The playbook for how to advertise during a pandemic is still being written.
Coronavirus marketing fails are inevitable. Retargeting ads for out-of-stock products and tone-deaf or opportunistic messaging trail consumers on the web.
“This is an unprecedented situation. You have to think deeply about what is right for your business,” said Forrester principal analyst Jim Nail, who has been advising brands during the pandemic.
But as brands figure out how they want to approach their marketing during this pandemic, common themes are cropping up.
To avoid a coronavirus marketing fail, brands need to think long term, build their brands over focusing on performance and make sure their messaging appears in the right context.
Think long term
Brands want to sell products, agencies want to get paid for their work and publishers for showing ads – But if these parties focus on short-term fixes to boost revenue, they’ll make bad decisions.
For instance, Norwegian Cruise Lines acted in its short-term interests by having its sales agents tell customers the coronavirus couldn’t survive in tropical destinations. That decision could alienate customers for life.
“There is nothing you can do to stimulate demand in the short term,” Forrester’s Nail said. “Put your time and effort into the longer-term thinking.”
Instead, the guiding question for brands should be how they want to be perceived after the pandemic is over, Nail said.
Thinking long term also means bending rules to help consumers. Most travel companies waived cancelation fees, change fees and extended loyalty program deadlines, Nail noted.
He also recommends that brands invest in data-driven measurement for their marketing. “Companies with these tools will be able to sense when demand starts to pick up,” he said, and benefit from the head start to move back in the market.
Don’t advertise out-of-stock products
While some verticals such as travel have seen demand flatline, others, including CPG, are seeing huge surges in demand. The retargeter Criteo has seen increases in sales among retailers that sell home goods, consumer electronics and health products.
But stoking that demand via retargeting is a tricky proposition. Products may be out of stock in some areas but not others, for example. OMD will use APIs that give real-time information on product volume and availability on a SKU level, said Chief Media Officer George Manas. Then automated rules in the DSP OMD uses turn off ads touting products about to go out of stock.
Criteo employs similar tactics. If a retailer’s product feed on their website is up to date, the ad will show based on that browsing history. Some clients layer on server-to-server integrations or use APIs to sync with real-time product availability, said Jess Breslav, executive managing director of Criteo.
Many brands are keyword blocking “coronavirus” – now the most-blocked keyword at Integral Ad Science – despite how frustrating it is for digital media companies.
Because of the sensitivities around appearing next to bad news, Nail has noticed brands are “sticking with TV and online video and streaming.”
OMD customizes approaches based on a brand’s comfort level – which includes advertising freely on coronavirus-related content to being more surgical, such as steering spend toward the sports and entertainment sections over harder news.
While there’s plenty of news inventory to advertise against, not all brands have an appetite for that content, so other “premium” inventory is now in hot demand.
“A lot of investment and media weight was behind sports tentpoles that were postponed,” Manas said. “Brands need to find new content opportunities, but the pool of premium inventory has shrunk a bit.”
OMD is scrambling to route that spend into similar, high-quality environments, using its agency clout to set up agency-level deals with curated, high-quality inventory.
Live in the same world as your customers
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the world and made once familiar scenes for ads – for example, friends hanging out together – feel strange.
Brands need to bring today’s context into their ads, said Noah Mallin, chief of brand strategy at Gen Z-focused content creator IMGN Media. “More people respond if you acknowledge the situation. It makes people feel like the brand is living in the world we all live in.”
IMGN Media, which operates social media meme accounts and creates content for brands’ social media handles, had planned an entire campaign around what to wear for date nights. They scrapped the campaign because it made zero sense in an environment where social contact is forbidden.
But the new idea acknowledged the current reality. The team refocused the creative around looking good when you meet someone on Zoom.
Brands that jump in to solve real-world problems can also earn high marks from consumers.
“You want your brand to be one that’s empathetic, and one that’s thinking about the greater good,” Nail said.
He called out LVMH and spirits companies making hand sanitizer, as well as automakers producing ventilators, as examples that win the respect of customers.
“Consumers are also looking for businesses to step up and help others, rather than just conducting business as usual,” Breslav said, calling out fashion brands making hand sanitizer or surgical masks.
Sometimes, brands can be helpful merely by touting their existing set of goods.
Encantos, for example, is a media company with e-learning products, which are in hot demand right now as parents work from home. The company is continuing its marketing plans, working with influencers to promote its products.
“People are really open to working with us, because they understand we are trying to be helpful. We aren’t trying to sell something,” Encantos CEO Steven Wolfe Pereira said.
But not every brand’s product is helpful during a pandemic, and trying to do so can come off as tone-deaf, he warned. “It has to be authentic to your brand purpose.”