How brands can break the COVID-19 clutter

Industry experts say the key lies in adopting the ‘walk the talk’ approach wherein brands should strive to stand out by advertising their concerns and acting on it

e4m by Misbaah Mansuri
Updated: May 26, 2020 11:50 AM
Coronavirus ADS

One of the distinct features of the lockdown has been brands, across industries, coming up with ad campaigns revolving around COVID-19 and creating a conversation on the pandemic. Over 60 days and reams and reams of ads later, what started as a reassurance now seems like it’s not hitting the right chord anymore.

So, how should brands advertise now without getting lumped along with all that’s come before, while also avoiding being labelled tone-deaf for perceiving everything as normal? Moreover, where should they draw the line on how much to communicate? Advertising industry experts weigh in...

Acts over ads

Brands are no strangers to crisis management but the global scale of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a first for all. This time even the most nimble among advertisers — accustomed to evolving their strategies and adapting ad creatives in real time — are asking, “How do we meet this unprecedented moment?”

Tarun Rai, Chairman and Group CEO, Wunderman Thompson, South Asia, says that it’s a question many of the agency's clients themselves seem to be pondering over. Brands and organisations need to be seen to be ‘doing’ things to help people navigate through this crisis, Rai said. “This is the time to ‘act’, either directly or by supporting causes. For communicating such acts, the two key metrics should be ‘empathy’ and ‘authenticity’. Of course, ‘creativity’ is a given.”

With some relaxation in lockdown in some parts of the country, brands and marketers should now prepare for the post-lockdown phase and have their marketing budgets ready to meet the pent-up consumer demands, advised Rai.   

One of the brands whose ads resonated during these times was automobile maker - Ford. To acknowledge the intensity of the situation, the company pivoted its ads to explain how they have met global-scale crises in the past. Referring to how it manufactured military equipment during World War II, the brand conveyed its commitment to fighting COVID-19 by manufacturing medical equipment that are in short supply. The new ads, “Built to Lend a Hand” and “Built for Right Now”, lean on the company’s century-long commitment to consumers and hit the right spot with its audience. 

Dheeraj Sinha, Managing Director – India & Chief Strategy Officer – Leo Burnett, South Asia, believes that that “general emotional whitewashing” will not deliver anymore. Brands and agencies need to add value to people's lives by solving their needs. According to Sinha, the key is to help brands navigate what the new normal will be by providing real solutions. 

For instance, the agency came up with #WeddingFromHome campaign for Shaadi.com where it successfully conducted virtual weddings in the midst of the pandemic. “These solutions could range from sanitising solutions for cars or homes to building platforms that help people manage the emotional stress of the lockdown. We have been running workshops with all our clients to generate ideas that help find solutions for these newer cultural fuels,” he added. 

Furthermore, Sinha said the other way is to build communications around ACTS, which is something real that the brand does on ground. For HDFC Bank, the agency used the outer grid of the brand logo to create physical markers on the ground to help people maintain the WHO prescribed ‘social’ distance while waiting in queues at shops or ATMs. If we are hitting a blind spot with COVID-context communications, we need to find new things to say and new solutions to the problems, he explained. “Creativity after all is about finding new ways to solve a problem or communicate to people,” Sinha remarked. 

Mithila Saraf, Business Head, Famous Innovations, too said that there was an overload of seemingly empathetic messaging, with consumers scoffing at it more often than actually being moved by it. “People are already cynical about brands and if your company is sending a "we are with you" emailer to consumers while laying off half of your staff, how will anyone take you seriously? For me, the way brands can stand out today is not by advertising their concern, but by acting on it - by really stepping up and doing their bit.” Stop communicating, start contributing - is Saraf’s appeal to all clients and agencies out there.

Be salient not silent 

What and how much should brands and marketers say when nothing seems right and at a time when a plethora of brands are weaving conversations around the pandemic? According to Amit Wadhwa, President, Dentsu Impact, the challenge is and will always be of being unique and relevant to the brand along with being thoughtful (and not coming across as insensitive). “Advertising was never meant to be easy. Right from advertising that this detergent gives you the best whiteness year on year with something new that will get the audience hooked and push them to buy it, that is the key for creating advertising for a brand during a long drawn pandemic like this,” he added. 

Wadhwa, however, feels that it’s not been all the same when it comes to brand advertising. “Most brands started by advising about not stepping out and practising social distancing, but then they did evolve to thanking people working hard during these times to re-inventing relationships during the lockdown, to brands even creating great UGC with what people were doing at home which was different from the everyday life and so on. This was also a time when safety took the centrestage and they started talking about what they were doing to ensure this at their end. While I understand that the tonality has largely been the same with a ‘we shall overcome’ feel to it, that is the need of the hour,” he contended. 

So far as the debate on communicating vs over-communicating is concerned – Wadhwa says one needs to be salient as you don’t want to be forgotten too. “You also can’t be repetitive and that is the job of your agency to make sure you have a good one.”

Another interesting example is of brand Visa and how the company dealt with the situation when it had 80 per cent of its Olympics creative ready to go before the games were postponed due to the pandemic. The long-time sponsor went back to its roster of Team Visa athletes to film new spots — this time at home, using their phones, showing off their superhuman feats but then, just like all of us, washing their hands and sanitizing. The spot beautifully drove home the message that Olympics will be back in 2021, but Visa is keeping its spirit of perseverance and shared humanity top of mind.

Arvind Krishnan, MD, BBH India, is of the opinion that in such a scenario everything communicates. “You’re not just catering to consumers at this time, you also have a responsibility as an employer brand. Everyone is watching how you treat your employees, and that will influence how different constituencies view you. Be nice,” he reiterated. 

Work that works

Krishnan advises that in such circumstances, brands should not try an overreach and rather focus on their core area of business, and focus on how they could make a difference in this situation and communicate with empathy. 

A learning from the marketing playbook of some leading brands - from McDonald’s to Chiquita, Coca-Cola and Audi – has been that while logos were earlier considered sacred, companies decided to go all out seeing the magnitude of the pandemic and its impact on people. And with that, they decided to alter their world-renowned trademarks (after decades) in the service of promoting social distancing. In Russia, Audi also gave a shout out for healthcare workers. After all, these aren’t ordinary times. 

The difference in communication is hard-won, Krishan contended. “In these times, or others, one will need to push for work that is high on empathy, is fresh and relevant. Work with people who have had a history of delivering this,” he noted. 

The inspired stay-at-home campaign by fast-food brand Burger King France wherein they published a guide about making some of its most iconic sandwiches, including the Whopper, in one’s own kitchen has been a big hit with its audience, given its relevance and the company’s idea of leveraging the popularity of its whopper and signature burgers. According to Burger King Global CMO Fernando Machado, while the campaign was a fun way to keep the brand top of mind, it worked because the fast-food chain had earned its time in the spotlight.

The COVID-19 Checklist 

Rahul Mathew, National Creative Director, DDB Mudra Group, shares a checklist on certain questions that brands need to ponder over before releasing ANOTHER Covid spot:

- Are we saying something that needs to be said or are we just saying something because everyone else is?

- Are we unique in what we’re saying or doing or has someone already said or done it?

 - Is it something we need to say or do or will it make more sense coming from some other brand?

 - Will it make our consumer feel good or will it just leave us feeling good?

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