Advertising and creative development during COVID-19

Should you be advertising at the moment... and what sort of content should you be putting out?
18 March 2020
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daren poole

Senior Director, Creative Domain

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This piece reflects our position as of Wednesday 18 March and will be updated based on emerging evidence and perspectives. The following is based on experience from past crises, and emerging evidence.

Should I be advertising now, or I should I be pulling my spend?

Strategically, brands should invest for long terms outcomes. While the cause of the current crisis is different, the effect is similar to that which we saw during the financial crisis of 2007-2008. Then, we saw that brands that continued to spend were those that remained strongest and recovered most quickly afterwards. Long term effects come from delivering lasting impressions that help to keep the brand salient and position it as meaningful and different for when the consumer comes back into the category. Importantly, that meaningful different doesn't necessarily have to be functionally or product-driven, it can be brand driven or more emotional.

Tactically, decisions will need to be made on a brand by brand basis. There are some brands that should consider slowing down or stopping spend now:

  • As more countries close their borders or go into lock down, it is not a time to be promoting travel and tourism
  • Similarly, be sensitive about advertising categories that people have been told not to use, such as restaurants, out-of-home entertainment, or sports
  • Take care with advertising products that in short supply such as toilet paper, personal cleaning products, store-cupboard essentials. Creating demand that cannot be satisfied could drive consumer frustration. It may also be seen as profiteering from the situation.

While early Kantar work in some markets has seen consumers reporting that they will spend less in luxury, alcohol, and health and beauty, we saw that these categories performed very well during the global financial crisis as people sought out affordable indulgence and small vices. Carefully created content for these categories may not be rejected by consumers.

We've also seen projections of reduced spend in infrequently purchased categories such as household appliance, cars and apparel. No advertising in these categories should be intended to drive immediate purchase, so with the right creative, it is likely to be a good time to build brand predisposition.

There are some categories that can make people's lives easier during the crisis and they may want to increase spend in the short term. These include supermarkets, food delivery services, home entertainment providers. Content from these brands should put people ahead of profit and demonstrate how their products and services can help people adjust to a different way of living.

What type of content should I be airing/publishing?

There cannot be any blanket guidance here. The most important thing, as Nigel Hollis says, is for marketers to suspend their own viewpoint and put themselves in the consumers' shoes. In some categories, that will mean that advertising needs to be very product-centric, focussing on people's reported needs to be assured that products and services are safe to use. In other categories, it might be about suspending product advertising and providing emotional support by showcasing positive values or suggesting solidarity and togetherness. For brands that can't do either of these things, simply demonstrating that they are thinking of people is a possible approach. Whatever the strategy, it is, of course, critical that it is seen as authentic, in line with the brand's values. The brand mustn't be seen as taking advantage of the situation.

Often in a time of crisis – and indeed in many countries and categories over the last couple of years – we have seen a tendency for brands to drop brand building communication and move to more performance or activation-type advertising, in order to maximise sales in the short term. While that might indeed work as a short-term strategy, as discussed earlier, that may not prime the brand for success in the future, post crisis. Think carefully before airing promotional content: it can be seen as self-serving. However, there may be cases where this is appropriate, such as in the UK where Disney is offering a one-year subscription offer to Disney +.

If your current campaign is product-focused, it doesn't necessarily have to be pulled. While in most markets, it isn't business as usual, delivering advertising that suggests a degree of normality can help to prevent panic and impact on mental health that is expected as a result of uncertainty and self-isolation. What's more, as more countries are restricting free movement of people, it is likely that advertising production will be limited, so existing assets will need to work harder.

Creatively, it would be wise to 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. In recent days, we've seen

  • insurer Geico pull an ad which features the "Perfect High Five"
  • KFC suspend a campaign that features people licking their fingers after eating the chain's fried chicken
  • Chocolate brand Hershey pause its "heartwarming the world" campaign and replacing it with more product-centric ads, as hugs and handshakes are risk factors for transmission of the virus
  • Personal care brand Axe suspend an ad where the character imagined his smelly underarms caused a crowd in a basketball arena to flee in fear, with airline masks dropping to give them protection

Can I test my advertising with certainty? Will results be affected by people's mindset?

Given these considerations, we do recommend continued use of our advertising testing tools to check how the public will receive new content. It can also be used to ensure that existing or even rested ads are suitable for use. Our agile solutions, including Link Express and Link Now, allow this to be done quickly and cost effectively. In the majority of countries, fieldwork is conducted online so Kantar's ability to deliver should not be affected, even in markets in lockdown.

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