If there’s one thing that we will take ahead with us when all this is hopefully over, it is empathy: Piali Dasgupta

Piali Dasgupta, Senior Vice President - Marketing, Columbia Pacific>
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Communication in this crisis has seen a tectonic change; brands today have also changed as to how they tell a story. Earlier seniors have always been shown as cranky, dependent, and miserable by brands. But with changing culture and lifestyle of seniors, the depiction has also undergone a change and today we are seeing many brands using seniors as the protagonist.


From being shown as miserable and dependent family members to independent, high-spirited, and living larger than life, the depiction and usage of senior citizens in the content have come a long way. Gone are the days where the old were shown as cranky, old next-door uncles, or the conservative aunties who frown upon high hemlines. This change in the communication strategy of brands is a mirror image of the cultural changes the nation has gone through.


There are so many brands that have started focusing on seniors and have developed campaigns just for seniors. For instance, CarDekho, Columbia Pacific Communities, Vodafone, etc.  There is a change in the depiction of the elderly in communication narratives, the popularity of senior citizen influencers, and how they are becoming the most credible advocates of brands.


Piali Dasgupta, Senior Vice President – Marketing, Columbia Pacific Communities, talks to us about the change, how Columbia Pacific has adapted to the new normal, and much more….


This crisis has taught us many lessons, your thoughts?


Oh yes. Completely agree. As Winston Churchill said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” The pandemic has made us more and more aware of how insignificant we are in the face of global adversity. A tiny virus has the ability to turn the universe topsy turvy. So we are like snowflakes in the universe. Our designations, job titles, the importance that we tend to give ourselves, don’t really matter when you are fighting a disease. And so, this was a great time to self-introspect, to set our priorities right, and understand who or what really holds real value in our lives. Because, life as we have learned, is fragile.


On the marketing and brand building front, the pandemic underlined the importance of brands being authentic, empathetic, and have a purpose that is aligned with the planet. While these have been topics of discussion for some time now, the pandemic made it almost mandatory to view their customer experience and communication strategy through at least one of these three lenses.


One is also seeing more seniors in brand communication today, any reasons for this?


I am sure we can agree that it’s about time we saw more seniors in brand communication. But the fact is, it’s not just seniors. We are seeing more off-kilter, underground, non-mainstream narratives, that are shining the spotlight on the underdogs and the minorities – whether it’s members of the LGBTIQ community or neurodiverse people or senior citizens. For way too long, brands have been obsessed with millennials and the Gen-Z. Now they have realized that they are alienating a segment of the audience with huge purchase power (senior citizens) by not representing them or talking to them. Senior citizens form 8% of the country’s population today and are the fastest-growing demographic, set to treble by 2050. It is the only demographic that’s seeing double-digit growth. I think brands have finally realized the perils of not talking to this generation.


Brand messaging is becoming more empathetic, is this due to the crisis or brands have now realized that content is more important when it comes to targeting their consumers?


Content has always been king. Every marketer has realized this in the last ten years. But with digital consumption, and social media consumption, in particular, going up by nearly 75% during the pandemic, brands have realized that there is a greater opportunity to engage with their consumers and build brand salience.


Most people narrow down “empathy” to brand messaging that appeals to a consumer’s EQ (Emotional Quotient). However, true empathy is shown by a brand when it can walk in a customer’s shoes. Throughout the pandemic, we have had several examples of brands coming forward, taking up social responsibility, and showing they genuinely care. Whether it was Cadbury with its “Not Just a Cadbury Ad” campaign in Diwali 2020 supporting small business owners hit by COVID, or brands such as Parle G and Crocs distributing biscuit packets and crocs shoes respectively to frontline workers, humanity shone. And it showed a deep commitment of brands towards people across sections who may or may not have been their core audience. Revenue took a backseat, and empathy was put on the front burner.


And this goes beyond content. Content is only a vehicle to take to masses a brand’s actions and intentions. It starts with an honest intention, whether or not the end result is PR or content. It can never really be the other way round. Because if it is, it’s not honest enough.

It is the age of empathy. And not just for brands. People have come together to help each other when the system has failed them. If there’s one thing that we will take ahead with us when all this is hopefully over, it is empathy.


What has changed today, brands are depicting seniors with free-spirited and more adventurous, focussed and advisors in the family, your thoughts?


Seniors today are a different breed from those 30 years ago. They live life on their own terms, are adventure seekers, look at retirement as the best phase of their lives, are adapting to technology, and are fiercely independent. So, these attributes of the baby boomer generation are reflected in advertisements today.


The old, hackneyed narrative of the cranky, old next door uncle, or the conservative aunty who frowns upon high hemlines, is thankfully behind us.


Whether it’s the recent CarDekho “E for Elderly” campaign that had an adorable elderly couple using sarcasm to call out the way the youth treats seniors behind the wheels, or actress Neena Gupta doing her version of a hip hop in the Brooke Bond Red Label #LetUsUnstereotypeIndia campaign, brands today are depicting seniors as a fun, irreverent, confident bunch with a great sense of humor.


How innovative has Columbia Pacific Communities’ communication become during this crisis?


We have innovated immensely during the past 15 months. In India, we function as a start-up, and hence, have the advantage of being nimble. We have kept the interest of our customers – senior citizens, at the center of everything we have done in terms of innovation, with the sole aim of ensuring that even while they were physically distanced from their loved ones, they were not emotionally isolated or distanced.


Whether it was launching a Facebook Live initiative called The Living Room to enable seniors to interact live with celebrities and luminaries across disciplines from the comfort of their homes during the lockdown or using digital platforms to execute a month-long talent hunt across our 9 communities in the run-up to World Senior Citizens Day (August 21) last year, or virtually training sign language to six senior residents from our communities enabling them to perform to an audience of 400 hearing and speech impaired people for Christmas, we have efficiently used technology to bring people and communities together.


On the business side, we have developed content-led sales tools such as walkthrough videos, video chats and have participated in digital expos to enable digital-led transactions. We have even made two significant business announcements to the media through digital platforms.


What have been your marketing strategies during this crisis?


Marketing strategies have obviously evolved in the past year. Heightened use of technology throughout the customer lifecycle and use of digital marketing tools such as walkthrough videos and Whatsapp calls from the site have replaced site visits, with customers making purchase decisions remotely.


In terms of the marketing mix, we have always been digital-first, allocating about 70% of our marketing budgets to digital channels. Post-COVID, OOH, experiential marketing, and other offline budgets have been redirected to digital as well, and in the initial months of COVID, budgets for print media were also realigned towards digital.


When the pandemic hit us in March 2020, we took a conscious call to not hard sell the product, and instead adopted an engagement-first strategy on social media for a few months launching campaigns such as #SeniorsInCommand that brought to the fore inspiring stories of seniors giving back to society and taking charge of the situation at hand during the pandemic.


During the second wave too, we stopped all product and brand-led communication and opened out our social media channels for about 10 days to invite pleas for help from anyone at all, so that we could amplify these messages. This was our own little way of doing our bit for those that were affected, since we are not FMCG brands, and couldn’t really mass distribute a product like, say, sanitizers, to frontline workers.


We also realized the need for mental health support for seniors who were deeply affected by the second wave and were increasingly feeling lonely, isolated, hopeless, and stressed about the situation around them. And hence, we launched a campaign in association with the Fortis Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences, called #ReacOut urging senior citizens to reach out for mental health support.


So, it was empathy and care first and commerce and selling later, all through the pandemic. It wasn’t an easy choice, but one that we believe was the right choice, even at a time when we saw a 4x rise in inquiries because seniors realized how difficult living on their own can be amidst a crisis, and the importance of living in a community.



Way forward?   

The way forward for marketers is honest, purpose-led, and impactful marketing, with cutting-edge storytelling and creativity. There will have to be more skin in the game, for sure. And while, there will always be pressure on marketers to produce short-term results, as a community, marketers have to convince stakeholders and the C-suite that brand building is a long-term game. And that the greatest businesses in the world have been built on long-term thinking. So, it’s not necessarily about being hyper-obsessed with the CTRs and the VTRs of today. All that is important for sure. But the main task is, how do you engage your audience beyond three seconds when all they are willing to give you is three seconds? Human beings now officially have an attention span less than that of the goldfish. And that’s not good news for marketing and advertising professionals, because it makes our job harder and harder. And that’s where good storytelling comes in. If you have something truly mind-blowing to say, people will give you the time. Just as you make time for a great novel. You don’t necessarily count the pages, do you?


For us, the way forward includes building a world-class brand and helping Columbia Pacific Communities fulfill its mission of becoming the subcontinent’s most preferred senior living option by truly helping seniors live healthier, happier, and fitter lives for longer.


A key area of focus would be to strengthen the brand positioning by taking the narrative of “positive ageing” forward through storytelling, PR, advocacy, and other consumer engagement initiatives. Our aim is to popularise the concept of community living and its connection to positive aging in India, and pivot conversations around age and aging in India.