At the beginning of the coronavirus upheaval – was it really just over a month ago? – it was easy to see which brands and products consumers genuinely disliked. They were the ones left on shelves after people had cleaned out the supermarkets.
Of course, we’ve known for ages that customers are loyal to their favourite brands. But do they want to hear from those brands in the middle of a pandemic? Judging by the number of advertisers who’ve slashed or stalled their budgets, many brands think not. But there are plenty of arguments for continuing to advertise right now. For a start, a global study of 25,000 consumers by Kantar in late March showed that only 8% of them felt brands should stop advertising.
“It’s a well-documented fact that brands that keep their presence up during a crisis or economic downturn will come out stronger on the other side,” comments Andreas Dahlqvist CEO & CCO, NORD DDB. “Since many brands also face a situation where they suddenly don’t have the same access and exposure to people through their regular distribution channels anymore, a strong presence in people’s minds becomes even more important.”
“If you think of advertising as something that aids recovery, that helps restore normalcy, then you don’t even need to ask the question,” says Harjot Singh, chief strategy officer, Europe and UK, McCann Worldgroup. “We’ve been thrown into uncharted waters, and we must swim. Advertising is not an indulgence: it’s a way of transferring value to brands. For me the question right now is ‘how’ we should advertise.”
Jason Romeyko, worldwide executive creative director, Serviceplan Group, observes that successful brands also play an emotional role in consumers’ lives. “Brands invest a lot of time, energy and money creating relationships with their consumers,” he says. “Like the relationships of our private lives, they are based on trust. When our friends need reassurance or a kind word, and we turn away from them, they lose respect and trust in the relationship. The same could be said for a consumer’s relationship to brands and services.”
He adds that in times of crisis, people seek familiarity and reassurance. “People remember who was with them during times of emotional need and how they made them feel: anything from the warmth of a powerful virtual hug to a belly laugh.”
The role of agencies as advisors is going to be crucial here, because messaging will have to be spot on or risk seeming insensitive. “People want brands with purpose and meaning and there’s an obvious opportunity to manifest what you stand for in times like these,” says Andreas. “But it’s equally important to not come across as you’re trying to piggyback or capitalize on the situation.”
Instead, he says, brands should act as resources – supplying solutions to the problem. Retailers who’ve given consumers unbroken access to the items they need most is an obvious example. But one also thinks of fashion brands making masks and beauty companies producing hand sanitizer.
“People need explicit evidence that brands are being a force for good,” underlines Harjot Singh. “They’re supporting their staff, they’re supporting the government, they’re supporting society.”
“A new emotional state”
Advertisers should certainly remember that people have lost jobs and even loved ones, so the positioning of “less essential” items needs to be especially sensitive, says Jason Romeyko.
“We should also be mindful of substituting the reassurance of stabilization with the phrase ‘new normal’. Many believe ‘normal’ was already a problem – a uniform level all society had to achieve. As many people are looking for the positive in the Covid-19 situation, it might be more prudent to consider that people do not want things to go back exactly the way they were.”
Having seen the benefits home working, healthier diets and reaching out to friends online, he says, people may be looking for a new balance – “one which is personal to their individual needs and situation”.
Harjot Singh says it’s imperative for brands to be empathetic. “Some celebrities and influencers described the situation as ‘a great equalizer’ because we’re all at home. But it’s not the same experience for everyone. Many people are financially vulnerable, so this probably isn’t the time to encourage them to spend more. Instead, you should show them why you’re valuable to their lives.”
Social and emotional vulnerability are also high, he adds. And yet amidst all this bad news, brands’ messages can be a source of comfort. “They can bring light and hope. We know from our own research that 77% of people globally believe brands have a greater ability to create positive change than governments do. That’s a huge responsibility. But if they can show how they’re helping, they will be welcomed.”
Andreas agrees that brands are navigating “a new emotional state” so they have to be mindful of what emotions they trigger.
He also points out that scenes that were commonplace in advertising only weeks ago will look strange now. “A lot of people have an almost visceral reaction when they see people in crowds or standing too close to each other, so visuals like those in ads are going to feel off-beat.”
“Share of soul”
When we finally emerge from the coronavirus twilight, what might be the lasting impact of the period on the relationship between brands and consumers?
Jason says: “Brands which didn’t make consumers feel alone will command loyalty beyond reason. They will move into best brand territory with high ‘share of soul’. I also think there will be an openness to try new services – particularly online screen services like personal training and tutoring, which solved the challenges consumers faced during lockdown.”
Andreas certainly feels that companies and customers who’ve rapidly adapted to digital modes of consumption aren’t likely to switch back anytime soon – if at all. He also finds it ironic that a crisis demanding social distancing has in some ways brought people closer together. Messaging around that idea may be embraced, he says. “A more ‘we’ oriented approach.”
Harjot notes that “since everything is advertising”, the fact that supermarket chains have mostly managed to keep shelves stocked is a huge boost to their image. “People have realised how essential they are.” In the UK, he adds, the National Health Service and the BBC – both the subject of much griping in the past – are once again appreciated.
“The brands that will come out of this well are the ones that made a contribution,” he concludes. “The ones who earned their keep.”