Mahendro Sasongko: Brand Activation During COVID-19
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Mahendro Sasongko: Brand Activation During COVID-19

The date at the time of writing is 14 April 2020. 


It’s been approximately a month since an unprecedented global lockdown had taken into effect. And at the face of it, the world at large seems quite unsure on what to do. These events have had no visible cure so far. 


People are social distancing. 


Companies are implementing temporary layovers. 


Employees and employers alike throughout the globe are forming a loose yet determined alliance in order to combat this pandemic. 


Brands are no different. In their quest for relevance and social awareness, brands are figuring out new and novel ways to keep their brand in the public consciousness. At a time of ample leisure and procrastination, how does a brand maintain relevance in a new —if temporarily changed— world? 


At this point, classical digital marketing seems the clear and obvious solution for brands. 


Own an e-commerce platform? Move the vast majority of your business there, and the problem should be alleviated, right? 


Well, yes and no. 


It’s quite apparent that not all brands can do this. 


Many brands and companies operate offline activations that for the backbone of their business. How are they coping? This is a question that demands specific answer. And who better to ask than someone who’s stuck right in the middle of the action. 


This is what led me to conduct a telephone-interview with Mahendro Sasongko: Client Management Director for Brand Activations at Iris Worldwide. 


Our 30 minute phone-chat was concise, extensive and very revealing.


Can you tell me a little background of yourself and your role at Iris?


Basically I’m a client management director for activations. So it’s all about the business side of brand activations done through Iris. 


In short, I maintain client relations with Iris. Specifically in terms of brand activations done through Iris. 


Based on the premise of this interview, I recommend using Nestlé as an appropriate case-study for the brand activations that we’re currently handling.


Sounds good to me. Please paint me a picture of your role in handling the Nestlé brand in times of crisis. 


So I’ll first start by explaining our relationship with Nestlé. 


As I mentioned before, I maintain client relations between our client (in this case Nestlé) and Iris. And contained within it are basically three major tasks. 


The first is spotting opportunities: where can the brand setup. The second is what we can create in terms of activations levels. The third is assisting the operational team in the execution of the activation(s). 


By successfully implementing all three factors, we ensure that things are running smoothly and according to plan, which in turn benefits Iris tremendously. 


Got it. I’m now moving into the obvious. What has been the impact of COVID-19 towards Nestle’s activations? 


Before I get into that, I just want to reiterate the fact that brand activations don’t necessarily mean ‘offline’ activations. Effectively speaking, around 20% of activations are done online. However your point stands. 80% of the work now is effectively diminished. Conducting offline activations, which as you know is the majority of the work, has simply ceased to exist. 


It all really started to happen in February. 


As you might well remember, by mid February, it was clear that the novel-coronavirus was spreading at an alarming rate globally. And while at the time there had been no confirmed infections reported in Indonesia, we were already having internal and external discussions on preparing for the worst. 


By worst you mean that the virus will enter Indonesia soon, right?




So we were already drawing plans on figuring out ways on how activations can still commence in light of an impending social-distancing method which surely will be implemented once the virus reaches (or more accurately, are detected) these shores. 


And sure enough, by the second week of March, the cases were starting to climb and we ended up putting a halt to 90% of our offline activations for Nestlé. And by the third week of March, 100% of the offline activations were put on hold. 


However, while the situation was developing and a nationwide social distancing directive hadn’t been issued yet, we were quick to rectify our Standard Operating procedures (SOP) to adapt to the inevitable. This includes tightening up on hygiene practices, reworking ways to engage with customers, etc. 


But before too long, we were presented with a plethora of problems.


For instance, many of Nestlé’s offline activities include sales representatives actively visiting offices to supply products to a variety of businesses. This approach had quickly broken down of course, as many office building were starting to heavily restrict access to their buildings. 


So while we were quick to minimise the chances of infection through these adapted SOPs, the reality was turning to be much more difficult than first anticipated. 


So how do brands adapt/react to that? 


Well I personally divide brands into two distinct categories. 


The first are the ones who perhaps have a false sense of security. By that I mean certain brands take the optimistic view that this whole pandemic will be over sooner than we might realise. 


The second are the ones who are quick to react. They’re the ones who instantly say “we have to pivot our ideas around this and assume the worst. We have to see where our opportunities lie in other possible channels”.


In essence, my team was split into two. 


The first team concentrates on finding digital (or any other) solutions to the current obstacles.  


The second team is geared towards planning how to resume normal service once things return to normal. 


However, it’s a double job for the second team. 


What do you mean by that?


Well as per our basic strategy, Key Performance Indicators (KPI) are determined at the start of every year, right? So whatever happens, those KPIs need to be met by the end of the fiscal year. 


This is vital for the first group I mentioned earlier. The ones who assume the pandemic will end soon. 


Now as for the second group are more interested in finding ways of allocating the set resources to maximise the outcome. It can either be digital engagement, virtual events, etc., that might still create awareness towards the brand. All in the assumption that there is no realistic date on determining when this pandemic will end. 


This second group forgo sales for awareness. That their brand is still available for the general public to enjoy. 


Can you give me a few examples of the ideas your team have come up with?




My team have just successfully pitched the creation of a virtual event for one of Nestlé’s dairy products: Carnation Milk. 


Now while Carnation has more of a traditional image and ways of doing things, they were actually very progressive in their approach. They fully embraced the situation. They can see that the situation is not conducive for offline activities, and have therefore embraced alternative approaches with an open mind. 


These ideas manifested themselves both through social media activities as well as the aforementioned virtual event. 


In this case it’s an online virtual cooking class by noted influencers.  


So Nestlé definitely belong in that second category, correct?


Yes, definitely so. 


To go on further, at the start of the year we’ve planned approximately 1.200 events throughout Indonesia, for Carnation’s activation policies. 


Now due to COVID-19, Carnation allocated around 20-30% of its budget for us to create activities that will connect directly to customers. It’s empirical for me to point out that before the pandemic, most of the activations were of a B2B nature. And with the current events unfolding, Carnation have decided to elevate B2C promotions, such as the creation of the strategies we discussed earlier. 


But why cooking classes?


Through simple observation really. 


It’s quickly apparent to our team that individuals are posting many cooking videos. They’re starting to do things they don’t really do before. 


So why not feed on that? Let’s get our brand influencers in the culinary world share their recipes, tips and tricks, and a whole bunch of other insight for the benefit of our customers and their newly found enthusiasm for cooking. 


And to be honest, a few other brands we’re working with such as Puma are also fully embracing these new ideas and approaches. 


The bottom line is that we at Iris do whatever it takes to take the clients by their hands and move them forward in these times of crisis. We never shy away from reminding them that when one door closes, another opens. There are literally thousands of new approaches that need to be mined and exploited to its full potential. 


I hope that answers all your questions. 


It does, thank you very much for your time.


My pleasure.