Advertising after COVID-19

23 April 2020

Only a few weeks ago, we were seeing advertisements for perfumes depicting intertwined lovers kissing, adverts for dinosaur biscuits showing children playing in a park, or we could see actors licking their fingers while eating fried chicken. But today, the world has been shaken. The economy is falling apart. Because COVID-19 has changed everything, including advertising.

Consumption under confinement

Advertisements should identify with society, and cannot be remote from it. While our hospitals are filling up and television news programmes show us the increasing numbers of deaths, it makes no sense to see, in the next break for adverts, spots showing an idyllic world without COVID-19. So the withdrawal of KFC’s ‘piano’ adverts in the United Kingdom was very correct and appropriate – the spot had begun with the notes of Chopin’s ‘Nocturne’, accompanying a sequence showing various customers licking their fingers after eating KFC’s fried chicken. In itself, it was a very powerful ‘key visual’, but it was not at all suitable at a time when cases of contagion and death from coronavirus were multiplying all over the world.

Consumption has changed in recent weeks. According to the report “Stand-Up Brands”, produced by the advertising agency Shackleton, COVID-19 has had drastic effects on consumers’ behaviour and habits, including improved personal hygiene, massively increased attention to television and to on-line purchases, and a sudden slump in tourism. During a pandemic, people are at home, confined. It is a time for distance learning, for teleworking, for keeping the children at home, for quarantine newspapers, concerts at home, social networks, watching more TV series, reading more books, taking up challenges, for #stayathome, for applauding heroes, for trying Tik Tok, for memes about toilet rolls and for songs on balconies. One only goes out to buy basic necessities. For many consumers, the principal consequence of confinement has been anxiety.

In contrast, the world has stopped, voraciousness has disappeared, and we have welcomed cleaner air and less pollution in our cities. These times in which we are now living are new, so brands must learn how to embrace, accompany and sustain. Some of them, for example, Apple, Vodafone, Ikea and Škoda, have pointed out very well the advantages of confinement, including the opportunity to appreciate spending more time with our families.  

Responsible brands

Many brands have become disorientated by the pandemic: “How can I communicate? What should I do? How should I do it?” But others are aware of the tools which they possess, make the most of the change in consumers, survive by reacting quickly to events as they happen, and empathise by creating new links through new actions, or new products as a public service. This is the case of groups such as Maker, who work ceaselessly with their 3D printers to replicate utensils and supply hospitals; Inditex, who use all of their logistic capacity to produce medical equipment; Decathlon who convert their snorkelling masks into ventilators by the addition of a valve; car manufacturers such as SEAT, who change their production processes to make ventilators for Intensive Care Units; and pizza manufacturers such as Casa Tarradellas, who re-use their containers to make protective masks in order to help the medical personnel.

And what about advertising? This, or a large part of it, has also changed. In my opinion, this is not the right time to sell things. It is the moment for brands to contribute value and to accompany us as a society, when only the responsible ones will be highly regarded and valued −  those which, both during the crisis and after it, will have been able, as contributors, to keep alive their relationships with the consumers. Today, the ‘top-of-mind’ brands are those which were the first to stop and ask themselves whether they should communicate something or do something − those which empathised (not as a strategy, but as part of their values) and created content with which to go through this period as well as possible. One could say that they are the ones who best adapted to an environment as hostile as a pandemic.

Communicating less and doing more

It is gratifying to learn that brands are beginning to communicate in a different, less arbitrary, manner. Communicating less and doing more. Helping, being more sustainable and becoming stronger. It is clear that if the year 2020 has served any purpose it has been to allow us to pause and reconsider. Indeed, in the days immediately following the outbreak of the pandemic, the most important Spanish advertising agencies signed a declaration called “Stop so as to continue”, in which they encouraged the brands (their clients) to reflect and reformulate their active encouragement of a more responsible kind of consumption. The arrival of COVID-19 has also changed our way of working. The familiar briefing “I need it yesterday” and the brainstorming in the conference room have been replaced by video calls via Zoom or Skype. Creativity has increased, and there are some very good examples of this. Campaigns such as those of Audi and Coca-Cola, which talk about social distancing, those of Jeep, Burger King, Guinness and Nike, which refer to staying at home, and those which even highlight the heroism of the medical personnel, such as the spots of Budweiser and Dove.

And what will happen next? No-one knows. Probably, in a few months time, when the pandemic has passed, we shall once again see a great variety of “positive spots”, full of intense moments spent with the family, friends or one’s partner. My personal opinion is that many of us will eliminate superfluity and will think again about what is basic, what we really need. When we are able to go out again, there will be a moment when, almost as a social duty, we shall have to start consuming again. The question is: will we do so exactly as we did before?

Author: Joan Margarit, Marketing and Communication analyst.

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