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It’s an Ad Buyer’s Market… But What Does One Advertise?

It’s an Ad Buyer’s Market

That’s the dilemma for many businesses, and their ad agencies. Even as depressed demand due to the COVID-19 crisis is making ad inventory widely available and bringing down advertising prices, and readership is up across news platforms and publishing sites, consumers really don’t want to listen to brands. Some brands have discovered that even their most sensitive efforts aren’t deemed sensitive enough for a world upended by a tiny viral enemy. Others are simply steering clear of all advertising out of fears they may trigger ire and long-lasting brand damage.

Writing for Adweek, Remi Cackel, Global VP of Data for Teads, a global ad distribution platform, calls it a “crisis of context”: it’s not just that brands are struggling with what to say, but also where and around what content to say it.

Smart marketers understand the benefits of marketing through a downturn… but this downturn is unlike any the world has experienced in over a century. Can advertisers and marketers in these dire times turn ad availability into opportunity? Or should they? After all, people are scared, sick or dying. The global economy is in a shambles, and it looks to get worse before we turn the corner. This is no ordinary crisis, and communications must be carefully calibrated and considered.

That said, it’s worth noting that most consumers do not agree that brands should stop all marketing. They are also fairly clear that ads appearing around coronavirus news are perfectly OK except in some cases: they don’t want to see ads for travel; find food ads around virus content a bit icky; have reservations about bank/financial and insurance ads (too opportunistic?); disdain automotive ads when no one is driving; and are especially irked by retail ads pushing products that are frequently out-of-stock (or worse, trading on the crisis). Hmm… that is a lot of ad categories. Maybe it is better to be circumspect about ads right now.

Brand Fails and Successes

Stories abound about brands that have been called out for being too capitalistic in dire times. Norwegian Cruise Lines may never be forgiven for its initial response to virus outbreaks on cruise ships. Their advertising actually suggested that the virus would not survive in the warmer climates of tropical cruise destinations. Cue the horror show of multiple ships quarantined and people getting sick and dying.   

Then there are issues arising from the spate of misinformation surrounding virus cures. Consider Lysol, a product manufacturer whose fortunes are booming due to high demand for germ-killing wipes, sanitizers and disinfectants. They had to issue warnings about not ingesting or injecting their products because President Trump suggested that as something that “would be interesting to check." (Insert dropped-jaw emoji here…) British disinfectant manufacturer Dettol immediately issued the same warnings. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regularly warns the public against drinking bleach, or even inhaling fumes from bleach, and warns that it is a skin irritant that can cause harmful chemical burns.

Who’s Getting It Right

A few brands are finding the right true-to-the-brand messages. Dove swiveled their #RealBeauty effort to focus on the weary-but-determined faces of nurses and doctors with “Courage Is Beautiful.” The ad ends with a note about Dove’s $2 million donation to Direct Relief, an organization working to collect and distribute PPEs, much-needed equipment and supplies to health facilities and medical responders. The message is both on-brand and the right emotional message for the times.

Kraft Heinz Peanut Butter found a way to help restaurants and small businesses during the crisis. With peanut butter, a shelf-stable food item, in high demand during stay-at-home orders, the company used social media to offer unused ad space to businesses to get the word out that that they are still open and serving customers.

Farmer’s Insurance has a fine brand ad that seems a perfect, and hopeful fit. It features J.K. Simmons as Professor Burke touring their “Hall of Claims,” with the line “We thought we’d seen it all… but we haven’t seen this.” The ad then lays out the ways the company is trying to help, “until this is one more thing we’ve seen.”

How Brands Are Pivoting

Even as some brands test the cause marketing waters during the crisis, others are pivoting campaigns to adjust to how customers are living right now.

Brands successfully pivoting include Adidas, which refocused its marketing on at-home exercise with free trials of its training app, and inspirational videos from star athletes. And Budweiser revived its classic “Whassup” ads to celebrate connecting remotely with friends and family while staying at home.

One brand has found it is just the right fit for this moment. McCormick’s, packager of seasonings and spices, is taking a 20% hit in business because a chunk of their sales is with restaurants. But the firm has launched multiple ads around the booming home cooking movement happening as adults find themselves making lots of meals for stuck at home families, while trying to reduce food waste (and extra trips to unstocked groceries. McCormick’s says consumer purchase volumes are like “a holiday times three.”

In response, they boosted social media efforts, including Instagram cooking shows, Spotify baking playlists, and TV and digital video ads of families together in the kitchen. The tagline, “It’s Gonna Be Great,” has subtle undertones addressing great cooking results, the return of home cooked family dinners… and a future we can all barely see right now. McCormick’s is also paying careful attention to the recipes it features on its recipes page.

Being Invisible Is Not a Good Choice

During uncertain times, choosing to drop entirely off consumer radar is a choice marketers and brands should not make. Expressing confidence and stability now helps you gain a strong position for emerging and moving forward as the crisis wanes. It also offers consumers a sense of continuity and business-as-usual. But it is a tightrope stroll to ensure your brand does not sound callously dismissive of the crisis and its toll on everyday people… nor can you stray too far into the “we’re one big family” messaging, which seldom rings true between brands and customers. Here are a few tips for brands navigating troubled times.

Leave medical messaging to the health experts. It’s nice to say you’re protecting your employees and how, but there are tons of pages steering people to the CDC and other reliable medical advice resources.

Be clear in your brand messaging. Now is not a time to speak the language of sales and marketing. Be human. Express empathy. Offer value and support customers will see as useful for lessening the impact of the crisis, such as offering deferred payments, cancelled fees, free information or resources, etc.

Use DATA to find safe spaces for brand marketing. Marketers determined to maintain voice and share of market must rely on data about the content audiences are reading, and fit ads into those spaces. Barring ad serving around anything mentioning COVID-19 or Coronavirus is not necessary. Readers are flocking to content about staying calm, cooking during lockdown, staying fit and mentally healthy, etc. Brands need to seek out audiences, find relevant messages and choose keywords that can still reach people while keeping the most important news story of our time as part of that equation.

Some regularly scheduled messaging is okay. Depending on your product or brand, continuing to send messages that strike a tone of normality is not a terrible thing. Do temper the frequency of such messages, and alternate with other crisis communications to balance your ongoing marketing. Hard selling is not recommended when people are looking for comfort and reassurance. Refocus on brand purpose, available services, and optimism—positive messages help everyone.

Relax your focus on your brand. Be true to your brand mission, but this time calls for marketing that is truly people-focused. Be careful that you don’t stray into the generic-crisis-message “Hey, We’re a Brand” category. In the current emotional climate, fake sincerity, or even uninspired sincerity, are perceived as self-serving bids for attention. They invite well-deserved mockery, as in West Virginia teacher Jessica Salfia’s viral poem based on lines in marketers’ email messages during the crisis. Trite and repetitive messages do no good for people or brands. Express how your business and its people are serving communities, assisting where they can, and living the same experience as your customers.

It’s OK to be funny. Tone is everything, but finding a brand-relevant way to lighten the emotional load with some humor is also a fine way to stick in the minds of a public in dire need of light relief. Consider Jeep’s poster aimed at people enduring lockdowns when they could be outside getting some fresh air and sunshine. It uses humor, our shared lockdown frustrations, and the brand’s character to deliver a smart and empathetic message in a difficult time.

Jeep's COVID-19 shutdown poster

The COVID-19 crisis may serve to remind marketers recently focused on short-term performance that branding matters. Even so, if your brand has nothing truly valuable to say, don’t say it. Or, stick to brand-building without trying to trade on the crisis to gain attention. Few brands deserve the spotlight right now, and the brands that will be remembered are those offering the comfort of familiarity… or shining spotlights where they are most needed.

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