Generic coronavirus ads are a waste of time and budget

There’s probably no reason to ditch your old creative because of coronavirus, but if you do, your new ad needs to be distinctive and avoid the bland clichés brands are currently churning out.

By Mark Ritson for Marketing Week

With no signal that our global lockdown is going to unlock itself any time soon, the attention of most marketing departments is moving from ‘should we advertise?’ to ‘how should we advertise?’. Even if a brand is lucky enough to find itself with some surviving top-line revenue and the remnants of an advertising budget, there is still the significant issue of what tone the subsequent creative should adopt.

As usual, most marketers are convinced that they need to dump everything, set fire to their previous campaign and start all over again. Maybe their original campaign features a formerly innocent shot of a dozen people crowded around the product in a very socially un-distant manner. Perhaps an otherwise excellent ad ends with a firm handshake or, God forbid, a hug that now sets off societal alarm bells.

Most likely, the marketer in charge simply thinks the world has changed so much that every aspect of the brand’s communications must now reflect lockdown. Unshaven fathers holding babies and mothers in jogging bottoms getting emotional on Skype.

It’s a new manifestation of an age-old problem in marketing. Even during more regular times, most brand managers lose interest in their advertising and want to change it long before the campaign has even bedded in, let alone achieved an enduring impact on the target audience.

Marketers forget that the four-month-long, eight-hour-a-day journey to create the new campaign was theirs and theirs alone. Most consumers never notice the ad before it is pulled and replaced with an equally transient successor.

A flood of generic messages

With the onset of Covid-19 the metabolism of tactical impatience has only increased further. Desperate to ‘pivot’ and be ‘agile’, most marketing teams are binning their current comms and looking for a new, Covid-appropriate way to talk to customers. You already know the formula.

A tinkling piano. Monochrome deserted streets. An old newspaper blows past. Empty chairs. Gloomy skies. Concerned faces. “We’ve been there for you since 19-something something,” says a comforting, homespun voice.

The tempo of the piano increases. The sun rises. “But in these unprecedented times,” the voice continues, “we can still be there for each other and our families.”

Product shot. Slow motion video of employees interacting in a friendly yet socially isolated manner. Children play at home on the sofa. An old person waves through a web cam. “Together with you.” Logo.

It’s wank. Clichéd wank. And it’s an enormous and embarrassing waste of money on the part of some of the world’s biggest brands. Just because we are in a strange and ‘unprecedented’ time does not mean that the usual rules of branding are deferred.

You still need to be distinctive. You still need to have an actual message. The fact that ‘Microsoft Sam’ was able to slice and dice a brilliant montage of all these ads into a seamless three-minute combination on YouTube (see video at the top) illustrates just how generic these campaigns really are.

There is no message behind all these drearily similar creative efforts other than that there is too much money and not enough marketing talent on hand. Brands like Uber, Samsung, Kia and Budweiser are superbly distinctive. They have clear brand codes. So why have they been displaced by identikit images of sunsets and empty streets?

Genericism, a lack of distinction or differentiation, and an overstated view of a brand’s cultural importance are now all on display.

These brands also have clear product positioning and brand associations they could be communicating. Where is the attempt to build brand associations? How about a good old-fashioned link to a product benefit? Has the virus killed off basic marketing too?

The blame lies with the inane and insipid marketers running many of the world’s biggest brands. While our economy boomed, they got away with their vacuous brand purpose nonsense. Formerly great brands threw away decades of heritage and turned to generic, woke-washed nonsense that made marketers feel better about their jobs at dinner parties and made consumers shrug, scratch their heads and get on with their day, none the wiser. Those same marketers are now clearly in charge of the initial slew of Covid-19 advertising.

Remember how all that brand purpose nonsense was incredibly generic? Remember how brand purpose climbed the benefit ladder past features, benefits and emotional associations and leapt from the top into a sea of pointless bullshit below? And remember how every purpose-driven marketer thought their brand had a big influence on consumers and society? All those traits – genericism, a lack of distinction or differentiation, and an overstated view of a brand’s cultural importance – are now all on display in these fumbling attempts at brand communication.

No need to switch creative

And is the new advertising really necessary at all? Orlando Wood at research company System1 would challenge the need for new creative. Wood, who once left me shitfaced and mumbling, drinking on my own in a dodgy bar in Toronto, has redeemed himself with his most recent research paper.

‘What Should Ads Look Like in the Time of Recession?’ is a fresh and insightful report commissioned by LinkedIn’s B2B Institute. Wood examines the degree to which TV ads can attract attention and garner an emotional response from consumers in the UK and US. Crucially, his data covers the first three months of 2020, therefore including the lockdown period that began in March.

Counter to what many marketers have been saying about a ‘new normal’ and changed responses from target consumers in lockdown, Wood uses the data to show that “there has been no appreciable change in the ability of ads to connect with audiences”.

That’s important because most of the ads that were seen during the coronavirus lockdown were designed long before Covid-19 had started its deadly assault on the global populace. Old ads are still performing just as well in the new normal.

Everything will change forever after coronavirus … won’t it?

To confirm this finding, Wood took a random selection of ads that were originally shown in January and February, and tested their responses among audiences at the end of March. Sure enough, as his chart below demonstrates, a pre-Covid ad’s performance among a pre-Covid audience (the X axis) is broadly analogous to its performance once lockdown had begun (Y axis).

There is a significant probability that your existing advertising will work just fine in the current crazy Covid period. And given how generic and cloying most of the new ‘agile’ advertising responses to coronavirus have turned out, it’s probably the correct tactical decision for most organisations.

It’s a less sexy finding than ‘everything you know about advertising must change, starting with your existing campaign strategy – burn your underpants and jump out of the window’. But that does not stop it from being the smarter, more effective and more economical recommendation.

Effective creative themes

If you really do want a new campaign in this strange context of coronavirus, Wood is also on hand to suggest some evidence-based direction for that advertising too. By identifying the ads that have performed better with consumers since the onset of coronavirus, Wood is able to suggest some key creative themes that seem to resonate more with Covid-hit consumers.

Fluent devices like Specsavers’ myopia or ‘Compare the Meerkat’ always pay back the brands that create them. But in times of great trouble, the fact that these characters inhabit a fictional universe a long way from coronavirus only adds further to their appeal and impact. The Jolly Green Giant will work better this month than he did at the start of the year. Ads that reference the past are also working better for Covid audiences. Sadly, the recent and more distant past were more pleasant places than the current period for most people, and that positivity appears to help as ads with a sense of history score higher in Wood’s analysis.

Finally, ads that celebrate ‘betweenness’, particularly among smaller groups or families, or which have a strong sense of place or community, are also impacting Covid audiences better now than before.

It’s too easy to just pick on the shit, clichéd failures. Who is actually on top of their game right now? Which brands have managed to reflect the new normal of a Covid-19 lockdown without completely losing their point of view or their ability to sell?

It was early in the crisis – so early that hitting a bar was still possible – but Guinness earned early line honours for its hastily altered St Patrick’s Day ad. With the big parades all cancelled on 17 March, Guinness was still building salience and brand associations, and reflecting the spirit of the times.

And the ad ticks a lot of Orlando Wood’s boxes too. It’s an ad steeped in history (tick), in a distinct place (tick), among a strong community (tick), and one that promotes a message of betweenness with every pixel (tick). And, in contrast to those woke watery Covid ads that followed it, this ad is distinctively Guinness in appearance, is redolent with the brand associations and – amazingly enough – has a product benefit attached to boot. Déanta go maith agat!

On a lesser note, Colgate also deserves plaudits for #Smilestrong. The tinkling pianos at the start might have been a portent of genericism but, in contrast with much of the crap now being released, this is an ad that again ticks all the right boxes.

We have community, family and betweenness and, because it has been created entirely from consumers’ own webcam conversations, there is a genuineness and an emotional payoff missing from bigger budget attempts to do the same thing. Best of all, this, like Guinness’s, is an ad that has actually attempted a direct link to a product benefit and up the ladder to an emotional impact too.

Advertising that actually advertises the product! What an amazing idea. That must be why it, almost, moved me to tears.

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