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Spoiler alert: What can we learn from advertising in the age of COVID-19?

When the world went into lockdown due to COVID-19, we witnessed a truly global public information campaign. The message was universal. Stay home to slow the rapid spread of the virus.

On 26 March the United Nations launched its first ever open creative brief ‘Global Call to Creatives: An Open Brief from the United Nations’, asking agencies worldwide to provide help “translating critical public health messages into different languages, different cultures, communities and platforms, reaching everyone, everywhere”.

One of the campaigns to have the greatest impact that week, however, was a spiky speculative guerrilla campaign devised by two Miami Ad School Europe graduates from Thailand, Seine Kongruangkit and Matithorn Prachuabmoh Chaimoungkalo (aka Brave).

Their Netflix branded Out of Home posters revealed plot spoilers from some of the most popular streaming series, suggesting that if you didn’t want to spoil it for yourself, and others, you should #StaytheF#ckatHome.

Tapping into a trending hashtag for a public heath message, with a cheeky adoption of the streaming brand that has become an essential service for many trapped at home, the mock-ups went viral. Netflix never approved the ads, but it didn’t need to. It had already received a record of 15.8 million new subscribers in the first quarter.

At the start of April, Kantar released data from a survey of 25,000 consumers across 30 markets showing that as countries moved deeper into the pandemic, web browsing increased by 70%, traditional TV viewing increased by 63% and social media engagement increased by 61%, over normal usage rates.

It was good news for brands that could navigate the digital landscape and good news for TV advertising. But while organisations and businesses focused on operational necessities and the safety of customers and staff, marketing campaigns needed to pivot quickly to reflect the new reality or risk falling out of step with rapidly changing sentiment. In the vacuum that was left, user generated content on social media took over, providing the information, reassurance and entertainment that we all needed.

The same Kantar survey sent a very strong message about what consumers wanted to see from brand communciations during the crisis:

  • ‘Talk about how the brand is helpful in the new everyday life’ (77%)
  • ‘Inform about their efforts to face the situation’ (75%)
  • ‘Offer a reassuring tone’ (70%)

But brands also needed to be careful:

  • 75% said brands ‘Should not exploit coronavirus situation to promote the brand’
  • 40% said they ‘Should avoid humorous tones’

Whether it was Co-op switching its Easter campaign budget to support FairShare, or Brewdog switching over booze production to make hand sanitizer, those who moved quickly and landed the right tone, stood out. Everyone took note.

As more and more post-Covid19 campaigns come online, though, the new challenge is a homogenization. In the rush to support public health messages and reflect our experience of lockdown life, advertising’s aesthetic has become as one dimensional as the endless blur of video conferences and social zoom calls that we are living though. By the end of April, a supercut of sombre COVID-19 clichés was circulating on YouTube. User generated content is ubiquitous, largely down to the practical challenges of producing creative work in isolation. And yet a lot of thoughtful, original ideas are still coming through.

Which brings us back to Seine Kongruangkit and Matithorn Prachuabmoh Chaimoungkalo. They demonstrated that a serious message can be carried with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour and confirmed that ideas that cut through are those that make you feel. But their simple creative also very cleverly used Netflix’s core attraction – compulsive, socially conformist binge viewing – to get their message across.

More recent Kantar analysis of COVID-19 advertising has demonstrated that brands focusing on what they are actively doing to help are resonating the most with consumers. Positive practical action, which relates to a brand’s core purpose, such as Tesco’s ‘Some little helps for safer shopping‘, remains memorable, whereas the usual generic brand campaigns, such as  ‘Food Love Stories‘ are falling by the wayside. Some, such as British Gas, are managing to successfully combine it all – UGC, a sense of purpose and a tone that all feels more warm than contrived.

What does this mean for brand communication beyond the adverts? In short, brands should be actively demonstrating what they are practically doing to help customers and communities, but it is important to ensure that this relates to their distinctive business purpose. And as any advertiser knows, simple messages that make you feel something are often the most memorable.

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