Coronavirus advertising: it’s time brands stopped being there for people

by Guest Contributor Daren Poole | May 06, 2020

Author: Daren Poole

Daren Poole
Global Head of Creative

I’ll wager you’ve all seen one: they’re slow paced, backed by acoustic piano and open with shots of empty city streets.  Those shots are followed by people coping with life in Coronavirus-enforced lockdown, then the brand that you can’t remember tells you that they’re there for you.  ‘They’ are the COVID-19 ‘emotional support’ ad.  And it’s time they stopped, or they got a lot better.

Since the outset of the crisis, we at Kantar have encouraged brands that can to continue to advertise.  Indeed, in some categories that are in high demand, we think that brands should be increasing spend to ensure that they make the most of that demand without being exploitative.  It’s exactly what the likes of P&G are doing.

We’ve seen three broad strategies from brands for their spend during the crisis.  Some brands have simply adopted a business as usual approach to their advertising, airing content that was planned and produced before self-isolation.  This may seem a risky approach.  In all three waves of the Kantar COVID-19 Barometer, only half of people have agreed that ‘ads today should talk about brands like they’ve always done’.  But only about one in ten disagree; the rest simply don’t care.  And this attitude has been borne out in the early work we published some weeks ago and have built on since: content that we tested before the crisis tends to generate exactly the same response during the crisis. People remember what was normal and would happily return to it, so simply take these ads at face value.  

Coronavirus advertising: it’s time brands stopped being there for people

The other two approaches might be called “acknowledge and respond.” The first addresses people’s need for tangible help.  The strongest desire in the three waves of the barometer is for brands to ‘talk about how they can be helpful in the new everyday life’.  We’ve seen some really great examples of this, from fast food restaurants offering discounts and free product to essential workers, supermarkets opening their stores early for the elderly and vulnerable, alcohol brands adapting their production to make hand sanitiser and brands that offer credit suspending repayments.  Where we’ve tested ads about such actions, they typically perform strongly.  While the intention might (rightly) not be to drive sales in the short term, they set the brand up for strong future equity, by helping when help is needed.

The other “acknowledge and respond” route is the more generic emotional support route.  Brands have chosen to say they’re there for people because they want to maintain an advertised presence, but don’t feel it’s appropriate to use a business as usual approach and they can’t – or don’t think they can – provide tangible help.  And in part, it may be because with limitations around production and with agency teams at home, they’re limited to stock or existing footage, or to the increasingly popular Zoom-style content.  The problem with this is that a lot of content looks and sounds the same, as some have observed

In most cases, we’ve found that emotional support ads fall flat with people.  They’re unlikely to be noticed and remembered as they lack distinctiveness and often, the brand’s role is limited to a super right at the end.  And while the intention is good, people do need the help to be tangible, or they simply don’t want to hear messages of hope that draw attention to the obvious and seem inauthentic coming from brands that have never spoken in that way before.  As such, there is little to land a lasting impression that will help the brand in the long term.

So, should brands stop just being there for people?  Maybe, yes.  Show them how you can help them or accept that people are still consumers and sell your product and build your brand.  The alternative, if it is credible for your brand to offer emotional support, is to do it in a distinctive way.  While that might be a challenge given production limitations, constraints have often helped produce some of the most creative and effective advertising. Remember the Best Job in the World?

What do you think?  What good examples of COVID-19 response advertising have you seen?