Picture: 123RF/viteethumb
Picture: 123RF/viteethumb

Should brands be advertising at all during the Covid-19 crisis? And how should they be communicating with consumers? These were just some of the questions discussed at a recent Kantar webinar, which focused on best practice for advertising and creative development during the pandemic.

“Consumer behaviour has changed drastically in this time, and behavioural change is always linked to emotion,” said Natalie Botha, Kantar’s head of creative development. At present these changes are linked to fear and concern. Kantar’s SA wave 2 Covid-19 Barometer records that consumers are extremely concerned, though less about their health than about financial planning once the crisis is over.

“There are valuable insights here for the way food brands can use this behavioural change to support consumers,” said Botha. “Part of the behaviour change that was recorded is that due to stress and fear some people are eating more healthily while others seem to be snacking more and treating themselves.”

Brands should be thinking small now in terms of what consumers are feeling, said Stuart Walsh, CSO at Grey. For example, with panic buying and stockpiling being the theme of the day, many brands have their products in consumers’ cupboards right now.

Botha said: “This is the time to enforce positive associations as opposed to negative ones aligned to Covid-19. Creativity is key – with many people trying new recipes, it’s an ideal time to encourage them to experiment and be creative, and by so doing create positive connotations.”

When it comes to advertising during this time, wording is crucial. For example, considering the influence of negative phrasing in copy, such as “don’t forget to”, as opposed to the positive “remember to” has an important role to play in either reinforcing fear or overriding it. What consumers want from brands right now is an acknowledgement that life has changed. Moreover, they want to know what brands are doing to help them during this time and are looking for reassurance and positive perspectives.

Most agency activity now is taking place in the homes of creatives – and they’re working harder than ever, reported Grey Africa chief creative officer, Fran Luckin.

“Creativity thrives during uncertainty,” she said. “Probably for the first time since World War 2 the entire world is experiencing the same thing at the same time. The implications for creative work are very interesting as this makes communication easier. Creativity also thrives in constraint, so the harder you work it, the better the result.”

Brands have responded with different reactions to the crisis: Volvo through an understanding of safety, AB InBev by repurposing budget to health care and Distell by bottling sanitisers that are not for commercial use. Luckin said: “None of these brands is using these actions for bragging rights –  which would not go down well at this time – they are rather are trying to be useful.” 

SA Tourism is another example of a brand that is not going dark but instead creating messages of hope and help relating to the beauty of SA and the fact that we will travel again, while Netflix’s use of “spoiler alerts” for travellers is an interesting creative tactic from a brand that knows its purpose and provides a guide on how to act, she added.

This is a time for brands to focus on what consumers are feeling and to use creativity to create positive messages of hope as an investment in a brand’s future. Going dark is not an option right now.

Is it appropriate to advertise in the current environment and should advertising be focusing on a product or brand? “There’s an assumption that because of the crisis, consumers will react differently to the way they usual do, as they are driven by their concerns,” said​ Kantar’s global head of creative Daren Poole. “Strategically, one cannot lose sight of the long-term view,” he said, adding that advertising is a business imperative, and life will go on.

“During the constant talk of coronavirus, advertising provides a distraction and escape. Brands should not be going dark now. They need to advertise because consumers tend to remember how brands made them feel during their tough times. It’s an investment in the future of the brand.”

Clearly, while there are no rules that can be applied across brands and categories, going dark should not be an option. Ivan Moroke, CEO of the Insights division at Kantar SA, said: “All brands can spread hope, and there’s no tighter brief than Covid-19.” 

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