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‘We’re all in this together’? Why brands have so little to say in the pandemic

Marketers care. Not just about the crisis, but about you, too. Really. How the pandemic has hamstrung advertising into vague platitudes and self-serving gestures.

‘We’re all in this together’? Why brands have so little to say in the pandemic

By now we’ve all seen it, right? The crowds of spring breakers defiantly (and drunkenly) standing up against calls for social distancing, prioritizing their God-given right to party over any pandemic precautions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “If I get corona, I get corona,” Brady Sluter sloshed into a reporter’s mic. “At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.”

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More recently, dozens of people made the national news for crowding into an Austin, Texas, swimming hole despite that state’s shelter-at-home order.

Waves of press and social media scolding rolled across timelines everywhere questioning these people’s selfishness, sanity, and common sense. But these defiant bozos didn’t just become bozos amid the COVID-19 crisis. We’re not learning anything new about humanity that wasn’t already there (there are a lot of clowns out there, natch).

The same can be said about brands and advertising right now.

Marketers, much like presidents, CEOs, or drunken yahoos, don’t magically change in a crisis or extreme circumstances. For good or ill, their existing qualities merely become more stark.The world advertising typically reflects back to us—beautiful people in close contact, high-fives, face-touching, and generally having good times in public—is a life that feels far, far away right now. Even if most of the time that ad image was fake or at best highly idealized (has anyone ever had that much fun at an Applebee’s?), the world being sold at least seemed in the broad realm of possible. Now what? You’re gonna run an ad with the employee at the curbside takeout window looking like Dustin Hoffman in Outbreak, handing the to-go order to a driver with their mouth covered by a bandanna and wearing nitrile gloves and a cut-up trash bag around their body? Then she takes it home to her friends with everyone sitting in their isolated rooms enjoying their meals over Zoom? Nah. That’s a wee bit dark.

The shift to pandemic advertising

So when we think about the current crop of virus crisis-related ads, what have we seen? They started out slow, with Ford leading the way early last week, but now most major brands have adapted their advertising to address and reflect this unique situation. Advertising industry experts have been offering up tips and guides on how brands should be approaching their work right now.

Most of this advice contains some version of the same points. One ad agency shared its guiding principles for companies: Brands that generally listen to the conversation, know what their role is and isn’t, and understand how people’s needs and norms are changing—and how to serve them—are typically the ones who create the best, most relevant work that doesn’t make the rest of us want to claw our eyes out.

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This is good advice. But it should also be blatantly obvious to any decent marketer at any time, not just in the midst of this crisis.

It may be common sense, but how are brands doing exhibiting it? So far, with the old playbook out, the type of crisis-specific advertising we’re seeing not only embodies an overall “We’re all in this together” vibe, but also covers one or a combination of three different categories: Action, Information, and Support.

The “we’re doing something” ad

Let’s start with action. Donating money, producing healthcare tools and equipment, helping customers deal with the financial fallout. Companies are doing all this and more, and now they’re trying to find their footing on communicating all that to us without it looking like an elaborate humblebrag.

Hanes didn’t get fancy, simply using its social media to announce that it would be retrofitting some its production facilities to make medical masks for frontline workers. Ford touted its legacy in lending a hand, while also telling customers they’d get some breathing room on their car payments. Hyundai, as it did back in 2009, created a spot highlighting its Assurance program that also aims to help those customers who are financially impacted or lose their job. Lexus got its dealers to narrate a spot that also touches on its efforts to offer some financial relief.

Budweiser rolled out a new ad late last week that managed to creatively praise frontline healthcare workers, acknowledge all the sports that have shut down, and announce the company would be diverting its sports budgets to crisis aid efforts.

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Aiming right for the cryballs, over a slow-building piano score, Bud takes the names of sports teams like the Warriors, the Magic, the Blues, the Yankees, the Giants, the Angels, and uses them to describe frontline emergency and healthcare workers, then ends it on the tagline, “This season, we’re all One Team.” It’s Budweiser taking the same emo-Americana approach it enlisted for its 9/11 anniversary spot in 2011, and the 2018 Super Bowl around its own efforts for disaster relief, this time applied to a current situation.

It’s that familiarity, combined with actual financial support, that makes this one of the best examples. On one hand, of course it’s self-serving. With no sports, where else should this giant’s brand’s promo budget go? And now here’s an elaborate ad to tell us about it. At the same time, it’s also arguably a reassuring gesture of normalcy. It’s a Bud ad in a tone that we’re used to seeing, while delivering a message of immediate action. For Bud, it serves the dual purpose of tightening its already iron-grasp on iconic American brand status while also trying to convince people to add a case or two to that next grocery run (after toilet paper, of course).

The “we thought you should know” ad

For the Information category, there are brands that have had to clarify how we can (or can’t) access their products and services right now. Both Domino’s and Little Caesar’s have made it clear that they’re still open and delivering food. Burger King created two ads, addressing specific health and safety concerns, like increased cleanliness procedures. And Microsoft is reminding all the work-from-home n00bs about its blurred background feature on its Teams software.

While it clocks in at a terse 15 seconds, the Little Caesar’s spot is one of the more effective in this category. You’ve got the quick heritage moment at the start (60 years!), followed by a highlights package of its own ads, and a weird temperature flex (is 475 degrees virus-killin’ hot?) ticking all the boxes on the brand self-interest checklist. But the pivot to quick delivery, and non-contact carry-out availability clearly addresses our needs for a) pizza at any and all times, and b) reassurance that there’s no safety tradeoff in caving to that craving in the midst of a crisis.

The “we’re here for you” ad

Support is being offered by way of morale and PSA-style messaging. We’ve seen Nike and Guinness creatively encourage social distancing in simple, lo-fi ways. Jack Daniel’s was quick off the mark with a spot that already reflects the realities of social distancing, showing friends and families hanging out over video chats—and other more creative physical isolation workarounds—all to the tune of a user-generated cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors.”

This is a textbook case of brand earnestness, with the whiskey brand tapping into the social challenges that we’re all facing and reminding us that it’s barrel-aged Tennessee nectar is what brings friends together. There is something heartwarming in seeing all the Zoom happy hours, the window tic-tac-toe, improvised kitchen ping-pong, that even wedged into a booze ad, feels oddly reassuring, allowing us to forget for a moment the people hoarding toilet paper, the record-setting unemployment claims, the grim daily death toll, and the (sorry) sobering realization that we’re really only at the start of all this.

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Of all the three categories of crisis-specific advertising, Support is the one marketers can use to hide behind sweet emotional manipulation and easy gestures. The longer this goes on, however, the tougher it’ll be for major brands to lean on this type of advertising alone before being forced to add some in-real-life action.

Do what you say, say what you do

As good as many of these new ad efforts are, it hasn’t all been drum circle, kumbaya vibes in brand land. Look no further than Adidas declaring that it was keeping its stores open (before quickly reversing that arrogant decision) or McDonald’s hyping a silly logo change while maintaining a questionable sick leave pay policy.

For all the goodwill that can be built and maintained through creative advertising, it’s in times like this a company’s actions matter even more.

It’s confusing to see Walmart CEO Doug McMillon use an emotional ad to praise his more than 1 million “heroes” working in the company’s stores for their efforts to help serve customers right now, and then read a New York Times op-ed from one of those heroes lamenting how the company’s “punitive paid leave policy fails to protect me, my family, my co-workers or our customers—particularly now.”

The gap between a brand’s advertising and a company’s actions has been narrowing for years.

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This crisis will (or should) slam it shut.

Any tough lessons learned by brands now—about themselves, about their audience—will hopefully lead to more human decisions, and better advertising on the other side of all this.

Hell, if Brady Sluder can learn something from it, marketers should, too.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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