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PMG Digital Made for Humans

Navigating Ad Messaging During COVID-19

6 MINUTE READ | March 30, 2020

Navigating Ad Messaging During COVID-19

PMG COVID-19 Navigating Ad Creative

In the rapidly evolving new world of remote everything, the pressure on digital marketing and ecommerce is only increasing as retail brands shift from “come see us” to “we deliver.” As many states and major metro areas move to increase social distancing measures, a shared sense of austerity and caution is the current social language, so we need to speak conscientiously within that context. 

Over 1/3 of the world’s population is under some form of “shelter in place” as the global economy grinds to a halt in the attempt to slow the novel coronavirus outbreak. News consumption has become America’s new favorite pastime. Of those who have access to the internet, over 20% of bandwidth is reportedly being spent on coronavirus-related content amid live sports cancellations and Hollywood shifting to on-demand and streaming. 

Social media and other digital platforms are seeing huge upticks in time spent as people turn to these platforms to stay connected and informed in the heat of social distancing measures. In like manner, streaming video services such as Disney+, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video are even more popular among subscribers as people seek a break from the news. (It also helps that studios are releasing box office hits earlier than anticipated amid rapid school closures and WFH arrangements.)

Consumer interest is hyperfocused on the outbreak, and as such, advertisers must confront the challenging realities of being a business in a public health crisis. For many, it’s using advertising channels to share messages of solidarity; for others, it’s determining if it even makes sense to advertise or share promotions — asking, how do we ensure we’re saying the right thing? 

Perhaps, but do so with purpose and a plan. While it may feel strange to continue talking about products during a time of crisis, as a brand that makes products, it’s also strange not to talk about them. For many retailers, the digital storefront is currently the only one that’s open for business. Pausing all digital and social advertising may not be a reasonable business option. 

How do we ensure we’re saying the right thing? 

If you do take a moment of silence, it’s a good time to take a breath and reset your communication strategy. Whether you pause or keep moving ahead, it’s clear that every brand has to reassess its ad communication strategy in the new environment. Being mindful of the messages driving customers to your brand is now more critical than ever. 

  • Consistent communication. Be present and communicate consistently. Digital and social engagement will continue to see a significant surge as people work from home and use these platforms to remain informed. 

  • Pragmatic and transparent brand messaging. Develop an ad communications plan in alignment with your PR or communications team to announce temporary store closures. Recommend an alternative (order direct online) and how your company plans to address health concerns related to shipping and handling of products. 

  • Product-specific messaging. While it may be relevant for you to continue product-specific advertising, the right timing considerations will be unique for every brand and audience. As you adjust messaging, be sensitive to your customers’ experience and the impact of social distancing. Be wary of painting a picture that’s too rosy or disconnected from reality. Product-specific explainers and stories that highlight features, size range, and construction can support product marketing while mitigating the risk of tone-deafness. 

  • Delivery and shipping messaging. The majority of commerce has already shifted to delivery-only. If your brick-and-mortar locations are closed, scrub your creative and media for any messages that support in-store traffic, and update with an appropriate direct purchase and delivery or store pick-up message if you haven’t already. 

  • Group model photography. If you can’t avoid group photography completely, use them with discretion. Depictions of groups could come off as tone-deaf right now. 

  • Use photos of more than one model in close contact with caution. Review these on a case-by-case basis to ensure the context is appropriate. While family or couples photography is probably safe, photos of people hugging, shaking hands, or touching can be seen as tone-deaf or culturally out of touch, leading to negative social sentiment. 

  • Photos featuring public settings or group gatherings. As everyone grapples with social distancing, be sensitive to photos featuring scenes and public locations that are clearly off-limits to your customers. 

  • Pick up in-store. Even if you have stores open, we don’t recommend urging customers to do anything that could be perceived as running counter to current social distancing guidelines.

  • “Limited supply” or get-it-while-it-lasts headlines. While urgency and exclusivity are normally great motivators for promotions, we recommend avoiding any copy that could be interpreted as capitalizing on consumer panic or encouraging binge-buying. 

  • Overly aspirational ads. Much advertising is grounded in selling a fantasy or a “better version of reality.” For now, avoid scenes that overreach in depicting “the good life.” 

  • Virtue signaling. Most brands have issued a formal statement at this point. If you do make a general brand statement, do so with sensitivity. Avoid language that works too hard to characterize the situation; you could run the risk of sounding self-righteous or opportunistic. 

  • Increase your focus on monitoring. Heightened vigilance and monitoring are critical during this period. Work with your analytics teams and agency partners to set up daily and weekly social sentiment and performance monitoring. We recommend making this a daily part of your marketing operations and internal communications. 

  • Be agile in your messaging. The situation is changing rapidly, so be aware and responsive in both your ad creative and organic content. 

  • Communicate the shift to online-only. Be transparent in the change in your operations. 

  • Be flexible with your brand. Your brand standards and guidelines will have to flex a bit as you hit limits in creative production capability and capacity. 

  • Be more agile than usual in your creative budgeting. Be ready to shift resources from one message to another as sentiment and behavior evolve.

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While the full impact of social distancing on brands’ marketing is still uncertain, brands are rapidly reallocating budgets from traditional and drive-to-store channels to digital and social programs. As the digital storefront becomes the center of attention for retail brands, mapping out a clear communications strategy and guardrails for ad creative in the “new normal” is the first step in moving ahead.


Posted by Scott Everett

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