2020: the year that changed everything

We’re all well aware of the impact COVID-19 has had (and is still having) on our world. My heartfelt sympathies go out to those who have been directly or indirectly affected by the virus. And my thanks go out to those who have been keeping the world running and as healthy as possible in this intense, challenging situation we all find ourselves in.

I am one of those fortunate enough for whom working from home has not made a huge difference to my day-to-day work at least. Video conferencing. Cloud apps. Remote storage. Multiple time zones. Flexible working hours. None of these things are new to bbd.

So from my comfortably isolated desk in the spare bedroom, I began to wonder how much of an impact Coronavirus has had on the advertising and marketing industries at large.

I won’t confess to having done extensive research or validation, these are purely my own musings on the topic.

23 March: the day the UK (and advertising) went into lockdown

The whole country downed tools. Shut up shop. Literally.

“What are we going to do? How do we deal with it?” These, and many more questions, were on the lips of everyone. Even the people right at the top, I would think.

It stands to reason then, that in the world of advertising no-one on the ground really seemed to have a clue what to do or say. The initial phase was pure panic. On day one, many ads seemed completely inappropriate to the situation, and as a result got pulled.

Understanding just what was acceptable in this sudden completely new world was going to take a while.

Digital-only and digitally savvy brands had a clear advantage at the start. They had something useful to talk about. Anyone who facilitated online shopping just had to play it sensitively and they were onto if not a winner but a fairly safe bet. But what of brands who dealt in ‘normal’ products or services? How do you sell a ‘normal’ brand at a time like this?

The shift to digital accelerated

No billboards here, that’s for sure. When the world paused, so did traditional advertising. Suddenly, these channels were no longer relevant. Obviously because there have been far fewer people out and about to see posters or buy newspapers and the like.

So many brands have had to shift to digital formats, for now at least. Some for the first time. It makes sense – these channels are more relevant now than ever before. We all live online at the moment.

We’ve known it for years now at bbd, but it seems brands are only now cottoning on to the fact that online channels don’t just give them the ability to shift spend to where the audiences actually are, but also to change up the audience itself. All in real time, based on what’s working or not. Test and learn.

Because it’s the advertising messaging that counts here. Get it right, and you can hit exactly the people you want to, at exactly the right time. You’ll get instant measurable results, whether that’s as clicks or positive social noise.

Thankfully we’ve gone past the initial panic phase of keyword blacklisting – it’s no longer considered bad practice to mention the C word. As long as it’s justified and relevant of course.

But get it wrong and you could be in a world of brand pain. We all know how quickly things can blow up on social and how easily led people are – just ask Donald Trump.

People are done with the new normal now

Back in the initial phase, most advertising messaging seemed to be about showing empathy. It made total sense at the start. The Co-Op’s approach felt genuine (largely due to the nature of the way the business is run) – and it at least made us all feel slightly better about going outside for the groceries (or wine).

If you’re interested to see a wider spread of themes from this phase, there’s a great list of ads which came out early on and did so convincingly, here.

But ultimately people can only watch so many video-conferencing themed ads before they start to tune out.

Even worse, some brands are guilty of continuing to use the pandemic as the sole connection to their customers. I won’t name and shame here. But it’s led to an overuse of the phrase ‘all in this together’ – there is a tangible apathy to this sort of messaging. So best avoid unless your brand has a genuine reason to say it.

Things are slowly looking up

As we enter the second phase of the pandemic, the ad messaging seems to be slowly and subtly shifting for the better. We all know that sympathising alone is short term thinking, and will not drive real, lasting relevance.

So, brands must find a reason to exist again. Nike’s latest ad is emotionally charged, and I really like the positive notes which strike a good balance between serious and uplifting. It’s about turning the corner, coming back stronger. Reflective of the wider consciousness, I think.

There are a lot of great ads out there which pull at the heartstrings, which is a strong tack. But I believe the trick for the majority of brands going forwards is to stay true to their, well, brand. And to be distinctive. It’s not just about being a part of the conversation, but having a voice.

There’s a delicate line to tread, and it’s one which I reckon KFC have managed to pull off successfully. Their latest ad calls out real people’s home-made fried chicken dinner fails. There’s that real virtual world we’re all living in again. I will let them off though, because in showing us ourselves in a light hearted way, they have humorously but positively recognised many of our small daily struggles. We all hate not being able to get a decent takeaway delivered, right? I love the simple, pure KFC style pay-off line at the end.

So where does advertising go from here?

For me, this is a sign that things are turning for the better. That there is always hope. But the signals brands send out must still be tempered with caution. I expect that many brands will play it a little safer than ‘usual’ for a while yet. Yet the universal need for relevance remains unchanged.

So be useful. Do what you (as a brand) do best. Help people – even if that’s in an everyday way. Because everyday is what matters right now.

And those brands who truly connect in the most creative ways are going to stand out and be remembered.

When it comes to standing out, it’s been said (and maybe proven?) that high budget ads aren’t truly any more effective than low budget ones.

Yet I would argue that if everything looks the same, people soon stop noticing anything. I want art direction. I want beautiful production values (where appropriate). And I want great ideas.

Our industry needs to keep pushing boundaries – and making content that resonates, entertains and inspires. Because otherwise the ‘new normal’ all too quickly becomes just plain old ‘normal’.

This may not be the time for globe-trotting photoshoots or unrealistic promises. But let’s keep pushing forward, with our integrity and ambition held high.

Gavin Grissett, Deputy Creative Director
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