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How COVID-19 could transform marketing

Hongwei He from Alliance Manchester Business School

Hongwei He looks at how COVID-19 could have a significant long-term impact on CSR and marketing. He is a Professor of Marketing and incoming School Director for Social Responsibility at Alliance Manchester Business School. He is a co-author of Kotler’s classic textbook on marketing, Principles of Marketing 8th European Edition.

Notwithstanding the human tragedy of lost lives, broken families, and scarred communities, the economic and social changes caused by COVID-19 will constitute a cultural legacy which will live long in our memories and those of future generations.

The pain is personal, emotional, psychological, societal, economic, and cultural. And it is already clear that the pandemic is set to have long-lasting and profound economic, social, political, and cultural impacts too. People feel vulnerable and there is a strong sense of lost control.

Like everyone, academics are learning to adjust to this new reality and a new way of working. I have personally used lockdown to reflect on my own work and subject, think about how I will teach students in the future, and think about the impact on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and marketing in general.

I have now, together with Professor Lloyd Harris from Birmingham Business School, put these thoughts into a paper for the Journal of Business Research in which we argue that COVID-19 offers an opportunity for businesses to shift towards more genuine and authentic CSR and, in so doing, help better address urgent global social and environmental challenges.

Profound impact

The pandemic represents one of the most significant environmental changes in modern marketing history and could potentially have a profound impact on CSR, consumer ethics, and basic marketing philosophy which will be challenged like never before.

For consumers the ethical dimension of their decision-making has become particularly salient during the pandemic, and this is likely to shift consumers towards more responsible and pro-social consumption in the future.

Such changes seem likely to be mirrored by firms and organisations too. Fundamental changes to our lives will affect our beliefs, attitudes, and opinions, so astute marketers will adapt their policies and strategies to reflect this.

What is clear is that the crisis certainly put companies to the test for their commitment to ethical business conduct and CSR. It is possible that the financial strains caused by the outbreak could lead to some firms pursuing short-term gains, reducing or abandoning their CSR investment, or even committing misconduct and fraud. This is something that we should try to avoid.

In this together

Fortunately many companies have proactively engaged in various CSR activities with the ethos of “we are in this together”, particularly those that can offer immediate help and assistance to the fight against the virus.

For example, manufacturing companies have transformed their factories to produce ventilators, personal protective equipment, and hand sanitizer. Supermarkets have allocated opening hours specifically for the elderly and NHS workers. Companies have donated commercial campaign airtime to promote good causes. Banks have waived interest on overdrafts over a period of time. Retailers have given free hot drinks to NHS workers. The list goes on and I think it is already clear that companies that have done genuine and caring things during the crisis will be able to build strong consumer rapport, attachment and loyalty.

A new CSR era?

These examples show how the pandemic offers strong opportunities for firms to actively engage in various CSR initiatives during the crisis, and it potentially catalyses a whole new era of CSR development in the long-run.

However it is still too early to make any definitive assumptions. Although the immediate impact of COVID-19 seems to be evident, at this stage we don’t know what the long-term impact on CSR and consumer ethical decision-making will be.

Meantime, other questions now demand further research and analysis by academics. What are the opportunities and challenges for CSR in the long run? Will the short-term changes in consumer habits lead to a long-term sustained shift of consumer ethical behaviour, and if so how? And how will COVID-19 change our marketing philosophy? Will one outcome of this pandemic be increased incorporation of social and societal issues into our driving philosophies?

In terms of customer and citizenship behaviours there is now an urgent need to explore how we adjust to the pandemic, shift and develop new behaviours, and respond to varying lockdown restrictions, such as social distancing and the test and trace scheme.

Similarly, while the pandemic drove sector, firm, and organisational innovation with regard to CSR, research is needed to explore the drivers of effectiveness and to detail which changes will prove beneficial in the long term. Most importantly when we rebuild our businesses, we should strive to answer the United Nations calling for efforts to build more inclusive and sustainable post Covid-19 economies.

Human capital

Finally, it is worth remembering that CSR isn’t just about the financial view. In fact, the very best CSR comes, of course, from the human capital that exists within a workforce.

Companies can actively encourage their employees to act for the greater good of the community, and right now this is something that can undoubtedly have major benefits for the mental health of employees who are struggling with the huge impact of the pandemic. And this could yet be one of the most lasting impacts on CSR in a post-COVID world.