Do you want to hear from advertisers right now? If so, what do you want them to say?
That’s the question that marketers are grappling with right now as we’re in the third month of lockdown during the global Coronavirus pandemic.
The ad industry has faced similar challenges before. Sept. 11, 2001 was one. After that, marketers hesitated for a few weeks before bigger advertisers like General Motors GM instructed us to “Keep America Rolling” by buying cars with zero-percent interest.
And in a little-noticed launch at the time, the then-flailing Apple AAPL released the iPod a month after 9/11, initiating one of the most stunning comebacks in marketing history. Recall that the iPod campaign reintroduced the company as something new: A facilitator of both work and fun.
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SAN FRANCISCO – MAY 03: Posters advertising Apple’s iPod are seen on the side of a building May 3, … [+] GETTY IMAGES
Later, in 2003, Apple’s silhouette ads, which featured iPod users against strong DayGlo colors, changed the conversation from computers to ultimately, the desire to express oneself. While most marketers at the time would have focused on hardware specs (a 90 MHz processor! 32 MB of RAM! The ability to hold 1,000 songs!), Apple was the rare brand that shone the spotlight on the humble user.
In 2001, much of the iPod’s promise wasn’t fully realized. At the time, people were wondering if the U.S. would soon be in a major war (it would, in two years.) But overall, marketers were dealing with a similar environment to today
Like now, as in the post-9/11 “cocooning” era, that means promoting safety, staying home rather than going out, and nostalgia instead of looking forward. For a limited time, that’s what consumers want to hear from brands.
One brand that has managed to do all three is Walmart WMT. Drew Kerr, owner of Four Corners Communications, says that Walmart “was one of the companies that has balanced everything perfectly.” Kerr pointed at a recent Walmart ad that featured employees singing Bill Withers’ 1970s hit “Lean on Me.”
To Kerr, the ad fit the current mood with both an elegiac tone from the song and a sense of positivity and commitment evoked by the lyrics.
Shira Blumenthal, brand ambassador of Lion Brand Yarn Company, said consumers are looking for authenticity and a sense of community. Lion has fostered that with a branded Zoom conference call themed #StitchAroundtheWorld.
David Berkowitz, a self-described ”serial marketer,” advocates playing up the positive. “Focus overwhelmingly on positive attributes,” he said. “Yes, it’s inconvenient that a store may only offer curbside pickup, but it’s a relief that a store will be open at all.”
Avi Dan, CEO of Avidan Strategies, noted that, “In a time of crisis, people are attracted to the tried-and-true, even the retro as they seek comfort and trust.”
Yet Dan is a critic of boilerplate ads that many have rolled out during the crisis, arguing that they all blend together.
So what’s an advertiser to do? I’d suggest at some point, changing the subject. Now that brands have showed they understand the hardships of Covid, it’s time to distract us with brilliant new products and marketing.