Advertising in the time of COVID-19

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There’s a lot more to marketing than just advertising. Pricing, product portfolio strategy, segmentation, packaging, distribution and more as intrinsic to marketing as advertising. But thanks to media attention many equate marketing to be just about planning and implementing ad campaigns. As Mark Ritson points out in this brilliant article, says:

Marketers have been gradually but consistently moved from product, price and distribution decisions by their companies because marketers at many companies are simply not up to it. Instead, the ‘colouring-in department’, as they are often colloquially referred to by the rest of the organisation, now focus on only one of the four Ps: communications.

Mark Ritson

Advertising is a commercial art form using a mix of human psychology, unconventional thinking and creativity to deliver business results. Sure not every piece of creative is meant to motivate the consumer to go out and buy. There is a role for creating affinity towards the brand through tactical communication which adds up to brand equity, preference and eventually a sale over competition.

Many of the tactical ads – especially those related to news events, occasions and festivals are aimed to create affinity. If done well, they can appeal to the relevant target audience and reinforce the brand idea. Marmite created this topical ad during a cricket series with Australia (who were battling a ball-tampering scandal) which was in line with their thematic idea of ‘Love it or hate it’.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has seen many brands release tactical ads or initiate some action in the context of the event. McDonald’s separated the brand’s Golden Arches in Brazil to drive home the point about social distancing. They were slammed on social media as it was seen as a superficial gimmick.

Coca-Cola and many others did similar stuff by playing around with their logos.

In Belgium, Burger King put up an outdoor by tweaking its ‘Home of the Whopper’ base line and conveying the ‘Stay Home’ message.

Newspapers too have changed graphics in articles or created taken ads to reinforce social distancing.

In Spain, IKEA created this ad urging people to stay at home. The ad was quite enjoyable as the perspective was from the home itself – which is a space (no pun intended) quite natural for the brand.

Agency: McCann

And then there was an ad from Peru for Jeep, cleverly using the iconic grill of the brand and weaving in its outdoorsy image.

A recent report says ‘customers are open to advertising during the pandemic. So advertisers should focus on airing messages that are relevant to their target audience’. In my view, this is not the time to bask in the glory of moment marketing or expect gains & accolades from it. As Mark Ritson points out, ‘marketers deal with crises through communications, but it is through product, price and distribution’. He goes on to add:

In fact, you can make a very strong argument that the best Covid communications over the next five treacherous months is no Covid communications at all. You don’t have to feel the nation’s pain, you just need to ensure the wheels of business keep turning.

Mark Ritson

In my view, creative work that sees every news event or occasion like Women’s Day as an opportunity arises out of FOMO. The brand team could be worried that by missing out they might give a competing brand to gain traction or the much vaunted ‘buzz’. The creative ideas listed above vary from forced gimmickry (e.g. McDonald’s) to something that has some relevance to the brand (e.g. IKEA and Jeep). They maybe seen as doing their bit to reinforce a public service message in these challenging times. But the question to ask is – are consumers seeking such messaging from their brand of bread or jeans? Or will they find it credible coming from official sources?Ads like that for Jeep may bring a smile and appeal to the small advertising community but are likely to have zero impact in changing behaviour in the context of the pandemic. It is just adding to the noise.

As pointed out in the Mark Ritson article, brands which make a difference through action are better off than ones which simply out out an ad which may be seen (if at all) as a gimmick or white noise.

It was Iceland that first came up with the smart idea of letting elderly customers shop first. Not the country, the bargain basement retailer.

Upmarket Danish food market Rotunden set the initial price for one Quick sanitiser at 40 krona (about three quid) and then offered any additional sanitisers at 1,000 krona


In sum, while some cute smile-inducing ads can make the brand team and a small audience happy they make little impact in the larger scheme of things at the time of a global pandemic which has disrupted lives. Brands are better off waiting this one out than join the moment marketing brand wagon.

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  1. Ashutosh Chhibber Reply

    Sir can you please explain “You don’t have to feel the nation’s pain, you just need to ensure the wheels of business keep turning.” in context of McDonald’s. How can they keep the wheels turning?

    I agree with you that such campaigns will have almost zero impact on behaviour but as you mentioned earlier not all campaigns are directed towards making an immediate sale. In this context is it Ok to wait this out while others may gain some traction. Especially when more and more consumers want to be associated with socially responsible brands and I feel that when these brands send out such messages of public service they are acting as being socially responsible.

    Thank you.

    • Tough question on McDonald’s and other food retail. But the action of separating the arch came across as a mere flimsy stunt. On the second point, yes, staying in the consumer’s consideration set but with relevant PSA-type communication (with no immediate sales oriented message) is being done well by a handful of brands.

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