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Advertising and COVID-19: A Marketing Playbook for Uncertain Times

Posted On  March 23, 2020

As society around us transforms seemingly hour by hour, it feels like the only certainty is uncertainty itself. People are scared, the stock market is volatile, schools are closing, and we’re embracing isolation as a means of preservation. These are unprecedented times, which are only magnified by on-demand availability of information. Today’s digital ecosystem is providing unfiltered, real-time visibility into the global crisis, ultimately reinforcing consumers’ greatest fears.

During the longest economic expansion in history, marketers may have overlooked that increased sales are dependent on a combination of consumer psychology, disposable income, and economic confidence. Advertising serves to highlight products and services to deliver conversion, and great advertising can convert a consumer into your customer, instead of your competitor’s. But today’s environment is different, with confidence falling, disposable income tightening, and psychology driven more heavily by emotion.

As brands grapple with how to survive (and potentially thrive) in these difficult times, there is a proven playbook to emerge from this pandemic in a stronger position than before.

Re-evaluate your marketing investments

In the face of declining demand, businesses are looking at every mechanism to control and reduce their expenses. Although an easy (and fast) cost to reduce, marketing should not be pulled. Instead, brands need to refocus media dollars towards their highest-yield tactics. Research on prior crises (including the Great Recession of 2008 and beyond) proves that brands who increase marketing smartly, and deliver the right message, realize increased sales versus those that do not.

In fact, pulling back entirely on advertising is likely to lead to significant long-term sales declines that can be hard to recover from. The good news is that brands can do this cost-effectively, as they can speak to broad swaths of consumers with shared needs right now, rather than having to craft and deliver unique campaigns for discrete segments.

Realize that your brand is your key to success

Your single greatest risk mitigation asset is brand health/strength. Having a strong brand that consumers recognize and trust is critical to weathering the tough times, and thriving in the good ones. A key component of strong, sustainable brand health is the degree to which consumers implicitly identify with your brand. There’s a reason that Disney, Google, Apple, Coca-Cola, Nike, and others who have ingrained themselves into our culture, lifestyles, and habits consistently lead the pack. And these aren’t all century-old brands. Even Tesla, a relatively young company, has galvanized consumers the world over.

If you haven’t already done so, leverage analytics to clarify and prioritize which equities and consumer perceptions contribute most heavily to brand identification and loyalty in your category, then lean into those. Highlight those critical points of differentiation and importance through your marketing.

Reprioritize brand advertising over promotional advertising

Consumers are closing their wallets and heavily reducing any discretionary spending. Unless it’s critical to self-preservation and personal security, your Average Joe isn’t looking to buy a new refrigerator right now, even if it’s 30% off. Brands can repurpose old creatives to highlight their longevity, and speak to their ability to weather the storms of the past. When consumers are most emotionally vulnerable, brands have the opportunity to connect with them at a deeper level, and rapidly build long-lasting brand loyalty.

Acknowledge consumer humanity through empathy

All humans have basic needs, spanning across elements of Belonging, Appeal, Security and Exploration . We’re driven by these BASE needs, and today’s societal climate is forcing most consumers into the space of Security. Discretionary spend is down, and people are protecting their remaining assets. Equally important, we are universally going through a shared event. This isn’t impacting discrete segments of people; rather, this is a rare time when we have a shared sense of Belonging. Ford, Guinness, and others have embraced this brilliantly. 

But a word of caution: if you miss the mark, you’ll pay the price for years to come. This is a time for a brand to shine, not decline. Use ad testing frameworks that measure how your campaigns capture attention, deepen emotional connection, and lift the right perceptions that are critical to your long-term brand health.

Use a consumer voice to elevate customer experience

It’s easy for marketers to create and deliver a message, but what a brand says isn’t always what consumers hear. As much as we hate to admit it, the most successful communications need to be crafted in the voices of consumers. For insights on rapidly changing customer needs and concerns, leverage online anthropology to understand how people are talking with one another about the current crisis, how they’re talking about your category, and how they’re talking about your brand (and your competitors). A company dramatically improves its capacity to be empathetic when it uses the language of its audience.

Overall, the customer experience remains crucial to engaging and retaining customers during uncertain times. Even while retail stores are closing, brands can pilot new customer experiences while continuing to operate through digital channels. Later, when bricks-and-mortar locations come back online, brands with thoughtfully integrated in-store and digital experiences will be positioned to win in the long-term.

Reallocate your marketing mix for new path to purchase trends

Let the marketing engines work in your favor by shifting media spend to digital channels, where real-time attribution and optimization can quickly turn off the campaigns that aren’t working for you, and shift resources to those that are. With an increased focus on brand advertising, you’ll need to gather consumer feedback to quantify which platforms, assets, and channels are maximizing performance against both behavioral and attitudinal KPIs. And for categories where purchases are rapidly shifting to online channels, leverage clickstream data to measure how the consumer journey has changed, since this crisis is already laying the foundation for long-term adjustments in the path to purchase.

Prep your market segmentation for the future

Macroeconomic events often create dramatic shifts in consumer segment membership – not just during a recession, but during the recovery as well. Brands will need to revisit every legacy consumer segmentation to understand the “present and future,” rather than the building strategies around the “past or recent” consumer landscape. 

Don’t forget that it’s more important than ever to use data to drive your decision making. We are all human – even those of us making strategic decisions about the future. In emotional times like these, we need to let objective data guide our strategies. Brands should lean on their existing marketing, brand, consumer and business datasets to model, predict, and forecast the future by unifying Media Mix Modeling, Multi-Touchpoint Attribution, Brand Health and Consumer Perceptions. 

Having the right tools at your disposal will be critical to navigating the immediate future, and quickly capitalizing on opportunities that emerge as normalcy returns. Smart, data-driven investments now are certain to increase your brand’s chances of success, despite the uncertainty of the present moment.


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