Advertising in the time of Covid-19

Written By: Mythili Chandrasekar
NEW DELHI Published: Oct 06, 2020, 11.04 AM(IST)

A staff member adjusts her mask as she poses inside a recreation of a Victorian pharmacy in the Science Museum during a Guest Preview Day ahead of the official opening on Wednesday, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in London, Britain Photograph:( Reuters )

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This time around, the gap between news and brands has widened, as has the distance between “people behavior” and “brand behavior”. 

Any scan of advertising over a certain period of time, shows a response to the socio- cultural ethos of the times. And it has often been argued that advertising largely follows and reflects trends rather than lead the change. Covid-vertising is no different. This is not a criticism of the advertising or marketing minds, but brings to light the increasingly lesser roles that brands play in times of significant and world changing phenomena, that too distressing ones. This time around, the gap between news and brands has widened, as has the distance between “people behavior” and “brand behavior”. 

A large amount of advertising, one could hazard a guess, more than 70%, has carried on as always, with no acknowledgement of the new reality. This is mostly with categories where brand choice has not been impacted – cars, phones, personal technology, fashion, home décor, soft drinks and more. Is it because white teeth, a good camera phone, a high performing car have nothing to do with the suddenly-changed reality? Or is it because the brands hope life will soon be back to normal? 

Of those that have chosen to respond and reflect, three categories emerge. All of these either Reassure, Reframe, or Revive. One way or the other, they are all centered on the home. Reassure: Make the home safer, make the food that comes in safer, make going out safer. Reframe:  see the brand in this new context. Revive: make the most of your time at home, emotionally. 

First, products and services that nod to safety, hygiene and social distancing – some sound like they are just quickly rustling up something to say, but some others offer some real services, however small. From everyone jumping on to the sanitizer, disinfection, and immunity bandwagon, to a travel brand offering a little help with travel regulations and testing. The reassurance that food order-in brands give on systems and processes is a little bit scary because it makes you wonder. Gosh, were they not wearing gloves, cooking at high temperatures and covering their hair earlier? The examples in this category are endless.

Home delivery, immunity products, sanitizers for everything from vegetables to door handles, safe commuting and travelling. Hopefully, the overall hygiene consciousness will make some dent in a low immunity country with a high immunity mindset, where “kuch nahin hoga” and “nothing will happen” is a common refrain. 

Second, where the product is the same, but their ads reflect the new reality – a demonstration of the same product, reframed in a slightly adjusted context. Awesome formation biking with the required six- feet distance in between. Gas relievers in the context of stay-at-home food cravings. Easy banking from home. Advice to get out and run. The need for a break from all the unexpected housework and the travails of work-from-home, quite a few directed at men who suddenly find themselves at the kitchen sink. News of pregnancy announced while the husband’s boss is on video call, marriage sites aiding virtual meetings and weddings. There is some nice humour here. The great Indian ability to laugh at ourselves and advertising’s role in helping to see the lighter side – a little bit of entertainment, a little insight, a little moment of connect – “aisa hi hota hai”, “ it happens like this only”. 

The third category is of the ads that have responded to the new emotions at play. These are few and far between, mostly with brands that have home products. Revive the home space. Do all the things you always wanted but never had the time to, with your family. Revive relationships and interests. Keep your mind and heart open. Also, here and there, a little nudge to show resilience, to keep going with your ambitions, and tips on restarting your life. A few brands have also made a little effort to salute their partners – a soft drink to its restaurant workers, a pharma brand to pharmacists, an engine oil brand to mechanics. A hat tip with a touch of sympathy and support. 

Reassure, Reframe, Revive. Can brand communication go beyond this? Or is it left to the products and services to first redesign themselves? The amount of newspaper space given to the impact on mental health is increasing every day. Impact on society, beyond the advertisement-watching segment is expected to change dramatically. Will “coping” be a big theme going forward? Fundamental concepts of Time, Space and Place, and Value are being redefined. 

Are there opportunities for brands to take Reassure, Reframe, Revive to deeper matters of the mind and heart? It doesn’t get more mainstream than this. So not just in the festival entries, please!

(The writer is a Consumer Behaviour and Brand Strategy Enthusiast & Co-author, Here Today Here Tomorrow)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)

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