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Advertising as investment during COVID-19: what’s the right approach?

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Many businesses are likely to face an existential threat thanks to extended periods of lockdown across the world. Small and medium enterprises or local businesses such as retail would have had little or no income during this period. Even after the lockdown is eased or lifted consumer attitude and behaviour towards many categories is not likely to be the same as it was just a few months ago. Even big businesses with large brand portfolios and a huge marketing budget will be wary of spending monies on media. So how should businesses approach this problem? Obviously, there is no one-size-fits-all solution: what works for Unilever may not work for a regional retail chain.

In fact, companies such as P&G, known for their great marketing successes plan to ramp up marketing amid COVID-19. In India, dairy giant Amul chose to sponsor the re-run of the popular show, Mahabharat on national TV. Aside from merely sponsoring the show and running their ads the brand took forward the association in a smart way. Since the show originally ran in the late 80s and early 90s, the brand brought back some of the ads which ran during that period. It created buzz in social media and is likely to strengthen the brand’s equity across age groups.

But are such options available to all brands? Definitely not. With no sales, brands in categories such as automobiles would rightly be wary to spend. Many enterprises will not have the marketing arsenal or budgets of a P&G or Amul. So what could be a prudent approach towards advertising as an investment? In my view, these broad points come to mind:

Consider adding value through product or service offering first, not just through advertising: there are some categories which may have a direct link, from a perspective of helping consumers to tackle the to the issues pertaining to the COVID-19 crisis. These could include consumer healthcare, health insurance, wellness and more. If brands in such categories can tweak their product offering or service in such a manner to add value to the consumer’s lives they have a better chance of gaining consumer equity than by merely creating an ad.

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

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If you cannot advertise in mass media, consider prudent use of niche media: can brands afford to go totally dark for long periods of time? Perhaps not. For many brands, ‘out of sight is out of mind’ given the competition and media clutter. But it is not practical to advertise the brand when neither purchase or usage is possible e.g. airlines. In such cases, limited monies should be considered for investment in niche media – which could anything from digital advertising, in-app advertising, push notifications – depending on the category. The quality of the content plays a critical role. Relevant, well-produced content can have a multiplier effect creating an impact disproportionate to the investment. For example, Hun wines launched in London with outdoor ads during the lockdown period. The self-deprecating humour of the creatives mocking the ‘stupidity’ of billboard which no one is likely to see, garnered worldwide visibility.



Don’t invest in advertising which only adds to the white noise or pays lip service: several brands have put out ‘we are with you during these uncertain times’ kind of messaging. Consumers are unlikely to be emotionally moved by such and increase their affinity to the brand. Such messaging rings false and is not what a consumer expects from a jewellery brand.

If its a message expressing solidarity, hope or urging safety practices during COVID-19 brand connect is critical: several brands have created communication urging consumers to stay home, maintain social distance etc. Such messaging works better if the brand has already established some level of affinity or credibility. Otherwise, it is pretty much like an acquaintance one hasn’t heard from for years suddenly expressing solidarity and offering to help during a crisis. Moreover, consumers can see through gimmicks (like separating the M in McDonald’s arch) and lip service.

Many brands have also reinforced the ‘Stay at home’ message. Again, the quality of the creative and its link to the brand plays a role, as in this Twitter header image for Mini.

Mini Stay at Home

Brands can also explore creative (not forced) ways of finding a link to the current situation and the brand. Duroflex, a brand of mattress nicely linked the category and consumer behaviour during the lockdown.

We are encouraging people to dream of a better tomorrow and to rise and prepare themselves for embracing it.

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No one can definitively predict how things will pan out across categories and consumer behaviour once the lockdown is lifted across the globe. There is talk of both consumers being extremely wary and ‘it will all be back to normal’. What can be predicted for sure is that brands will have to continue to prove their worth. They have to add value in terms of communication too, providing a reason for consumers to notice their ads in the environment advertised in. Consumers are likely to place their trust in brands they are already familiar with. Prudent advertising approach and investment during COVID-19 could be a seen as a bridge to that tomorrow.

Do share your views.

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A marketing communications professional with a keen interest in all things advertising. I share creative ads and views on the ad industry here. Views are personal. See Disclaimer for more.

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