Escape Zoom: Session 4 – How will brands have to change communications post lockdown?

Context is everything in communication. As the context of our lives has changed dramatically over the last few months, many brands have quickly revised their marketing communications and advertising to reflect our new reality. 

But are brands right to change their strategies? Do consumers want brands to address the ‘new normal’, or does the ‘old normal’ still have its attractions? Will changes in behaviour that persist after lock down ends continue to influence how brands communicate? To get to the bottom of this tricky contextual issue, Propeller founder and chairman Martin Loat assembled a forum of brand and advertising luminaries to discuss lockdown advertising in our fourth Escape Zoom session. 

Participants in the latest Escape Zoom included: 

Lucy Jameson, Founder & Director of Strategy, Uncommon Creative Studio

Orlando Wood, Research Director & Author, System One

Matt Andrew, Partner, Ekimetrics

Katy Howell, Founder and CEO, Immediate Future

Laura Vipond, Managing Partner, Karmarama

Rob Campbell, Head of Strategy, R/GA

Victoria Usher – JCB Europe

Here’s what they had to say.

Lucy Jameson, Founder & Director of Strategy, Uncommon Creative Studio 

Lucy Jameson opens the fourth Escape Zoom session

In the short term, everyone reverted to survival and safety – the needs right at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy. The work we produced at the beginning reflected that. We advised BrewDog to begin producing hand sanitiser and we can see that this has worked really well, and we also helped craft ITV’s ‘Britain Get Talking’ campaign.

So we clearly started with a keen focus on safety and connection. Now I feel we are moving towards a slightly more playful place – we’re creating products with Earl of East called the scents of normality – scented candles that remind people of the things they would typically be doing – the pub, cinema, festival. We all need entertainment and communications can’t just be about survival. 

I suspect you won’t see so many old ads that depict people together. Not only will these be very difficult to shoot – they also risk seeming tone deaf.

It feels like we are living in a forced experiment. It’s an amazing time in many ways. We’re going to have to rethink our habits. The longer we’re in lockdown, the more likely new habits are to stick. 

Particularly if you are a challenger brand, there is a huge opportunity in this crisis – there will be a huge reset of values for consumers. 

Martin Loat, Founder & Chairman, Propeller Group

This point of appropriateness – and the risk of a brand seeming tone deaf – is a critical issue for advertisers. We are quickly approaching the Christmas ad planning and shooting season, but what will the big Christmas commercials look like? 

Should they, for example, show an extended modern family and friends, including grandparents and elderly relatives, together around a big table as would be typical, or should brands reflect the social distancing measures which have defined this year? These measures perhaps could still be in place in some form when the ad goes live. It will be interesting to see how creativity can plot against uncertainty. 

Orlando Wood, Research Director System One & Author of  “Lemon – How the advertising brain turned sour”  

Our re-test of 100 ads first airing before the pandemic during the crisis shows that there has been little change in ability of pre-existing work to connect with audiences, suggesting that brands can continue with their pre-existing work. There is indeed good reason to do so. But where there are changes in the ability of ads to connect with the public, it’s ads that are set in a slightly parallel brand world, that have a distinct time or place, that are set in the past, that are doing well. 

So fluent devices, like characters or set scenarios (such as ‘you’re not you when you’re hungry’ for Snickers) are working well and connecting even better than before.  And if you depict an Elizabethan crowd scene, audiences won’t view the piece through our current lens on the world. When things play out in a fairy tale brand world, you give yourself a kind of immunity to events such as this.

On the other hand, we are seeing adverts which are highly rhythmic, or are heavily reliant on text, or mechanistic adverts that focus on things rather than people or that repeat a sales message, are resonating less with audiences. So we are seeing everything that Peter Field might say about the importance of brand building through a crisis holding true from a creative perspective. 

We are also seeing new ads launched today land better than new ads launched a year ago, on a number of different measures. Brands that are running with tactical COVID advertising by and large are airing work that connects better than their pre-existing campaigns, particularly in telecoms and retailers, for whom the crisis has restored meaning – what could be more important that connecting and sustaining life at the moment? But there is great variability in the ability of tactical COVID ads to connect – some brands’ COVID work is connecting considerably less well than their pre-existing campaigns. 

What isn’t working in tactical COVID advertising? Ads showing empty streets, telling people what they shouldn’t be doing or using “we’re all in this together” clichés. These are viewed by audiences as more ‘preventing’ than ‘enabling’ their normal lives. 

There has been a clear shift in the way the public is attending to the world. There is a sense of heightened empathy, a heightened awareness of the precariousness of life and, in our isolation, a heightened sense of connection with the world around. In these times people want to give something of their individuality to the world – to be both maximally connected and maximally themselves. This is a good principle for brands to be living by as well. 

Make no mistake – this is a crisis. But there has been a crisis in advertising for 15 years. This is an opportunity to change advertising into something more empathetic, more entertaining, and more effective.

“You need to be more funny, creative and engaging than your audience. Your audience is out-creating creatives. We are seeing some genius bits of user-generated content and I am missing that from brands.” 

- Katy Howell, Founder & CEO, Immediate Future 

Matt Andrew, Partner, Ekimetrics data science consultancy

The data is showing that people want to get back to normal. TomTom data shows a huge uptick in people on the roads last week – before any government announcement on lockdown measures being eased.

For creatives, this desire for normal should be a key driver in how brands communicate. But the new reality has brought new cliches.  Microsoft Teams led their ad with “the world has changed” – would this be as effective now as it was four weeks ago? 

For many brands Christmas now looks like more of a key battleground than ever before. Take Fragrance and Cosmetics brands – they have taken a battering through this crisis. Social distancing and lockdown naturally means people care much less about their personal appearance. Christmas was already a key sales period for these categories before the crisis – I imagine we’ll see media spend and investment like never before as brands try to rescue their year.  Equally creativity that allows brands to achieve cut through in a crowded landscape will be essential. 

Katy Howell, Founder and CEO, Immediate Future

Katy Howell urges brands to look at user-generated creativity 

On social media, things are changing by the hour – it’s something of a ‘corona-coaster’. The mood quickly changes between platforms too – and brands are struggling with this. In particular, some brands’ efforts to utilise humour have been “laughably” bad. One leading telecoms brand in the UK is running a humorous social ad about an elderly person struggling to connect – but this led to furious replies as millions of their customers have been experiencing faulty service through lockdown. They missed the right tone. 

The bit that most brands are missing on social media is that people want a distraction. They want entertainment and snackable insights. Instead we are seeing lots of frankly boring promotional adverts. 

The huge amount of noise and traffic on social right now means two things for brands. Firstly, you need to be better than the competition to stand out – feeds move fast and you need to catch people in three seconds. Secondly, you need to be more funny, creative and engaging than your audience. Your audience is out-creating creatives. We are seeing some genius bits of user-generated content and I am missing that from brands. 

Christmas will be the biggest test for whether a brand is full of shit or not. There are a lot of household brands who have profited enormously from this terrible situation and the last thing they can do is run a normal Christmas campaign expecting people to give them even more cash.”

- Rob Campbell, Head of Strategy, R/GA

Laura Vipond, Managing Partner, Karmarama

Laura Vipond discusses re-evaluating and re-inventing 

I think we are definitely now moving into a different phase. We’re viewing them as React, Respond and Renew periods, and now we’re into planning and crafting what Renewing looks like. 

We were really pleased to see the APA has released new guidelines for producing and shooting spots for the rest of the year. We can see, amidst all the practical difficulties, that shoots are likely to take longer and so be more expensive – from scenario planning to shooting to post. 

We are reviewing our clients’ brand purposes. We need to ask, are they still relevant? Do they sound tone-deaf? We are putting a lot of resources into listening to consumers and making sure we get the tone right for our clients.

People are thinking about Christmas campaigns – we’re having to reassure clients and give them an idea of what to expect, and what can be possible. 

This is a once in a lifetime chance to re-evaluate our sector. A lot of the things that our clients have had on their ‘to-do’ list for a long time – like sorting out their digital content and ecommerce capabilities – are now a top priority.

Rob Campbell, Head of Strategy, R/GA

Rob Campbell explores why he believes Christmas will be the biggest test

Coming back to England after living around the World for 25 years, I rediscovered how much I love the “beautifully evil banter” of British culture. 

The key is appreciating everyone’s experience is not the same. That some people will still be suffering from the effects of this virus long after others are in some sort of normality. That there has been genuine hardship for so many, That said, I do think you can use humour – but you can’t be laughing at the virus, it has to be at what the situation has made us do as people. I saw a nice spot for a US Bourbon brand that talked about drinking with new friends, then showed they were referring to objects around your home that look like they’ve got some sort of face … from door handles to coat hooks. My basic premise is that – the moment you standardise your response is the moment you have lost. You need to understand and appreciate the nuances. 

Christmas will be the biggest test for whether a brand is full of shit or not. There are a lot of household brands who have profited enormously from this terrible situation and the last thing they can do is run a normal Christmas campaign expecting people to give them even more cash.

The context of the world and our lives has changed quickly and brands must remain cognizant of this. There is a clear opportunity to redefine creativity in advertising through this period – but equally brands must be careful that in their efforts to adapt to a new normal, they don’t adopt the new cliches that we are seeing emerge.  Advertisers have to work out through these lockdown months if the “old normal” is still aspirational, or nostalgic, or comforting – or rather – is it a world from which we have moved away.