sword hanging over your head low and large throughout the day, and at night, anxious and awake, you stare at it: “Will I lose my job next month?” “Can I keep my promise not to retrench?”
I have been through two slumps — the one immediately after the assassination of Aquino, when the country defaulted on its loans, and the other, the Asian Crisis, when the peso dropped from 26 to 46 to 53 against the dollar.
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” and suffer masters of less compassionate races, was the number one answer.
What was the second? “Pray.”
Now, advertising is an industry that lives on hope. The faintest whiff of a recession and plans are postponed or put on ice. Advertising is the first industry to feel a recession, and the first to feel growth.
We were handling a vitamin brand that was doing very well until we ran smack into a brick wall named the Asian Crisis.
Sales plummeted as more people chucked the habit out the window. Taking vitamins was an expense they could do without for the moment. There were more basic considerations, such as how to magically put food on the table.
The decision from clients was to suspend advertising for the brand, and understandably so. I went home dejected. I remember thinking that risking illness was so wrong. I remember scribbling on newsprint, “BawalMagkasakit,” writing it over and over, thinking that maybe, with familiarity, it might look better. But it just wouldn’t: it looked rather ungainly; it didn’t have the product name in it; it didn’t ‘sing.’ meaning it didn’t have a cadence. But it was terrifically on-strategy: “getting sick is a drain on precious resources,” and it screamed, “Boy, you don’t need that now, brother.”
We prepared an unsolicited campaign. We produced the commercial ourselves; I directed it to keep the production at ‘crisis rates.’
The campaign told the customer, succinctly, that the cost to repair health is far more expensive than a capsule, and that getting sick — during these times — is unnecessary, even foolish. We had many versions, usually sympathetic, but sometimes scolding.
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 can be a quagmire that undermines the working man’s personal and family future. The brand suddenly became an ally – not necessary to survive the crisis. This is raison d’être of vitamin consumption: to be a little healthier.
Did it work?
The result of that first, inexpensive production? A 34 percent increase in sales after six months. This, during a crisis.
A subsequent iteration of “BawalMagkasakit” was awarded the gold at the 1st Marketing Communications Effectiveness Awards, the only award-giving body in advertising that looked at sales and value to country, not just craft.
What started out as a tactical effort, to keep people in the habit during a difficult period, became an advocacy, and, last I looked, it still drives the brand.
Why did it last so long? When you are part of the language of the customer, when your campaign promise is part of the customer’s lexicon, you are part of his day like a door and dinner.
And, again, the lesson: If the battle is in the mind, it is a battle we can win.
Many of our challenges are really battles in the mind. While we cannot fix poverty, or solve recessions overnight, we can fix people’s perception of their condition. Well-crafted propaganda, and I use the word lovingly, can embolden, enable, empower, and can move a country.
While we never measured whether we managed to help the Filipino stay healthier, I sincerely believe we managed to inject the value of staying healthy into his value system.
At a lunch hosted by a television network, Gary Mendoza, the country manager of the multinational company, was asked how the Asian economic crisis affected the 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.
The author is chairman of Estima, an ad agency dedicated to helping local industrialists and causes, and co-founder of Caucus, Inc., a multi-discipline consultancy firm. He can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org.