By Elaine Chen
The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed many aspects of consumers' lives and brought numerous sectors of the world economy to a halt. During this chaotic and stressful time, marketers are desperately searching for paths to stability. TV advertising, for instance, continues to be an important way for brands to connect with consumers. Drawing on the company's Ad Intelligence service, COVID-19 Barometer and Creative Guardrails studies, Kantar has found that the TV advertising landscape is changing for both consumers and brands.
While some brands made significant cuts to their media spending, others relied heavily on TV advertising during the early phases of the pandemic, creating crisis-themed ads that sought to engage consumers in new, meaningful ways.
"Crises offer a focused and short-lived moment when a particular sort of message can resonate," says J. Walker Smith, chief knowledge officer at Kantar's consulting division. "It is a moment to celebrate others, and to let the light of others shine on the brand."
As the country goes through a fitful reopening process, some important trends have started to emerge.
Opportunity Amid Upheaval?
While marketers grapple with whether they should advertise during a crisis, it's clear that consumers welcome brand messaging. According to Kantar's COVID-19 Barometer, an ongoing survey of consumer attitudes in the wake of the crisis, 68 percent of U.S. respondents agreed in late May that they're comfortable with the amount of ads they are seeing.
With so much upheaval in the country, ads remain a valuable marketing channel to learn what companies are doing, and there is strong interest expressed for messages that explain how brands are helping their employees, the community, and consumers during the crisis.
Consumers know what they want from ad messaging now. For instance, close to three-quarters of consumers desire ads that have a positive perspective and use a reassuring tone, per Kantar's COVID-19 Barometer. What's more, avoiding seeming to exploit the current crisis is critical for 70 percent of consumers. And even in severely stressful times, most consumers are not opposed to brands using humor in their ads: Less than a third of those surveyed agreed brands should avoid a humorous approach.
Notably, as the pandemic wears on, consumer views regarding brand advertising have started to evolve. While consumers in March — when the virus started to spread in the U.S. — were particularly eager to get information from brands and sensitive about exploitative ads, these concerns began to fade by mid‑April.
As time goes on and consumers get more and more accustomed to a "new normal," they will likely become increasingly open to hearing promotional messages from brands. They may also welcome some light-hearted advertising, as a break from a stressful environment.
TV Ads Resilient
Television is a particularly strong platform for advertising now, with 44 percent of consumers spending more time watching TV, according to the Barometer; web surfing, social media, and other digital channels also saw comparable increases. Usage increases for print, radio, and other media were less common.
Video formats also offer a higher-resolution experience than print or digital display, making them a solid choice for communicating nuanced messages at a time of crisis.
However, TV advertising is also comparatively costly, causing many companies to make cuts in such spending. Kantar has found that, starting from mid-March, spending on national TV advertising across key categories declined by 40 percent on average, compared to 2019.
Although this marks a significant drop, it seems to have plateaued at this level, with spending declines remaining slightly above 40 percent through late April and then trending down to around 35 percent for the last two weeks of May.
Strategies also vary significantly, according to the sector and the brand. For example, with much of their business at a near standstill, travel companies all but ceased advertising by late March, although a slight rebound was seen by mid-May.
Meanwhile, categories like household products and pharmaceuticals actually increased spend year-over-year at various points during the pandemic. Retail also seemed to be rebounding after several weeks of cutting spending by roughly half, as retail outlets began to reopen nationwide.
Mapping the Path Forward
It's clear that marketers face many challenges when navigating this starkly different landscape. The way to find the right path lies in staying in tune with consumers. Kantar's Creative Guardrails study looks deeper at how specific ads are resonating with consumers, based on Link AI, the company's machine-learning tool that quickly evaluates and measures creative performance. After testing ads taken from two stages of the crisis — late February/March and April — Kantar developed several key recommendations for brands.
Kantar found that consumer attitudes have changed throughout the crisis. While consumers grew less uncertain as the crisis stretched into April, they also became less positive, with those surveyed feeling declining levels of community, togetherness, and hope. (The research was conducted prior to the recent protests following the death of George Floyd, which has sparked a significant national movement that will likely spur additional changes in these trends.) However, these insights also provide an opportunity for brands to distract, reassure, or even inspire. Some key directions brands can pursue as they craft ad creative include:
- Stay positive. Outperforming with consumers were ads that show positivity and how consumers are making the best of the current stressful situation. For example, Taco Bell helped drive both branding and sales lift with an ad that promoted a deal offered by the restaurant chain and the value of sharing with old friends, while Nike, Hershey, and Samsung had high enjoyment scores with themes of "coming together."
- Focus on the familiar. Familiarity can be reassuring to consumers at times of chaos, providing an opportunity for well-established brands. For example, Kraft Heinz got high marks for its "We Got You America" ad showing how its team is hard at work ensuring that its products will still make it to grocery shelves across America.
- Take action. As recorded in the COVID-19 Barometer and Creative Guardrails studies, consumers want to know what companies are doing in the face of the pandemic. Successful ads focused more on the effort employees were making, and less about what management is doing. For example, the United States Postal Service created an effective ad showing how the government agency continues to serve Americans during the coronavirus pandemic.
- Stand out. Consumers are suffering from message fatigue and most advertising is falling into a "sea of sameness." The Creative Guardrails and Barometer reports found there's an increasing opportunity for brands to use humor to connect. This works best when it is already part of the brand's DNA. For example, YouTube's ad showing how consumers use its videos to learn new skills amid the pandemic — sometimes not so successfully — scored well for enjoyment.
As the crisis continues, forward-thinking brands will realize that now is not the time to retreat. Instead, brands that are able to thoughtfully adapt to the new reality while remaining true to their brand values will need to advertise to convey new messages.
The brands that go beyond simply helping consumers and instead inspire them will be able to benefit both now and well into the future.
About Author: Elaine Chen is the VP of marketing communications at Kantar, a partner in the ANA Thought Leadership Program.