Consumers Want Ads During Covid-19 to Be Hopeful and Supportive, Says PepsiCo Beverages’ CMO

Survey found more Americans believe the country is empathetic than they did pre-pandemic

PepsiCo products drawn in chalk
PepsiCo Beverages CMO Greg Lyons told Adweek that 'tone is very important' in today's ads. PepsiCo
Headshot of Diana Pearl

If brands want to come out on the other side of the Covid-19 crisis with consumer loyalty intact, they need to lean into empathy, says Greg Lyons, the chief marketing officer of PepsiCo Beverages.

“I do fundamentally believe that something good will come out of this shared experience,” Lyons said. “It will force us to have deeper empathy toward one another. How organizations and brands respond and lead through these times will have a lasting impression on consumers.”

That sentiment is reinforced in a new study from PepsciCo, which spoke with over 5,000 consumers in March, just before shelter-in-place orders went into effect, and May about what they’re looking for in brand behavior during the pandemic.

The study found that 94% of Americans find empathy important in today’s society, with 79% saying it’s become even more important during the pandemic. Those surveyed also believed the country has become more empathetic over the course of the pandemic—43% said so in March, while 50% said the same in May.

On the topic of brand empathy, consumers felt differently about how brands should express that empathy—56% said brands should focus their messaging on the ongoing crisis to convey empathy, and they preferred to see a hopeful, comforting and supportive tone in a brand’s pandemic-era advertising rather than humorous or emotional.

“Tone is very important. … I believe we are past the more serious, overly emotive ads, and the survey actually supported that as well,” Lyons said. “In my opinion, the key is striking that balance of tone and being authentic to what your brand stands for.”

However, consumers expect brands to show empathy more than by simply communicating it in advertising or marketing. Consumers want to see action from brands, with “focus on employees and community first.” That means providing things like extended sick leave, being transparent about employee safety and helping local small businesses.

Covid-19 has also forced consumers to make business decisions at an accelerated rate, and now, with consumers paying more attention than ever, taking these empathetic concerns into consideration plays a major role.

“I’ve seen us make faster end-to-end decisions versus where we were before the pandemic,” Lyons said, “much less siloed, functional thinking and more consumer-centric than ever.”

Of course, brands “taking a stand” and “having a purpose” have been buzzy phrases in marketing for years now. According to consultancy Business of Purpose, 52% of consumers are more likely to make a purchase from a brand that reflects their values.

Covid-19 will only continue that trend, according to Lyons.

“As marketers, I believe it has made brand purpose more important than ever before,” he said, “making sure that our marketing is authentically making people’s lives better.”

@dianapearl_ Diana is the deputy brands editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.