Brands all over the world have been forced to reevaluate their advertising content and strategies as a result of the coronavirus pandemic—and they need to keep reevaluating as sentiments continue to shift.
As the Director of Analytics and Insights at the Ad Council, part of my job is to understand consumer response to the nation’s most pressing issues. Through a weekly analysis of publicly available online conversations for our Coping With COVID-19 research, I identified three main strategies that brands are taking in the current climate, and I’ve seen important changes in consumer receptivity to those strategies.
#1: People First, Advertising Second
Consumers are interested in hearing about how brands are supporting their employees and their customers. But if they think a brand isn’t actually following through on its people-first message, this can create a backlash.
I keep seeing companies with commercials thanking their employees for being heroes during this time and I feel like their employees would prefer a living wage, hazard pay and paid leave more than an ad that earns the company even more money to not share with their workers...
— brittany packnett cunningham does not do remixes. (@MsPackyetti) April 3, 2020
Another lesson? Creativity can create more goodwill than overwrought emotion. While the Ohio Department of Health doesn’t jump to mind as a typical brand, social media users adore its unique social distancing ad, in which a single ping-pong ball is dropped among thousands of others lying on closely assembled rat traps. The dropped ball causes chaos, setting off traps everywhere—a clever, visceral illustration of how a single infected person can spread the disease.
Easily one of the best social distancing ads I’ve seen pic.twitter.com/9WhhTHmdPc
— 𝙹𝚘𝚜𝚑 𝙶𝚛𝚞𝚋𝚋𝚜 (@JoshuaGrubbsPhD) April 9, 2020
Strategy #2: Focus on the Product, but with COVID-19 Context
Many brands have pivoted to what I call the “We’re here for you” strategy, which shows us how their product or service is useful for the current moment. Again, what’s most important is actually following through on that message—and watching out for messaging fatigue as the crisis wears on.
Over the last few weeks, one consumer sentiment has skyrocketed: That recent ads all sound the same. Ask Microsoft Sam, whose YouTube video “Every Covid-19 Commercial Is Exactly the Same” has generated nearly 1.2M views. Phrases such as “in these difficult times,” “in our new normal,” and “we’re in this together” are eliciting backlash—in the past week alone, mentions of these key phrases have nearly tripled.
Attn all companies, if you're producing ads using the phrase "our new normal", I will.ensure my "new normal" is to never purchase your products.
— Rightwing_Vet (@Rightwing_Vet) April 27, 2020
In contrast, look no further than Steak-umm, a frozen steak company that has managed to speak to COVID-related matters in a unique, candid, and appealing way on social media. Even with little to no sell, the brand has attracted praise and support from users across the nation.
— Elizabeth C. McLaughlin 🩸🦷 (@ECMcLaughlin) April 30, 2020
Strategy #3: Focus on the Product, and the Future
Consumers aren’t just saying on social media that they feel COVID-related commercials have become identical—they’re also highlighting the shared sense of sadness they feel when watching them. Consumers are now expressing a desire for more humorous, light-hearted, positive language.
(This finding was reinforced in our ongoing Coping with COVID-19 research with 64% of respondents claiming they turn to TV, videos, games, or other entertainment sources as a way to feel better.)
I think I’ve seen enough treacly COVID corporate commercials. We watched a show yesterday with two straight breaks filled with them. Want to get us to buy your products? Do something to make us laugh.
— Sean T at RCP (@SeanTrende) April 10, 2020
The most notable shift is this: There has been a call from consumers to end coronavirus-themed advertisements. Brands do need to be mindful of outdated imagery (think high-fiving, hugging, crowd scenes) and insensitive messaging—for example, showing a couple happily working from home won’t sit well with audiences whose jobs don’t allow this or are among the many millions who’ve lost their jobs. But many audiences welcome a shift back to normalcy and have reached a pivotal tipping point. In fact, one of the most successful advertisements on social media—the introduction of the partnership between Hyundai and the WWE—was completely unrelated to COVID-19.
It’s not every day you find a partner who shares in a united cause that celebrates putting people first. I’m so proud and excited to kickoff the 2020 partnership between @WWE and @Hyundai. Together, we are stronger. #BetterDrivesUs #ad pic.twitter.com/5nWhc6Uztl
— Roman Reigns (@WWERomanReigns) April 5, 2020
So, which strategy is best? That depends. Each brand’s values and purpose are different, and there’s no question that the public still needs important health communications and guidelines. But, without question, it’s critical to consider tone, message, follow-through, and rapidly evolving consumer sentiment.