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A Pandemic Dilemma: Stop Advertising or Maintain Brand Equity Through a Cause

5 minute read | May 2020

Throwing a global pandemic at brands and marketers, who already have had to endure epic media fragmentation in order to reach their best consumer, is like throwing gasoline onto a bonfire. 

Any ROI aspirations burned away from the time the WHO declared on March 11 that COVID-19 was indeed a pandemic and resulted in a venerable firesale of creative content. 

For instance, ad inventory that was purpose-built and slated to be associated with the upcoming Olympic games, for travel and tourism purposes, or simply felt tone deaf in the wake of a fast-moving, unknown virus that prompted strict social distancing measures globally, was halted and marketers pulled back. In Italy, for instance, advertisements for a train service featuring people hugging were reported as late as March 8. Following COVID-19, marketing strategies as well as creatives needed to be looked at in a whole new light.

This during a time when unprecedented levels of video viewing were increasing significantly. In mid to late March, total use of television in the U.S., including the use of digital enablers, such as smart TVs, internet-connected devices and gaming consoles, was up 18% from early March. During that same time (March 13 to 31), daily app usage increased significantly as COVID-19 spread across the U.S. compared with the first two-and-a half months of this year (Jan. 1 to March 12). This pattern followed suit across many other countries, from Italy to South Korea. The irony to marketers was that while viewers were certainly tuning in, many were and still are ostensibly “shut ins,” venturing out very little to shop, dine and socialize. The discretionary spending that went with these habits slowed down.

But going silent on consumers is always a risky gambit for marketers, even for brands with hard budget decisions to make. 

Consider this: Advertising cuts could mean an extended recovery period for the media market. Brands that go totally dark for the rest of 2020 could be facing revenue declines of up to 11% in 2021. When you take into account that it takes up to three to five years of solid and consistent brand building effort to recover from extended “dark periods” of media, marketers who maintain brand equity by adjusting their creatives—even if that means simply adding COVID-related brand awareness messages to existing campaigns—are poised to be better positioned following any recovery, immediate or prolonged.

Among some of the top advertising categories in the U.S., not only did the amount of creative units leading up to COVID (Jan. 27-March 8) see a decline following the pandemic status (March 9-April 19), from 15.3 million to 13.3 million respectively, but so too did the share of time these categories advertised. For instance, the amount of advertising for travel was down 60%, retail declined by 21% and telecommunication ads saw a 17% drop in units. This negation in units for these categories actually gave other categories, such as automotive and financial services, a larger share of the advertising time unit-wise thus allowing companies associated with these categories a larger voice. And both the beer and wine as well as the pharmaceutical categories actually increased the amount of ads that were running following COVID.

This contracting of the ad market wasn’t isolated solely to the U.S.; Countries around the globe also saw declines depending on a variety of factors, including their nations’ responses to the crisis, how exposed they had been as a populus and the impact to their respective economies. For example, Spain, a country among the hardest hit in Europe, saw ad spend decline by 29% in March from the previous month (February 2020). Conversely, ad spend in Australia, which did not see community spread of the virus, was down 6% from the prior month.

Marketers also saw the critical need to offer COVID-themed creatives as a way to show support, offer goods and services that could help consumers, such as curbside pickup and contactless home delivery, or engage in charity of some form. For many brands, doing so was a way to maintain brand awareness, keep continuity with consumers but not be seen as capitalizing on the crisis itself. 

And companies did roll out an increasing amount of ads with COVID-related messages. Nielsen found that from the end of March through the middle of April alone, COVID-themed ads nearly doubled in just a few weeks alone. COVID creative units in the national and local markets jumped from 251,000 units during the week of March 30 to 492,000 units the week of April 13—a 96% increase that signals that brands understood going silent entirely was not an option for long-term health.

Consumers themselves were actually open to trying new brands that they saw as helping people during this time. A survey conducted by Nielsen and Wizer, a consumer insights platform backed by Nielsen, found that 72% of respondents cite a company’s efforts in helping people affected by COVID-19 as a reason they’d consider their brand of consumer packaged goods (CPG). What’s more is that 84% of respondents agreed that companies offering support as consumers comply with COVID restrictions are setting themselves apart from companies that do not. 

But with a potential for a second wave of crisis in the fall or winter later this year in the U.S., dependent on states reopening and different emerging scenarios, these COVID-related messages are not simply ways to connect with consumers, but also a core indicator on not just the health of the media market, but also an aggregated look at how that market, and specifically marketers, think of the health of the actual consumers themselves. Declines in COVID-19 themes could act as a barometer for how ready brands think the market is for getting back to focusing on ROI and their traditional core messages. And getting back to business would be that crucial elixir that can help marketers as well as media owners revive any media stagnation.

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