In a time of COVID-19, to advertise or not to advertise?

Kantar’s Irene Joshy believes that brands in APAC need to keep the marketing lights on , and offers a checklist to take stock of the creative development process during the pandemic.

Marketing in the COVID-19 crisis

This article is part of a special WARC Snapshot focused on enabling brand marketers to re-strategise amid the unprecedented disruption caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak.

The world has turned topsy-turvy in 2020 and we’ve only just past the first quarter. Even the colourful and captivating world of advertising has not been spared, with many of my peers and clients from the advertising industry across Asia Pacific asking: “What now, what next?”.

Will advertising during the current COVID-19 chaos serve its purpose or will it be a waste of precious marketing dollars? Should I pull my campaign off or change from its product focus to offer emotional support? If my category is a ‘non-essential’ in these times does that mean I stop engaging consumers? These are the questions that is keeping them awake and me, glued to my laptop screen.

Having run a series primary and secondary pieces of work, I have my answers now.

My reply is simply: “Air/Broadcast/Share”.

For some brands, the situation may be more dire than others – factories are shut, cash flows are dwindling, headcounts are frozen, redundancies are imminent. There are pressures on all businesses so, if you really need to stop brand advertising, don’t stop for more than six months but ideally try to stay on air.

Research shows that 92% of consumers believe brands need to keep advertising. In fact, inundated by round the clock news of COVID-19, consumers welcome ads as a form of distraction and entertainment, giving them a certain sense of normalcy.

To help brand marketers still sitting on the fence make their decisions, here’s a creative checklist to take stock of ads and the creative development process during the COVID-19 crisis:

1. Connect and empathize (empathy can take you a long way)

a) In some categories like ‘COVID-19 critical’ personal hygiene, ads could be product-centric, focusing on people’s needs to be assured that products and services are safe to use. The themes here would be around purify and ritualise. A good example would be Dettol’s India ad:

b) In currently ‘non-essential’ categories, suspend product advertising to provide emotional support. One way could be showcasing positive values or championing solidarity and togetherness. Here’s an example from Hyundai:

c) Or simply show that you are thinking of people and are with them in these times.

2. Engage using novel ways (especially for the ‘non-essentials’)

Lead the charge on experimentation with cooking, make-up, skin home treatments etc. So, that when they are back and about, you still have a role to play in their lives.

3. Care and be responsible

a) Content need not specifically reference coronavirus as awareness is high; however, it shouldn’t exploit either (e.g. price hike on essentials).

b) Always ensure that content doesn’t show behaviour that is contrary to local health authority advice and government regulations around social distancing or that would cause panic.

4. Bring back old melodies – they are still sweet

Not all content needs to be new; old ads and footage can work just as well during the crisis as before. For example, stock footage used by Auto brands such as BMW to land powerful social messages are just as impactful:

5. Tickle and treat:

a) Use of appropriate humour is welcome. Find your funny bone and execute it in a brand appropriate manner. An example would be this AAMI Roadside Assist ad from Australia:

But, do not trivialise.

c) Deliver advertising that suggests a degree of normality. Show how consumers can make the most of these times with small indulgences while they stay safe in their homes. A prime example is the Ben & Jerry’s Netflix & Chill’d campaign:

And, of course, employ agile ways to evaluate, optimise and then take an informed decision.

In early April, Cannes Lions 2020 announced that the Festival and awards will not take place this year.

While a further dampener to the current situation, I urge my colleagues in marketing, creative and media industries not to lose heart. Instead, look at this phase as a comma (not a full stop) to understand, prepare and respond for now and for the future.

In the meantime, continue to hone your craft and tell inspirational creative brand stories because consumers want and need them – in good and especially, tough times. 


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