How to adapt your marketing in a pandemic

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As lockdown started to bite last month, YouTuber ‘Microsoft Sam’ released a mash-up of TV advertisements that all aimed to speak meaningfully to consumers in ‘these challenging times’. 


The video quickly went viral because it highlighted just how generic many ads had become. From car brands to fast-food chains, everyone followed the same format: soothing piano giving way to touching shots of families, and an endless stream of words like ‘together’ and ‘home’. 


“Many brands have created incredibly indistinct advertising in response to the crisis,” agrees internationally renowned marketing expert Mark Ritson.


So how should brands respond to ‘these challenging times’ in a way that drives engagement? 


Adapt your campaigns


Don’t rush to pull existing campaigns, but consider how you can alter them. “Consumers appreciate continuity,” says Ritson, who adds that audience data from the Netherlands and the UK suggests advertising created pre-pandemic is still performing well. 


Brand consultant Jill Manester agrees, but adds that the current climate must be acknowledged, otherwise brands risk appearing “the marketing equivalent of a sociopath”. 


“In social media channels, which are by their nature intimate, brands should at least tweak the copy of their campaigns to make them feel relevant,” she says. “For the consumer, failure to recognise what’s happening in their world feels as if the brand isn’t in their world.” 


Don’t be afraid to get personal


“We need to remove the artifice of marketing, and bring people closer to the philosophy and values of a company,” says Manester. 


Brands should consider using their leaders - such as founders, CEOs and creatives - in their marketing to encourage a human connection with consumers. 


“We want to trust brands right now - we want them to be good corporate citizens who can get the economy up and running again,” says Ricci Meldrum, executive partner at TBWA Melbourne. She cites Woolworths’ dedicated opening hours for the elderly as a great example of how a brand can provide leadership and foster community spirit. “People will remember that.”


THE ICONIC’s latest Mother’s Day campaign, using iPhone footage of mothers (including some staff from online fashion retailer) navigating parenthood during a pandemic, is another example of a brand taking a personal approach.


Lean in to social media


During lockdown, social media use has soared. Director of digital marketing agency The Digital Picnic Cherie Clonan has seen clients’ organic engagement rates increase by up to 50 per cent, while paid social media advertising is more cost-effective than ever. 


Pre-coronavirus, many brands would post on social media at certain peak times, says Clonan, “whereas right now, it’s just kind of ‘post whenever’. The audience is there.”


However, she advises brands to prioritise “visibility and awareness” rather than conversions. “People will scroll past too much promotion. It’s just noise in a normal climate, and it’s especially noisy in this climate.”


Consider content marketing


One way to build brand community is to create content marketing that entertains and inspires customers. 


Clonan points to Sydney designer Rachel Castles, who has created free colouring-in templates for her audience (many of whom will be parents). Retailers such as David Jones have launched “at-home” content series, offering activities, seminars and even playlists for customers stuck at home. “It’s about giving love back to their communities and acknowledging the role that their communities have played in their success for such a long time.” 


You can be fun, even if the world isn’t. 


“Every brand in the world has said, ‘We’re here for you - we’re supporting you’,” says Meldrum. “We’ve now hit absolute fatigue on that messaging, unless there’s some substance to it.”


Meldrum believes the initial “foetal-position shock and panic” has passed, and we’re now feeling more optimistic about the future, which means consumers might appreciate some levity. “Advertising can create a sense of normality. At the moment we’re looking for information, but we’re also looking for escape. Advertising can play in that space.”


Overseas data from ad trackers System 1 indicates that consumers are responding well to advertisements that place a brand in a historical context, says Ritson “even if it’s just 12 months ago, as those were less stressful times.” Recurring characters or settings - such as the AAMI employee behind her desk - are resonating, too, along with marketing that emphasises what Ritson describes as the “between-ness” of people. “Depictions of social connection are performing well.” 


Don’t plan for the pandemic - plan for the recession. 


“Everything is moving so quickly that strategy isn’t as important as tactical agility, certainly for the next couple of months,” says Ritson. “Longer term, you should be planning for a recession.” 


Thanks to government stimuli and the fact no one is going out anymore, consumers are feeling quite comfortable at the moment, Meldrum says. “In six months, when Jobkeeper payments and mortgage relief stops, the question is how they’re going to cope.”


Above all, brands should take this time to return to good, old-fashioned marketing. “Do your research, build segmentation, choose your segments, build clear, smart measurable targets…the fundamentals haven’t changed,” Ritson adds. “What changes is the customer, the strategy, the tactical choices.”


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