Can your brand afford not to advertise in months to come?

by Nigel Hollis | April 20, 2020

The Great Lockdown is just the beginning of what is likely to prove a long and difficult road through recession to recovery, and that means advertisers are going to have to answer three difficult questions. Can your brand afford not to advertise? Where should you advertise? And what sort of content should you run?

As I acknowledged in my previous post on recession marketing during COVID-19, for many advertisers there is going to be a big divide between theory and practice. The lessons from the past say that brands which invest for the future during a recession are more likely to come out ahead of their competition when a recovery happens. Whether circumstances allow you to act on that learning is another matter. My ultimate conclusion was,

“If you can, invest more in advertising. If you cannot, invest more wisely.”

From what I read, it seems that P&G is betting on spending more. The big threat of the Great Lockdown for consumer goods staples is that variable supply is going to force people to try brands they might not normally choose. As reported in the Drum, chief financial officer Jon Moeller confirmed that P&G would be spending more on advertising in order to maintain brand salience during a time when habitual purchase behaviours might be disrupted.

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For brands in some categories the Great Lockdown is an existential threat. Airlines are on financial life support. Physical retail was in bad shape before, never mind now people are no longer shopping in stores. Automotive sales are in free fall. For others it represents an opportunity. For P&G, with big market shares in many staple categories and strong distribution, it is an opportunity because people are more likely to be forced to choose their brands. So why not build on that and encourage them to do so with strong advertising?

Even in the automotive category, which is typically hit hard in recessions, for some a disruption represents a growth opportunity. During the Great Recession, Hyundai stole a march on its competition by launching its "Assurance" program in 2009. This allowed new-vehicle buyers, or those who had leased one, to return their cars for up to a year after purchase if they lost their income due to job loss. The combination of good vehicles, lower prices and smart marketing helped accelerate the brand’s growth. Perceptions that Hyundai was different from other brands increased and sales jumped 24% in 2010.

This brings us back to a fundamental challenge facing many advertisers today, what can you say that will help your brand stand out from the pack? It is bad enough figuring out which media channels to use as eyeballs migrate from outdoor and events to in-home media, even more difficult is figuring out what content will resonate.

Faced with this challenge many brands seem to have gone for the obvious themes of legacy, commitment and solidarity. I am sure that many readers will have seen this compilation on YouTube, where ads from many, well-known companies blur into each other as they use stock footage to position themselves as being committed to the future and their customers. Fine sentiments but delivered with such uniformity that the ads become wallpaper. In times like this, actions speak louder than words and the right actions do not need advertising to get the message across. Kudos to the various brands that, faced with a far greater crisis, have put social good ahead of profit and produced masks, sanitizer and ventilators and stood behind hard-pressed health workers by supplying beds and food.

Hopefully, however, it will not be too long before we might sensibly consider a relaxation of Lockdown restrictions and the need to support people in the immediate term will lessen. Then the brands that did not advertise (or cut back their advertising) will need to think about spending once more, because the sad truth is that people have short memories. Kantar’s analysis finds that even in normal times brands can expect salience to drop and the attitudinal bond with customers to weaken after six months off air (even though the brand was still easily available) and our recent media simulations suggest some spending is better than none. Exiting Lockdown (and probably re-entering it for a while) will only serve to further disrupt consumer behaviour, and a brand that does not advertise during this phase will risk being side-lined by competitors.

However, the bland “we stand by you” messaging is not going to be enough. Brands will have to have something compelling to say. Something that addresses their customers new needs and concerns. Hyundai recognized a real fear inspired by the Great Recession and acted to alleviate it with a win win that allowed people to buy a new car, reassured that if they did lose their job they would not suffer financially. Advertisers would do well to learn from Hyundai’s example and figure out how they too can address customers emotional needs in the months to come. It might be drawing on the brand’s deep heritage in the way that Fairy dishwashing liquid did in the UK during the Great Recession, but more likely it will need to be something relevant to the times at hand.

But what do you think? Please share your thoughts.

3 comments

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  1. Reshmi nambiar, April 24, 2020
    I really like the point about actions speak louder than word and advertising doesn't have to do the job of conveying those actions. Thank you.
  2. Bjørn, April 23, 2020

    Hi Nigel, thanks for your insights. 

    Research done in Norway (2 waves now) clearly show that people are not more negative to advertising now than before. They want normality, and advertising is a part of this. Regular ads are doing better than typical “Corona ads”. And humor in advertising is just fine.

  3. David, April 20, 2020
    Some advertisers have quickly shot TV adverts of families in lockdown, replacing the old ones that had people going out to enjoy themselves. 

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