18 Tips on Advertising During the Coronavirus Crisis

What brands and marketers can say when nothing seems right

marketing during coronavirus
Figuring out how you fit into a world that's been changed by coronavirus is possible.
Burger King, Jennifer Baer, Popeyes

“How do I speak to my audience at a time like this?” That’s the question every creative is asking right now. But even when it seems like there’s no right thing to say, brands still find ways to be relevant to their customers. We’ve dug deep and found some key insights from the companies bravely venturing to advertise during the coronavirus crisis.

Realize you have more tools than you think

Got an idea, but can’t make it happen because video production and photoshoots are on hold? Agencies are getting creative with the resources they’ve got, including: stock footage, animation, archives and the hero of creatives everywhere—user-generated content. “It’s back to the basics. No ornamentation. No glitzy hoopla. Just the idea, plain and simple,” Katie Roach, executive producer, Planet Propaganda, told Adweek’s Minda Smiley and Ryan Barwick.

Pivot your messaging

Visa had 80% of its Olympics creative ready to go before the games were postponed earlier this month. So the longtime sponsor went back to its roster of Team Visa athletes to film new spots—this time at home, using their phones, showing off their superhuman feats but then, just like all of us, washing their hands and sanitizing. The Olympics will be back in 2021, but Visa is keeping its spirit of perseverance and shared humanity top of mind.

Look at past moments of crisis for guidance

The U.S. has weathered some difficult moments in history, and seeing how other agencies dealt with their own crises could help inform your messaging. Jennifer Baer, a creative designer at NASA, went viral on Twitter for creating a series of “travel” posters promoting social distancing. Her lighthearted illustrations of people living their best vacation lives at home were inspired by the propaganda that came out of the Work Progress Administration, a Great Depression-era agency that employed artists to bolster national pride.

Pivot and create a new product

Local breweries and distilleries lost their main source of income when bars and many restaurants had to close. So instead of beer and spirits, they’ve started turning their alcohol into hand sanitizer. The grassroots idea took off industry-wide, with the likes of AB Inbev and Bacardi following suit, and some are taking the charitable opportunity to do some memorable branding, too, with stylish bottles and labels. “If we have an opportunity to distribute a product widely, putting our brand on it is an investment that pays off in six months when everything is normal again,” Mark Scheer, CMO, Mammoth, told Adweek’s Robert Klara.

Reach people where they are now

One of programmatic advertising’s biggest assets is the ability to switch platforms to take advantage of sudden changes in consumer behavior. Michael Provenzano, CEO and co-founder of programmatic out-of-home advertising firm Vistar Media, said rather than advertisers pulling their OOH spending, he’s seeing them change locations from public transit and cinemas to new locations that are busier than usual.

Earn the right to speak

In an inspired stay-at-home campaign, Burger King France and agency Buzzman published a guide to making some of its most iconic sandwiches, including the Whopper, in your own kitchen. According to Burger King global CMO Fernando Machado, while the campaign was a fun way to keep the brand top of mind, it worked because the fast-food chain had earned its time in the spotlight.

Keep levity; it’s appreciated

While some brands have rightly pulled their planned campaigns, others can still move forward as planned. RPA in Los Angeles, for example, is moving ahead as scheduled with new work for Apartments.com starring Jeff Goldblum, with the hope that audiences will find its lighthearted humor helpful in anxious times. “People want as much normalcy as possible,” Joe Baratelli, evp and chief creative officer, RPA, tells Adweek’s T.L. Stanley. “Putting out something entertaining to help them cope can work, too.”

Offer a public service

We’re all going a little stir crazy, and brands are stepping up with free trials of their services. T-Mobile is giving away a year’s subscription to the upcoming short-form streaming service Quibi, while Apple TV+ made Oprah’s coronavirus talk show available for free. HBO just put some of its signature programs, from new hits like Succession to classics like The Sopranos, available to stream for anyone.

Consider celebrity campaigns carefully

Before coronavirus, celebrities were a source of entertainment. After coronavirus, NBC stars gave a lift to important public health messaging, while some of Postmates’ most famous faces shouted out their favorite restaurants. But that feel-good sentiment may not endure when celebrities are singing songs with lyrics like “imagine no possessions” as unemployment rises.

Break the most sacred rule

Logos are usually sacred, but these are not normal times. Brands from McDonald’s to Chiquita, Coca-Cola and Audi have altered their world-renowned trademarks in the service of promoting social distancing (in Russia, Audi also shouted out healthcare workers). Think of it as purpose-driven marketing 2.0.

Help your clients beyond ads

Creating new work is not the only way agencies can benefit their clients right now. Miami-based Republica Havas brought together two of its clients—the Valls family’s restaurant empire, which has been hurt by stay-at-home orders—and Sedano’s, the independent Hispanic grocery chain where business is booming. Read how the two seemingly unrelated businesses helped each other.

Delay the rebranding

Last month, the Los Angeles Rams football team unveiled a new logo and colors—to largely negative reactions on social media. Designers were also mixed on the new regalia, though one expert said the reaction may have as much to do with dropping it in the middle of a global crisis as the creative itself.

Make your brand a resource

Chances are your clients or customers have been affected in some way by the coronavirus. Becoming a resource in difficult times can win you brand loyalty down the line. Internet mood board Pinterest launched Today, an app-based hub for news as well as daily inspiration. Music streamer Spotify, meanwhile, is working to help artists whose livelihood disappeared with the cancellation of live events and concerts.

Use new tools to find new ways to advertise

One of the rare success stories of this crisis has been the meteoric rise of videoconferencing platform Zoom. While it doesn’t accept ads, savvy brands such as the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, West Elm and The Infatuation found a new kind of earned media by creating backgrounds that users can insert behind themselves while taking work calls or enjoying remote office happy hours. Better living through escapism is the rallying cry of the quarantine.

Recognize what worked before may not anymore

One of the biggest missteps right now would be to remind people of what they’re missing. Marketing tech firm Pattern89 tells Adweek’s emerging technology reporter Patrick Kulp that imagery of people hugging, kissing or holding hands has dropped by 30% in social media ads since March 12. Pattern89 founder and CEO R.J. Talyor sees emerging trends.

React to news in real time

With the world changing seemingly day to day, marketing has never had to move faster. For clever advertisers, each news cycle poses new opportunities—provided they can find the right way to engage with customers.

Popeyes, which has a track record with viral marketing (remember that Family Feud contestant?) did it again with a Netflix subscription giveaway, while Buffalo Wild Wings saw an opportunity after live sports were canceled with an ad featuring people making up their own ESPN: The Ocho-worthy indoor sports.

Don’t know what to say? Help those who do

If you’ve got paid media that can’t be refunded and no advertising to fill it with, there are plenty of nonprofits and charities that could use a partner to get their message out. The Ad Council leaned on NBCUniversal and ViacomCBS—with celebrities from Sesame Street and the WWE—to spread its timely messages. United Airlines donated its $100,000 OOH buy in London to Unicef, while Anheuser-Busch is lending its airtime and logistics, as well as donating funds, to longtime partner the American Red Cross.

And if you really can’t think of anything to say…

If you can’t work on new projects, pick up the ones you’ve been putting off. Kristen Ruby, CEO of Ruby Media Group, bets you have all kinds of to-do list items that have been simmering on the back burner, such as old content that needs SEO optimization and staff bios that need updating. Read on to make your own quarantine checklist.

This story first appeared in the April 6, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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