By Chuck Kapelke
The streets are empty and desolate when radio station WGUM announces, “This just in: We are back! We can see people again!” Hordes of the great unwashed emerge from their apartments, climbing out from piles of spent pizza boxes, logging off from Zoom, and starting their cars for the first time in months. Grabbing a pack of gum, they run out to the streets, hugging and kissing strangers, rejoicing as they go back to their now-mummified offices. The tagline: “We could all use a fresh start.”
The scene is from “For When It’s Time,” a new spot produced by ad agency Energy BBDO for Mars Wrigley’s Extra Gum. The ad campaign generated more than 471 million impressions, and BBDO has released a video game in the U.K. designed to retrain people on the basics of how to behave in public (step one: wear pants).
“It’s about providing a little bit of hope, something positive,” says Lucas Owens, SVP creative director at Energy BBDO, specializing in copywriting. “The moment you hear you can go back out, you’re going to burst through the door and run out into the world. And you’re not always going to think to brush your teeth or take a shower. But the one thing that you can do is grab a pack of gum.”
The ad helps to illustrate how brands are adapting their messaging as the U.S. starts to emerge from a tragic and uncertain period. But there is unlikely to be a single ecstatic moment to mark the pandemic’s end, which means marketers must continue to recalibrate their strategies and update their creative on a fairly constant basis, as has been the case since March 2020.
According to a June survey by Morning Consult, 39 percent of consumers remain “very concerned” about the coronavirus outbreak, the lowest number since the start of the pandemic, but still a significant portion of the population. At the same time, 81 percent of Americans report that they are ready for change.
“Early in the pandemic, a lot of us thought there would be a switch flipped and we’d all go back to normal, but the polling suggests the return is likely to be a much slower trajectory,” says Alyssa Meyers, brands reporter at Morning Consult. “It continues to be really difficult terrain for brands to navigate people’s comfort levels, which are changing slowly over time, and are very different, depending on demographics.”
Looking for Levity
While the mood varies, Morning Consult’s survey suggests that consumers are ready for a lighter tone. Indeed, funny ads are 139 percent more likely to increase purchase likelihood, compared to March 2020, and entertaining ads are 95 percent more likely to do so. Nevertheless, it’s critical for marketers to maintain a balance and be cognizant of what has been a harrowing year-plus for many people.
“We’ve endured a really challenging year, but that has also opened up an incredible era of creativity and innovation. Brands have had to adapt radically and rapidly, and we’re not going back to the way things used to be.” — John Travis, VP of brand marketing at Adobe
“At the beginning of the lockdown, brands all struck a ‘we’re all in this together’ tone — cue the somber piano music,” says Mollie Rosen, EVP of strategy, insight, and innovation at the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s).
“Coming out of it will be very different, as not everybody’s experiencing this the same way. For some people, it’s ‘revenge living,’ trying to return to socializing normally. But for many, that new normal doesn’t include a family member that they once had, or they might still be in an economic crisis because they lost their job.”
Positive and inspirational messages that show awareness of the current climate can help bolster a brand’s purpose.
For example, vacation-home rental firm Vrbo produced an eye-watering ad in which people checking into their place are treated to a surprise reunion with loved ones they hadn’t seen since before COVID. The spot features crooner John Legend singing “I Can See Clearly Now,” with his wife, Chrissy Teigen, and their two children joining in.
In a new ad for Vrbo, people checking into their vacation homes get a surprise reunion with their families post-pandemic. Featuring a lush rendition of “I Can See Clearly Now” by singer John Legend, the spot puts life after COVID-19 in a hopeful light. As things gradually return to normal, many advertisers are taking an upbeat, yet grounded approach to their messaging. VRBO/YouTube
“When I think about 2019, prior to what was essentially a global trauma, a lot of advertising seems incredibly frivolous, like we were living without a care,” says Abbie Baehr, chief strategy officer at Crispin Porter Bogusky, which produced the VRBO ad. “One of the things this collective trauma has taken us through is this notion of having more integrity and better values about the work we do and the way we represent ourselves. The work that will come out of this year will be much more rooted in genuine, deep human understanding.”
Even as the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, the nation remains deeply divided regarding political and social issues that brands must continually navigate. While Morning Consult’s weekly survey of 2,200 U.S. adults has shown a drop in expectations that brands take on issues such as racism and social and economic inequalities, 85 percent still say it’s important that companies contribute to society, and 82 percent say it’s important that a company has a raison d’etre that goes beyond profit.
“We’re living through a moment that is unsettled, and brands have been called upon to take a stand,” says Chick Foxgrover, EVP of creative technologies and innovation at the 4A’s. “Whether brands are going to continue to be the location [where] these debates take place is still a question. Listening is going to be even more important for brands, including paying very close attention to their social channels.”
Brands can use creativity to ensure their ads have a shelf life while also addressing the moment. Last November, for instance, Adobe released a warm-hearted ad called “Special Delivery.” With a rollicking cover of The Beatles’ “All Together Now” as the soundtrack, the ad depicts the owner of a closed-down ice cream shop using Adobe’s tools to pivot the business toward making deliveries. No one wears masks and COVID is not mentioned, but a message of hope and renewal is pretty clear.
“Done right, marketing can both empathize with customers — with what we’re collectively going through — and have an optimistic tone for the future,” says John Travis, VP of brand marketing at Adobe. “We’ve endured a really challenging year, but that has also opened up an incredible era of creativity and innovation. Brands have had to adapt radically and rapidly, and we’re not going back to the way things used to be.”
Because the pandemic’s end is unfolding differently across geographies, marketers should use targeting to strike a proper tone. “One of the key pieces throughout all this has been segmentation,” says Jay Pattisall, principal analyst at Forrester. “It’s about understanding the current state of the pandemic in the areas where you’re advertising, on a market-to-market basis, and using addressable media to share messages based upon the market conditions.”
As so many brands lurched into developing digital offerings during the past year, brands should work with their agencies to find creative ways to differentiate their messages. “Creativity will be massively important,” Pattisall says. “It would behoove most marketers to strike a very upbeat tone, like the tone of the roaring ’20s coming out of the last pandemic, which ushered in an era of creativity, consumerism, and euphoria [from] being out and doing things together again.”
Just because the pandemic is slowing doesn’t mean we’re not all in this together still. “Any brand should just try to make people leave feeling better than before they saw your commercial,” says Monique Kaplan, an SVP and creative director at Energy BBDO, specializing in art direction.
“Ultimately, we’re all human at heart, and we all need to look forward to something,” Kaplan adds. “The world is still very much going through this — none of us are out of it completely. So, if we can make people feel better, give them a bit of a smile and a little bit of hope, then we’ve done our job.”