Marketers have struggled to find their voice during the global pandemic, with nearly half of senior marketing decision makers indicating that they are dissatisfied with their brand’s response (or lack thereof).
The survey of more than 100 brand leaders in the U.S. and Canada, conducted by GLG on behalf of Forsman & Bodenfors, found that many marketers have felt “paralyzed” in terms of how to engage with consumers during the pandemic.
Respondents also indicated that they were dissatisfied with their reaction, or couldn’t clearly see a role for their brand when it came to reacting to the pandemic and providing value to their consumers.
Andrew Carty, head of strategy at Forsman & Bodenfors Toronto, says this uncertainty was manifested in much of the brand messaging in the early days of the pandemic, with ads that were virtually indistinguishable (sombre music and “we’re here for you”-type messaging).
“[B]rands felt they needed to respond, but didn’t know exactly what to say,” says Carty. “You would expect that in hindsight they’d say ‘I wish I’d been more true to our brand, more true to our consumers, [and] more useful to people.'”
Just 12% of respondents went “mostly dark” during the pandemic, while 9% admitted to putting out a consumer-facing response they felt could and should have been better.
Forsman & Bodenfors has a simple answer to brands asking how they should respond and react to the pandemic now: Don’t. “The time for reaction has passed,” it says in a research note. “The pandemic is a fact of life now. Some things might return to the way they were someday. Others won’t. No one can know for sure — but brands can’t wait for certainty that may never come.”
Brands with deeply held values and a strong understanding of the purpose they serve in their customers’ lives—not just product attributes and features, but real human benefits—are the ones that are best equipped to thrive in difficult times, says Carty. “There’s always potential for issues in the marketplace, and brands that understand their purpose can navigate those.”
Brands that had something to say during the pandemic were embraced by “attentive” audiences that were ready to listen, he says.
But going silent is not an option for brands now either, says Carty, with stagnancy leading to noticeable declines in performance. According to supplementary research from Kantar Millward Brown, brands that cut advertising for the rest of 2020 will see revenue declines of 11% and will require three to five years of “solid and consistent brand-building efforts” to recover from extended periods where media spend was completely cut.
The research also suggests that costs to address declines in brand equity that result from going dark are typically two times greater than the savings produced by a reduction in spending.
The good news is that even those those brands that opted to stay on the sidelines during the pandemic still have an opportunity to rethink their approach for long-term resilience. The combination of increased audiences and reduced media costs—an average of 20% lower across major digital platforms—could also serve to entice brands to return to the market.
But wait, an advertising agency saying that brands need to advertise: What else would it say?
“The data bears it out… but to spend just to stay in market isn’t the kind of argument we’d make,” says Carty. “Depending on what your brand is going through, the industry dynamics, the market dynamics, etc. it did make sense for some brands to take their foot off the gas and reinvest at a later time.
“Building a resilient brand not only allows you to navigate times of trouble, but find the opportunities no matter what is happening in the market.”
“Brands have a lot to gain by finding their voice during these uncertain times,” adds Steve Gorski, strategy director for Forsman & Bodenfors New York. “The moment to develop a relevant narrative for your brand is now.”