Over the course of 2020, I saw a lot of pandemic ads. They worked well for companies in a tight spot — whether because of budget cuts or previously purchased media commitments — but they follow the same formula: A screen fades in from black, stock footage rolls, and an announcer talks about living in unprecedented times. Just as the video reaches its lowest point, the announcer says, “But we’re here to help because we’re in this together.”
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, brands needed to shift their strategies quickly for the new landscape. But with vaccines rolling out across the world, it seems like the end of the pandemic is finally in sight. Digital media spend is expected to increase globally, and advertisers need to shake up what they’ve been doing.
Repetitive, formulaic pandemic ads won’t resonate with audiences that expect authenticity and creativity. To succeed moving forward, advertisers must raise the bar.
The origin of the pandemic ad
In the first quarter of 2020, many advertisers bought media time for the entire year in anticipation of specific events or product launches. But when the pandemic started, they had to redo their content strategies. That’s how the pandemic ad came to be — advertisers repurposed their time slots to tell customers what was going on.
These early pandemic ads were successful for a couple of reasons. First, they cost less because they featured stock video, inexpensive music, and repetitive messaging. Second, they resonated with people because they were real, relevant, and empathetic. Although pandemic ads felt a lot like public service announcements, they were what the landscape needed.
At this point, pandemic ads feel self-congratulatory and superficial. It’s time for advertisers to create authentic digital media. Fewer people are consuming content out in the world (via radio, live events, movie theatres, etc.). Consumers are personally engaging with ads in their homes, so narratives have to fit brands’ values and be backed up by action. Whatever is communicated in advertising words and visuals must be lived out by brands and experienced by customers in future interactions.
Crafting genuine messaging
People want to know how companies help their customers and communities. It’s fine for advertisers to share how their companies responded to the pandemic, but they should focus more on what’s moving their brands forward. This authenticity has become an expectation as the end of the pandemic approaches.
For example, one of my company’s vendors told me an inspirational story about how it pivoted during the pandemic. Although the story was rehearsed, it was genuine and inspired me as a customer. Already, companies are preparing for post-pandemic marketing and what business will look like in the “new normal.” Their messaging will have to adjust accordingly.
Advertisers who aren’t sure where to start should perform a brand audit. Companies can use this evaluation of their messaging to align their marketing strategies with customer expectations and compare their efforts to those of competitors. Once complete, advertisers will know how their brands come across on various channels, including social media and company websites.
The importance of sonic branding
People might be stuck at home, but they’re still quite busy. As a result, advertisers can’t count on visuals alone — crafting a distinct sonic brand is the key to evoking specific emotional reactions. An Australian study measured 1,000 consumers’ responses to various audio clips and found that different types of music elicited varying emotional responses. Short, sharp sounds evoked happiness and excitement, whereas shifting from major to minor keys evoked feelings of sadness.
Advertisers must carefully select each ad’s tone, script, voice talent, sound effects, and music to convey their companies’ identities and messaging. It’s possible to make voice-over and stock music memorable and genuine, so advertisers shouldn’t rule out tricks that worked for pandemic ads. Remaining flexible is critical.
Advertisers and marketers are working with a new normal, but that doesn’t mean they’re locked into the pandemic ad formula. By rethinking customer expectations, messaging, and production elements, advertisers can create powerful touchpoints that convey their brands’ true identities.
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