Brand new world: How advertisers must adapt their message in the age of Covid-19

Amid mood shifts and interrupted habits, returning to ‘normal’ may not be an option

A man in a face mask walks past the ‘Don’t Be Afraid’ mural in Dublin City Centre. Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times.

A man in a face mask walks past the ‘Don’t Be Afraid’ mural in Dublin City Centre. Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times.


Dubbed “the great pause”, the suspension of much commercial life during the Covid-19 pandemic has been alarming and stressful for many, and plain weird for others. Pressing play on the economy could yet prove almost as disconcerting.

Will everything that suddenly became irrelevant make a miraculous bounce back to relevance? Or is the growing use of the term “pre-pandemic” an acknowledgment that something has irrevocably changed?

Across the spare bedrooms, kitchen tables and garden sheds that now constitute the makeshift offices of advertising, marketing and public relations professionals, the questions thrown up by the crisis have rarely been as profound.

Covid-19 won’t have “a clean ending”, says Eoghan Nolan, founder of creative agency Brand Artillery. “There’s no armistice, no peace treaty. There’s not going to be fireworks, ‘okay lads, it’s over now’. And if there isn’t an end point, then how do you start healing?”

It isn’t only a philosophical question, but a business one. The companies endeavouring to project their brand image into this flux may find it impossible to simply “skip talking” about coronavirus even after the peak has passed. The pandemic won’t have become any less tragic in the meantime.

“I think it would be odd if an ad that was a stalwart pre-Covid was still around post-Covid,” says Nolan. “Is the guy who won Euro Millions still going to be out on his island?”

Carmakers like their profit-machines to be filmed conquering the open road, not mastering the trip to Tesco. But in a stay-at-home culture, the open road in a car ad “becomes a trigger for something else”. Can it make a triumphant return? If so, when?

And how will cities look to us now that we have seen them in their apocalyptic emptiness? Our insight into the “uselessness of an urban space when you can’t do things”, as Nolan phrases it, might take some time to forget.

Sanitiser pivots

It wasn’t long after the coronavirus crisis exploded in Europe in late February that household-name brands began to insert themselves into the story in undeniably helpful – and sometimes shockingly vital – ways.

French luxury goods group LVMH, controlled by Bernard Arnault (Europe’s richest man), turned three factories usually dedicated to the production of perfumes to the task of manufacturing hand sanitiser. Scottish drinks group BrewDog pivoted to Brewgel “punk sanitiser” soon after, with Irish Distillers among those that joined the cause here.

As restrictions tightened, retailers, hospitality businesses and other services were confronted with the fast-changing ethics of a shutdown. Should they reassure consumers that they were still trading? Or should they assure them that they weren’t?

Companies that had generated headlines in the past for mistreating their employees – Amazon, Sports Direct, JD Wetherspoon – were caught doing so again. But for many decent employers, there was genuine confusion. Where was the line between keeping workers in jobs and putting their health at risk? What was the right thing to do one day became the wrong thing to do the next.

“A rollercoaster of learnings and unlearnings” is how Dr Martina Byrne, chief executive of the Public Relations Institute of Ireland (PRII) describes it. The Republic’s 2,800 PR and communications people have been in-demand. “In a crisis, one of the first people to get called is the communications adviser.”

Byrne used to run crisis simulations that tested how companies would respond to emergencies such as major weather events or data breaches. “A pandemic is not one we ever put forward in front of an organisation. It never would have crossed our mind.”

Brands dearly want paying customers to love them, but forget that “the first audience has to be the employee”, she says. It’s the Waterford Crystal principle. “If you’re not decent to your employees, I can’t expect you to be decent to me in terms of customer service or quality control.”

Internal communications requires two things: speed and “absolute honesty”, says Byrne. “Good, bad or indifferent, tell them as much as you know, and if you don’t know, tell them you don’t know.”

Tesco shoppers are reminded to keep two metres apart in what business strategy company the Board of Innovation calls ‘the low touch economy’. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Tesco shoppers are reminded to keep two metres apart in what business strategy company the Board of Innovation calls ‘the low touch economy’. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Creative ‘tsunami’

What we do know is that spending on advertising has collapsed, and any recovery by the end of the year is unlikely to make up for it. One forecast from Core points to a 30 per cent plunge in 2020, potentially wiping €300 million from the Republic’s €1 billion ad market. Low city footfall has blunted out-of-home advertising. The curtains have been drawn on the cinema kind.

And yet many ad agencies will have been inundated with new briefs. “It was like a tsunami of work,” says Abi Moran, chief executive of creative agency JWT Folk, of the initial “intense” weeks of shutdown. “There’s almost been more change in the last 10 weeks than in the last 10 years.”

Understanding how the public is feeling is one of the industry’s most important tools, but how they felt last week is awkwardly no longer a guide to how they are feeling today: JWT Folk’s consumer research, conducted through WhatsApp panels, has confirmed a rapidly fluctuating mood.

“First there was panic, then there was gratitude. Then it turned to pride. That became frustration, and now people are worried. They are in a worried phase,” says Moran, speaking the morning before the Government revealed its five-stage exit plan.

But how does a creative agency even logistically set about producing a Covid-relevant campaign when everybody has to work remotely and comply with social distancing guidelines?

In a televison ad for JWT Folk’s client Vodafone, the answer was to use material shot at home by directors, directors of photography and dozens of other creatives. Vodafone, which ran a similar collaborative ad in Italy, nabbed the Beatles’ Come Together for the soundtrack. The picture of Covid-19 home life formed by the final product is realistically chaotic, while still possessing the high-quality sheen of an advertisement.

When JWT Folk talked with another client, Brennans, the first instinct was to opt for a message of reassurance, but there was soon a realisation that “the brand had permission to raise a smile”, says Moran. The new “raise a toast” campaign aligns Auld Mr Brennan with the of-the-moment sentiment of gratitude, but Auld Mr Brennan himself hasn’t changed.

Every advert is the same...

“The last thing you want to do is just tactics.”

Unacceptable hyperbole

For big advertisers, urged not to “go dark”, communicating with consumers is likely to remain fraught for some time. Avoiding having “notions” will help them get through this period, Nolan believes.

“In a crisis, brands just go back to being products. The hyperbole that we usually find acceptable from them, the lofty poetic stuff, it has just sort of fallen away,” he says.

“Platitudes with piano music” has become the dominant cliché in the US. Nolan cites a montage seamlessly edited by a YouTuber called Microsoft Sam. It shows a critical mass of Covid-19 brand ads opening with sombre piano notes and subdued colours, before throwing out keywords like “family” and “home”, then euphemistic phrases like “uncertain times”, “unprecedented times” and “today, more than ever”.

The Dublin Bus poster for A Quiet Place Part II seen in April, long after cinemas had closed. The Irish ad market is expected to fall 30 per cent in 2020. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
The Dublin Bus poster for A Quiet Place Part II seen in April, long after cinemas had closed. The Irish ad market is expected to fall 30 per cent in 2020. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Brand X, which has been around for Y number of years, is very much still “here for you”. The advertising creatives who made them may be far apart, but they have never been more together.

“They all had to follow the path of least resistance,” says Nolan. Between the Covid-19 peak and the arrival of a vaccine, advertising will be “a tonal challenge for just about every brand”.

Even before the pandemic, it was an anxious world. Marketers were devoting increasing attention to the role of brands in simply helping consumers cope.

“There are no anchors at the moment,” says Colin Gordon of Engage Consulting, an experienced marketer and former chief executive of Glanbia Consumer Foods. The surge in baking ingredient sales is “a good indicator for where people are in their minds”.

But people are complex: even as they seek comfort food, they also crave variety in their lockdown lives. “An adult consumes 2,000 calories a day – some of us might do a bit more than that. How do you keep food entertaining and interesting?”

Yes, the time has come for sauces and accompaniments to shine. Retailers won’t be keen to experiment, however, when further waves of business disruption can’t be ruled out.

“Shops will be reluctant to take on new suppliers if they don’t have reassurances that their factories will stay open. They’ll say ‘If I put this on the shelf, will you be able to keep supplying it to me?’ They won’t take chances anymore.”

Crisis scars

Gordon expects “deep scars” will be left by the crisis. “The good brands help consumers deal with that scarring,” he says. That means finding a way to “bring Covid into their narrative” without overplaying their hand and claiming they are more virtuous than everyone else.

But he’s not sure what will be left behind on the sell side. He mentions a shop in his Dublin village that put up a sign at the start of the crisis to say it had no plans to ever reopen. “That’s one empty address. How many will there be?”

Some businesses may be “like the Mary Celeste”, abandoned in near-perfect condition, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be sailing once more.

Safety-first consumers, fearful for their own long-term finances, will be slow to spend. “They have got used over the past few months to not spending. They will need persuading to engage in discretionary spending. They will be questioning things.”

Complicating the task for companies with something to sell is that people have experienced this crisis in very different ways. Some entered it in a vulnerable group, others have had an object lesson in the privilege of good health.

Some are overworked and burdened, others have hours to spare. From healthcare workers on “the front line” to sufferers of abrupt unemployment, or underemployment, the loss of control has been palpable.

Many aged 70 and over have bristled at the “cocooner” label inflicted upon them by the Government and others, even as they comply with the advice itself. “If you look at older people, if they survive this, they will have become survivors,” says Nolan. “That repositions everybody in that group.”

The open road, a symbol of freedom and a staple of car advertising.
The open road, a symbol of freedom and a staple of car advertising.

Youth impact

Youth marketing agency Thinkhouse, meanwhile, has been posting on its Instagram account about how young people might emerge from the emergency. “Like any other generation, there are divisions in how they’re responding,” says Thinkhouse founder Jane McDaid.

Data from teen citizenship programme Young Social Innovator suggests 37 per cent feel calm, positive and motivated, but 53 per cent are anxious, stressed or depressed, she notes, with anxiety levels exacerbated by the prolonged uncertainty over the Leaving Certificate.

And for the “Generation Z” cohort that’s hitting the labour market, there no shortage of woe either.

By the end of April, the unemployment rate among 15-24s had swelled to twice that of the wider population, as sectors such as hospitality, tourism, leisure and construction laid off workers. Heavy employers of young people, such as those in the obliterated live events sector, will be among the last to turn their lights back on in what the Board of Innovation calls the “low-touch economy”. Some may struggle to open their doors at all.

“The opportunities don’t look like they will be there at the moment,” says McDaid, though she qualifies that young people are entrepreneurial and “very digitally led”.

Older millennials, who had barely settled into the workplace when the financial crisis struck, may regard this as the second knock to their income, career and lifestyle expectations. “Their values have had to be different to those of their parents, without a doubt.”

The brands that perform well in this febrile environment are those that remember they are “not here to solve Covid-19” yet are still agile enough to claim first-mover advantage in the race to do their bit, McDaid says. Covid-copycatting in advertising – “the tinkling piano music, the same solidarity message” – will yield diminishing returns.

“I think we’re over that in Ireland right now. We have seen that. Consumers are saying ‘okay, what else do you have for me?’”

Thanks to our new lockdown priorities, certain organisations have been re-evaluated in our eyes almost overnight. Indeed, some of the shifts in perception have been quite amazing.

Reputation effect

The Reputations Agency’s “Purpose Power Index”, compiled in April, measured the extent to which Irish organisations are believed to be improving lives, acting beyond profits, acting for a better world and benefiting society. The HSE, which had come 97th in a separate reputation survey conducted only months earlier, came first in this later study, followed by An Garda Síochána, the Government itself and An Post.

But will the crisis-tinged appreciation for these public sector behemoths wear off?

“That could very well happen,” says Niamh Boyle, managing director of the Reputations Agency. “The HSE’s reputation would be quite dependent on its own actions over the next 12 months, but also on the media and how politicians act towards it. The HSE does a lot of good, but often we only hear about what they are doing poorly.”

The same principle applies to telecommunications companies. There’s an intangibility to the effort that goes into keeping networks running. We don’t see those workers as often as we do shelf-stackers. We only think about the service when there’s an outage. And yet without broadband and mobile telephony, one-time office workers would be unable to do their jobs from home.

Instilling a sense of purpose in an organisation – and not just one that’s “written down somewhere” – must come from the top, says Boyle. “The head of communications can’t take the lead on that. They can be the conductor, but it has to come from the CEO.”

Almost everybody speaks spontaneously about the possibility of a not-all-bad “reset”. Consumers forced into a period of self-reflection have started to think as much about what they don’t miss as what they do.

“We can be a cynical country. All of us can be cynical. Hopefully, that will not come back too quickly,” says Boyle.

“The climate crisis hasn’t gone away,” says McDaid. “If anything, Covid-19 has deepened young people’s commitment to finding solutions, because they have been encouraged by how governments were able to respond this time.”

They would quite like the same urgency applied to the planet.

"he HSE does a lot of good, but often we only hear about what they are doing poorly.”

‘That was then’

“It won’t be the same as before, it will be different,” says Gordon. Certain long-term scourges of Irish business, such as upward-only rent reviews, should be “put in a box marked ‘that was then’”, he argues, and there should be proper incentives for any activity deemed to have value.

In his reset, Nolan would like to see the advertising industry shake off delays in invoice payments and move on from “Dickensian and odd” pitching rituals. Ad agencies may have been “running on fumes” since the 2008 crash, but he is not without hope.

“We have looked into the abyss before. I tend to feel – because I have been at this a long time – that sometimes good can come out of major change. I feel optimism is a natural condition for ad folks.”

At the very least, “a lot less stuff has gone to landfill”. Moran, too, is conscious that “nature has been allowed to breathe” for once. “We now have a blank sheet of paper. We have to ask ourselves how do we move forward in a way that is really sustainable?”

On the other hand, “revenge-spending” has become the buzzword among luxury goods companies diligently tracking even modest returns to consumerism in China. In Ireland, it may yet be a protracted income-shrinking recession, rather than an evolved set of values, that deters Irish people from compensatory splurges.

“My own sense is that this has happened so suddenly and from leftfield, it’s not like people were fed up with festivals or GAA matches or the Galway Races,” says the PRII’s Byrne. “It’s not that these things were broken before Covid. They don’t have to be fixed, they have to be minded.”

We will be “grateful for all these things again”, she believes, when we get back to “something like normal”.

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