Across the globe, people are slowly emerging from their homes and rejoining society. But with COVID-19 still out there, and no vaccine currently available, the return to normal is slow and not steady.

When cities were in full lockdown early this spring, it also marked a global marketing shutdown. What once were crowded, brightly lit public squares in cities such as New York, London and Tokyo, became like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie. If no one is there to see the ads, do they make an impact?

Every ad dollar in the United States last year led to $9 in sales, according to the research firm IHS Markit. But when those ad dollars dry up, the outlets that execute and display them go out like lights. From the ad agencies to the sign companies, to the TV stations, radio stations, newspapers, and magazines—a ripple effect hits the businesses, affecting hundreds of thousands of people.

As a result of this global quieting of the advertising marketplace, companies that want to sell their products with the help of messaging must rethink their strategies.

How Brands Should Message

Before we discuss how media buys work in this new world, we should first talk about how brands should be positioning themselves and how they can be sensitive to their consumers during these hard times.

In the current climate, brands should center their messaging around the following three topics:

1. Care for Customers

2. Care for Employees

3. Care for Community

For this reason, if you’re going to message, think about what your customer needs before determining the message you want to send. They aren’t looking for regular marketing right now—they seek distraction, deals, information, guidance and support.

While your brand might not be positioned to handle all of these things, think about what you can do and start there. When you put the customer first, they won’t soon forget it.

The next step is to make sure customers know that you’re taking care of your employees. Are you giving them ample sick leave? Are they still getting paid? Are lay-offs or furloughs happening? These are uncertain times, and customers are paying attention.

While certain negative side effects may be unavoidable, be open and honest with your customers about how you’re protecting your employees. We’re all unsure of what the future holds, but knowing our favorite brands are doing whatever they can to protect their employees makes it easier to purchase from that brand in the future.

Some CEOs are cutting their own salaries to provide for employees, some are applying for government support, and others are offering paid leave to all employees, even hourly to help keep their people safe and happy. Audiences will remember this, and they will base their purchasing decisions on this in the future.

Finally, brands should be thinking about what they can do for their local communities. The world is coming together right now, and everyone can play a part. Some companies have donated money to hospitals, others have shifted production lines to create needed supplies. Still others, like streaming services and video conferencing services, have offered extended free trials and special deals to help society through this crisis.

The world was already shifting towards ethics-based marketing, and the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent protests against systemic racism and police brutality have only pushed trends further in that direction. Once all of this passes, customers won’t remember your taglines or your video editing. They’re going to remember what you stood for.

Once you’ve settled on what you can do and who you can do it for, you’re able to finally spread that message to your audience. But with streets empty, where can you share it?

Where to Market

There are still some traditional ad buys that accomplish the holy grail of “reach and frequency.”

TV is still a good, if expensive, buy, but with fewer cars on the road, radio has taken a hit.

Newspapers are seeing some upswing, so that can be a measured purchase for media spend. But the magazine industry has also taken a hit, so those high-priced, glossy pages may not be as effective.

There are still some tried-and-true methods out there to reach a large targeted audience.

Direct mailing and email blasts can cover a huge swath of people. Programmatic buying can target an audience on lots of different media without costing as much as a general-market buy. Targeted video online, when done right—think the first three seconds—can be one solution on outlets such as Youtube. Content placed on social media, such as Tik Tok, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter are also an answer. So too are ads on free apps and rich media on websites.

And a big swing at the ad game is being taken by AVODs (Advertising-based Video On Demand).

Live-event marketing has taken a mortal blow now, but virtual events are an interesting thing to investigate as an ad medium, like Fortnite did by inserting a virtual Travis Scott concert in the middle of its game.

But now more than ever, the industry needs to be looking at newer, more unusual ways to get their messages out there.

Be innovative and think differently.

One way is to harness the ever-growing number of voice assistants, like Alexa and Google. Their penetration in the US is staggering. According to eMarketer, it’s estimated that 111.8 million people in the US will use a voice assistant at least monthly this year. That represents 39.4% of US internet users and 33.8% of the overall population.

Another (and not so new) method is integrating in-game ads into the mobile or desktop as product placements. They can be banners on billboards, screens, or 3D products with which users can interact. If you’re looking for message retention, these haven’t been proven to be the best bets, but they could be a creative part of an overall strategy to extend your brand if that’s the target audience you’re after.

And speaking of product placement, it can now be more than seeing your actual product in a film or show, but, instead, placing it there virtually. That empty table may now hold a box of cereal or a can of soda that wasn’t there when the shoot was finished.

It’s time to get creative, and isn’t that what advertising is all about?

An edited version of this post first ran on Definition 6’s blog.

Frank Radice is the managing partner of the media and marketing consultancy, Vida FR Company, in New York and London; and the expert-in-residence at Definition6 in the U.S. and Vixen Labs in the U.K. As the former president and CMO of the National Academy Of Television Arts and Sciences, he was responsible for creating the first national Emmy Award for promos. He is the former executive vice president of The NBC Agency, a two-time Emmy-winning ABC news producer, executive producer at CNN, director for Paramount TV as well as an author, musician and composer.

Tags: coronavirus covid-19 frank radice guest column marketing pandemic

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