How to do advertising right when it’s the virus that’s gone #viral

Written by Jane Etheridge

Ditching your marketing when times are tough (like a global pandemic, for example) is a big mistake, says London-based writer and industry insider Jane Etheridge.

When the whispers began that COVID-19 was more than just another news story, when the Facebook algorithm started serving an inordinate amount of coronavirus content to us, and when the vast majority began to realise it was increasingly likely this virus may just end up going #viral, many of us in advertising nervously exchanged looks, gulped down any pressing questions and reluctantly tried to ignore our greatest fears.

Within days Rona was banging at our front doors and yet we remained defiant, we sat inside, pretending we couldn’t hear it, muffling the noise with self assurances such as “we’ll still have digital” and quietly continuing conversations with clients and brands, desperately pretending it was business as usual.

Then came the cuts. Advertising spend was ripped out from beneath us. Campaign after campaign was cancelled, cut, axed. As much as any of us didn’t want to admit it, we all knew it would happen. Marketing is time and time again the #1 spend to receive cutbacks during any time of economic recession, downturn or these days even the slightest whiff of uncertainty.

But it’s a mistake. A mistake too many brands make too often, yet few learn from. In fact the greatest risk a brand can take during times of economic hardship is to cease advertising and media activity.

When a brand’s share of voice is greater than its share of market, it’s more likely than not that it will grow its market share. Companies that increase their marketing investment when most others are cutting back have an opportunity to substantially improve the standing of their brands. During the Great Depression, most businesses cut back on most if not all of their advertising campaigns. The ones that didn’t, the ones that kept advertising, gained the majority of their industry’s market share and are still around today.

Many of the largest companies in the world were started during times of economic panic and depression. Disney, IBM, General Motors, FedEx… each of these and many more saw a unique opportunity when competitors saw none.

Understandably brands are apprehensive about how to talk to consumers. Engage with the crisis and be accused of jumping on the collective corona bandwagon, or continue with commercial activity and be labelled tactless.

But abandoning us entirely is by all means the wrong way to approach the situation. Recent research from the UK has shown that people still want to hear from brands in the same amount, and in some cases even more so than before the epidemic hit. There is nothing to suggest that consumers are uninterested in communications from brands, only the opposite. So why have brands gone silent?

We have to remember that whether you like it or not, whether you think we do or don’t, consumers are proven to have an emotional connection to brands.

One study from the US showed that a minimum of 25 percent of the entire population have what they self-describe as intimate brand relationships.

Those under 35 tend to have emotional relationships with technology, entertainment and retail brands, while those over 35 have stronger relationships with consumer packaged goods. Thus no matter the age, consumers still have unique relationships with a variety of brands, and will feel the void if those brands have suddenly ghosted them.

Amazon realised this and managed to grow sales by 28 percent during the GFC. They upped advertising and continued innovation in a slumping economy, most notably with their then new product, the Kindle. In a first, on Christmas Day 2009, Amazon customers bought more ebooks than printed books. As a result, in the minds of consumers, Amazon was the only brand there, listening to them, and willing to adapt during a recession and saving them money while still providing an innovative product.

It’s obviously hard to have this foresight when consumer spending has never been more unpredictable. But it shouldn’t be about sales. Now is the perfect time to build and grow relationships with consumers. It’s a time for branding. It’s the time for branding.

It’s a situation that begs for connection, emotion, humour and above all, creativity.  We’re spending more than two hours per day over our usual average time on social media. We’re craving content – not just COVID-19 content but authentic brand communications from our old friends.

Going silent will only harm your brand and pave the way for your competitors to steal your consumer and your market share. And before we know it, you’ll be talking with your agency about penetration and getting back what was once yours. Us.

Silence from brands during this pandemic has been deafening. Not only does it reinforce our collective angst, but cements our loneliness. An email telling me how you’re handling the situation does nothing for me when I desperately miss searching for the song from your latest ad, scrolling through your feed, laughing on my way to work at your latest quip on the back of a bus. Where have you gone? Where did you go? You didn’t even give us the chance to say goodbye.

advertising billboard covid19

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