COVID-19 Whiplash: Brand Strategies Are Shifting Again As Cases Rise

COVID-19 brand strategies

It never ends.

COVID-19 outbreaks and lockdowns of varying degrees in states such as Texas, Florida, Arizona and California mean advertisers must once again adapt their strategies.

After pausing media spend in March and April, advertisers tentatively returned in late May. But the rise of coronavirus cases in more than 30 states means they’re accelerating some new initiatives launched during the pandemic while pulling back on others.

Lindblad Expeditions, a small, luxury adventure cruise line that caters to adults over 50, paused all ad spending aside from paid search and retargeting and slashed its budget by 75% when its ships stopped operating in March. The company turned off CTV, social media and direct mail, and focused instead on ramping a content program to entertain and educate customers stuck at home.

The program, which included virtual expeditions and multiple videos per day about the Lindblad experience, kept the community close and the company’s awareness high while expeditions couldn’t operate, said Kim Kyaw, Lindblad’s director of advertising and digital.

Pandora Jewelry also shifted its marketing strategy when its stores closed in early spring, putting its regular campaign programs on pause and focusing instead on marketing new products in response to the pandemic. In May, Pandora relaunched its 2017 Nurse charm and pledged to donate the proceeds to a national coronavirus response fund for nurses.

“We shifted our focus,” said North America CMO Charisse Hughes. “We considered how we could continue to engage with consumers while striking the right balance during an unprecedented period.”

Pandora supported the launch with an ad campaign on national TV, while pushing back all of its previously committed Q2 TV spend commitments to Q3 to better align with store reopenings.

“From a messaging standpoint, we wanted to get it right,” she said.

Focus on data and DTC

As the lockdowns dragged on through late spring and brands kept regular ad campaigns paused, they accelerated their use of real-time data, as well as ecommerce and direct-to-consumer plays.

Recognizing that Mother’s Day, one of its tentpole holidays, wouldn’t be the same this year with stores closed, Pandora launched a virtual gifting tool on its website to allow moms to pick out jewelry themselves.

“We are learning from COVID-19 to invest in tools that are relevant to our consumer,” Hughes said. “We are working on improving the virtual experience on our website through better sizing tools and more user-generated content.”

Pandora, which makes 80% of sales through brick-and-mortar retail, has shifted spend toward search and programmatic in an effort to ramp up ecommerce sales while consumers were locked down.

“Our focus is to be the best at omnichannel retailing, and that means providing a consistent experience wherever people shop,” Hughes said.

Consumer health giant Bayer also ramped up its ecommerce strategy as store traffic declined in March and April, working with its retail partners to ensure people could easy purchase its products online. Store traffic still hasn’t returned to pre-COVID-19 levels, so Bayer is thinking long term about how to continue making its brands available to consumers online.

“The shift in consumer shopping habits are here to stay,” said Josh Palau, VP of media strategy and platforms at Bayer. “This isn’t a trend, but a fundamental shift in behavior.”

Lindblad can’t sell DTC, but it’s using real-time data to direct spend toward cohorts and regions showing stronger intent to travel. With help from its media agency, Merkle, the company is layering demographic, location, consumer spending and Google mobility data on top of its customer data to better understand shifting sentiment in regards to travel across the country in real-time.

Some travel brands are shifting their targeting toward millennial and Gen Z audiences, which have shown more willingness to travel. Rather than planning around regular vacation cycles, travel brands are trying to seed inspiration for opportunistic local escapes.

“People are making decisions based how they feel about their readiness to travel,” said Coleen Kuehn, EVP and GM of Merkle’s travel, media and entertainment practice. “If someone is not ready, not only will you lose that business in the short-term, but you might turn them off long-term.”

Second spike

While brands were adapting new tactics in the spring, many were planning around a reopening – and perhaps a recovery – by Q3.

Lindblad planned to ramp up ad spend in July to promote its fall and winter expeditions, but it pushed that plan back until 2021 when cases began to spike across the south and west in June.

The company is now highlighting its safety and cleaning protocols in messaging to consumers, and emphasizing flexibility for guests. It’s holding webinars with customers to discuss its safety procedures and surveying them afterward to gauge how comfortable they feel traveling.

“Communication with our past guests and loyal customers is definitely a priority,” Kyaw said.

Lindblad’s media spend is still down at least 50% from pre-COVID-19 levels, and given the recent trajectory of the virus, the company has no immediate plans to increase spend.

“It’s a week-by-week thing,” Kyaw said. “A lot of factors go into it, like the willingness of guests to travel, the willingness of people in those communities to allow guests and whether the airlines are going to those areas.”

While Pandora is forging ahead with its marketing plan for Q3, it’s also taking a more agile approach, shifting spend on a state-by-state basis based on reopenings, Hughes said.

Marketers were quick to pause spend in the chaotic early days of the pandemic, but turning channels on and off is inefficient in the long term. Brands need to communicate with customers and adapt based on their responses. Many also have an opportunity right now to win back customers as people reconsider their habits and the brands they use during this massive shift in lifestyle.

“The adage ‘if you’re not talking to your customers, somebody else is,’ is true,” Kuehn said. “Now is a good time to keep your loyalists close, but go after some of those lapsed users.”

But when it comes to planning, most marketers can’t think past the current quarter given the uncertainty around COVID-19.

“The plan is always changing,” Kuehn said. “That’s the new normal.”

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