Experienced in Crisis Messaging, GSTV Guides Brands Through Covid-19

Getting the tone right is key, from relevant pandemic information to uplifting content

a woman pumping gas
GSTV has 24,000 locations across the country. GSTV
Headshot of Doug Zanger

Key insights:

As the pandemic continues, brands are determining the best way forward in terms of their messaging to consumers. Like advertising before Covid-19, people were inundated with all kinds of marketing that could simply get lost in the shuffle.

A great deal of advertising has shifted online as people hunkered down at home. Yet essential businesses remained open, including gas stations and the convenience stores attached to them. GSTV—which broadcasts advertising and content at the pump—found that messaging on the platform’s 24,000 locations became essential communication. GSTV reaches one-third of American adults each month and counts Nielsen, Comscore, IRI, Placed and others as data partners.

As quarantine spread across the country, GSTV’s partners, predictably, shifted their messaging to public service announcements from the likes of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Red Cross and Feeding America. Though a pandemic isn’t necessarily in any playbooks, the platform has extensive experience in times of disaster, such as hurricanes, floods and other times when an area goes dark.

“We’ve seen a little bit of a parallel to times like that where important messages need to get out there,” said Sean McCaffrey, GSTV president and CEO.

McCaffrey estimates that in the first few weeks, pandemic-centric advertising accounted for around 90% of the platform’s content.

“We are so grateful to GSTV for their support of our critical Covid-19 messages around social distancing and joining the #StayHome, Save Lives initiative,” said Lisa Sherman, Ad Council president and CEO. “GSTV was one of our first partners to offer their support in the early days of the crisis, and their extraordinary network of gas stations and convenience stores have delivered our time-sensitive messages to over 95 million people across the country.”

“We’ve always been 3-5 minutes of someone’s day running errands,” added McCaffrey. “We realized that those errands were more important because people were stocking up, or are essential workers. At a minimum, people want something informational and, at best, something a little entertaining.”

Interspersed among the ads, for example, was content from the NFL around April’s virtual draft. At present, McCaffrey said about 30% to 40% of the content is directly about Covid-19, with other brand messaging and creative filling the rest of the inventory.

“We’re trying to make sure that it has some uplift, in addition to helping people be safe,” he said, noting the platform’s other content partners such as Cheddar, What’s Trending and Stadium.

According to McCaffrey, brands have asked for flexibility in managing the next steps, seeing very few cancellations, unlike on TV. Categories that seem to be forging ahead are QSR and more long-term businesses such as mortgages and cars, with tweaks to messaging.

“GSTV has been a valuable component of our marketing strategy for years,” said Casey Hurbis, CMO of Quicken Loans. “Whether our campaigns are focused on growing awareness of the Rocket Mortgage brand, or, in recent months, on opportunities to express our gratitude for the heroic front-line workers in the battle against Covid-19.”

Other brands are coming online, including Verizon and Live Nation, with the latter promoting a livestreamed concert series. And Dining at a Distance, a program to help encourage delivery and support of restaurants, continues to make an impact.

“We jumped at the opportunity to support our Dining at a Distance initiative on their platform,” said Pete Stein, CEO of Huge, the agency leading the program. “Because of GSTV’s vast reach, we were able to share Dining at a Distance across 43 markets, reaching a wide audience in a local way that drove action.”

Inquiries about the platform are increasing as brands figure out their playbooks. In the meantime, the conversations with brands revolve mainly around the context of messaging. According to McCaffrey, even though the scope of the pandemic is changing, ensuring that brands get the tone right remains critical.

“If you have a message that’s tone deaf right now, it’s not something that we want [on the platform],” he said.

Looking forward, with all kinds of scenarios emerging around the possible return of Covid-19 cases, McCaffrey said GSTV has learned from its experience with disasters and the pandemic and can move quickly if messaging needs to return to more information-based ads.

“We will always consider the possibility of another outbreak in all of our planning for the next 12-18 months,” he said.

In the end, though, it’s about serving brands, and McCaffrey believes that providing a sense of calm in a hectic time is crucial. The company is planning for the possibility of a busy summer, when consumers may drive more than fly if they choose to travel. Whatever the case, McCaffrey believes that providing a sense of calm in a hectic time is crucial.

“Marketers are consumers first, and everyone is getting whiplash from the data and news cycle. No single partner has all the answers or all the solutions. We know an already complicated job just became exponentially more difficult and is changing in real time. We owe our brand and agency partners the guidance on how to use our massive consumer attention in the right tone and message.”


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@zanger doug.zanger@adweek.com Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.
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