Investment in brands is essential to stimulate growth and drive competition.
When the UK went into lockdown in March, many advertisers stopped spending, despite the perils of "going dark". Three months later, non-essential retail businesses are reopening and a nationwide effort is under way to restart the economy.
However, the coronavirus pandemic is not over. Major questions about the government’s handling of the crisis persist and there are fears of a potential second spike in infections.
Nonetheless, a resumption of business is essential to save livelihoods as well as lives.
After the fastest downturn on record, Campaign believes this industry needs to restate the case for advertising as an engine for recovery and for growth.
Here, some of the world’s leading marketers, with responsibility for a combined annual adspend of more than £10bn, explain why now is the time to come out fighting for advertising.
Chief marketing and communications officer, Mastercard
In crisis, going dark is not an option; brands risk losing salience. Regaining it is an arduous journey – expensive and time-consuming. Keeping the brand present and visible, always, is critical.
Brands’ intent is important, but action is impactful.
Actions truly speak louder and more credibly than words.
At Mastercard, our aspirations haven’t changed in light of Covid-19, but our approaches have. We monitor consumer sentiment and behaviour and work quickly to deliver what they are asking for. A good example is our pivot from priceless experiences to Priceless@Home – consumer experiences curated and delivered digitally.
Likewise, we began increasing contactless transaction limits, so it’s easier for people to pay safely. To drive awareness and adoption, we created simple and clear communication campaigns.
We are running campaigns to promote shopping at small businesses as well, a group particularly vulnerable to the economic shock.
Covid-19 changed things, no doubt. The importance of building and nurturing the relationship between brands and consumers, however, will always remain constant.
"Brands’ intent is important, but action is impactful. Actions truly speak louder and more credibly than words"
Chief customer officer, Tesco
When we consider how we can be most relevant and helpful to our customers at a time of a crisis, at Tesco we believe wholeheartedly in the use of advertising. Whether it’s providing little helps for safer shopping for our customers, or helping families connect with the people they love through their love of food, Tesco has remained an active supporter of the advertising industry.
We have welcomed the flexibility and adaptability of our agency and media partners, through more agile production techniques, shorter deadlines for media deployment and adjustments to plans to account for changing customers behaviour. As we look to the future, we hope we can work together to retain that agility, so that we can continue to communicate with our customers in the most relevant and helpful way.
Chief digital and marketing officer, Unilever
Investing in where and how our brands show up has been, and will always be, an important lever for our growth. Today, indicators show that the world is heading into a recession. Looking back through history, we see recessions are not just periods of economic slowdown, they are also times of great change, invention, opportunity and disruption. This is as relevant in media as anywhere else. The Great Depression saw the commercialisation of radio and the Great Recession saw the rise of digital media. With second waves of infection still a threat, paired with economic uncertainty, people are likely to be spending more time at home. The current trend of online shopping will continue in the medium to long term with ecommerce becoming an increasingly important channel within the marketing mix.
We also know that in a recession, people choose brands they know and trust for their value and values. At Unilever, we believe brands with purpose grow. We are very demanding of our purpose-led brands, ensuring they take action in the world beyond just what they say. Whether that is teaching girls about self-esteem, campaigning for social justice, or educating billions on proper handwashing. The Covid-19 pandemic will not waver our commitment to purpose-led business nor will it change how we position our brands. The world needs business to act as a force for good.
Managing director, marketing, Direct Line Group
Brands are built up in consumers’ minds through sustained and cumulative exposure, which is why advertising has a long-term effect that is typically as strong or even stronger than the short-term effect. Hence, we believe it’s critical to avoid a hiatus period, if at all possible, so that our brands do not stall through any economic downturn.
This is intuitively obvious but we also used as evidence the cumulative marketing effectiveness and econometrics work we have done internally to measure long-term multipliers, plus the BrandZ data, which shows that after the 2008-09 global financial crisis those brands that continued to invest and maintained brand equity recovered far more quickly, and, indeed, benefitted from boosted share of voice.
We believe that the fundamentals haven’t changed hugely because of the Covid-19 crisis, in that the underlying consumer needs within our sector are relatively constant. We have been very focused on supporting our customers and, somewhat to our surprise, have achieved record levels of NPS.
For advertising, specifically, there is a risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We have instead stuck to our core brand promises with slight modifications to be appropriate to the context.
As an example, Direct Line’s "fixing" positioning is as resonant now as it was before the crisis began, so we have adjusted from the notion of "We’re on it" to "We’re on it to do the right thing", enabling us to highlight what we are doing for our own people, our customers and for society, but in a way that is continuous and consistent with what went before.
Blending messages rather than wholesale departure from what was already working seems to be the obvious tactic.
There will be new opportunities. We should remember that Alibaba was formed out of the ashes of Sars 17 years ago, which highlights that there are high stakes and there will be extreme winners and losers.
My view is that to stay in pole position through this crisis, brands need to double down on their curiosity and agility in order to be ready as any clarity emerges as to what changes look set to stay.
Group chief marketing officer, Centrica
There is a stack of evidence that paid media, if executed well, drives profitable growth, and this is even more true in a downturn. We also know going completely dark makes it even more expensive when you do want to come back, so it costs you more in the long run.
I believe if you can afford to invest and adjust your mix appropriately to reflect the change in customer media consumption, you will come out stronger as a brand. In the current climate, there are some phenomenal media deals, which would allow you to: out-shout the competition, gaining disproportionate SOV; build greater engagement and empathy with your customers; and innovate and be more relevant than ever to help your customers manage their worlds, which have been turned on their head.
However, big reality check: can your P&L afford it? This is a massive challenge for many companies right now. And if you are spending, the sell must be relevant and empathetic to what is going on in the world, otherwise you could badly misfire.
Covid-19 both has and hasn’t changed our marketing priorities. Strategically, our priorities remain the same, but short-term tactics had to change largely dictated by changing customer behaviour and sentiment.
Things have changed so quickly over the past few months and we have had to work to shorter planning horizons, evolve our channel mix to reflect media consumption and leverage partnerships to help customers and communities.
On the positive side, Covid-19 has forced us all to rethink how we were operating and come out the other side being more effective at so many levels.
Global chief marketing officer, General Mills
I was reading a good book called Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman, a Dutch thinker. In the first few pages he says advertising "encourages us to spend money we don’t have on junk we don’t need to impress people we can’t stand". Ooooof. That hurt. And with respect, I think he is wrong.
Advertising is a market force that inspires competition, drives progress, fuels brands and narrates stories. At least when it is done right. But what does "doing it right" mean – especially now?
I never believed advertising was just about paid media – even when I started my career as a media planner and buyer.
But putting your most compelling story in the right place, time and context to reach a large number of the right people often calls for paid media as part of the mix.
All past recessions have shown that when brands stand by people in times of need, people stand by those brands afterwards.
Crises are times of reconsideration, so being absent takes you out of the consideration set. Being present can show you are being considerate.
Going into Covid, we had some rules: keep advertising, check your content, follow the people, do good and stay true to your brand.
Around the world, we have supported our brands and not reduced our consumer spend. However, where we have been spending has changed, as we have followed people where they are going: online, on TV, on their devices, on their own. And it is working.
Chief digital officer, L’Oréal
Although there is real touchpoint fragmentation and a range of new ways of engaging with consumers, especially online, the power of good advertising remains unmatched. Unmatched in reach and unmatched in impact.
While having reduced media spend during the Covid-19 pandemic, we were able to see first hand the responsiveness of consumers to every piece of advertising we displayed on TV or online. Elasticity was high.
Advertising is working in creating desire for products, consideration to buy and ultimately to drive our consumers to wherever they want to buy our products.
But advertising is more than that. It is about creating an impact, sending a message, leading with purpose.
The fabric of advertising has changed. Today’s advertising is taking a stand, it is also getting more real. Our brand Garnier includes more and more real consumer testimonials in its advertising spots; not influencers, not spokespeople, real consumer voices that talk with real words about how our products make a difference in their lives, because there is no more powerful voice than that of our consumers.
Advertising is a priority during a recession. Protecting media money has been a priority for our brands. For a time, we moved the bulk of the investment to support ecommerce sales and business continuity but as soon as we could, we started reinvesting in brand-building, creating awareness and consumers’ appetite to come back to stores and to beauty. But we need to reinvent the advertising language and grammar to embrace fundamental demands from our consumers: authenticity, sincerity, transparency and emotional decency.
Global chief marketing officer, GlaxoSmithKline
At GSK, we put people first – to help them do more, feel better and live longer. This is relevant now more than ever. Our brands are trusted by people – to boost immunity and wellness, reduce fever and pain, or simply as part of a healthy routine. Brands such as Centrum, Panadol, Voltaren and Sensodyne have built trust over the years with a powerful combination of product quality, benefit delivery and advertising.
Engaging and relevant communication builds brands, and strong brands create value. Whilst we live in uncertain times, the question is not whether advertising still builds brands, it is: what level of investment is right to be a sustainable business?
Life is emotionally charged, and now more than ever, we need our agency partners to help with the most thoughtful planning and creativity. I am proud of our teams – even in exceptional circumstances, we have been able to shape and launch new campaigns.
We’ve worked closely with media owners to maximise our value and cut through, accelerating our ecommerce media and digital investment. We’ve paid close attention to our messages to be helpful, informative and add value.
In this "never normal" reality, we’re looking to support the many people who want to manage their health and wellbeing. We cannot contribute to that goal without the support of advertising, and the industry that enables us to connect so meaningfully.
Former chief marketing officer, Royal Bank of Scotland
Every CMO should be using the data from past economic recessions to demonstrate that those brands that invest more in extra share of voice through a recession emerge stronger and often with increased market share post-recession.
Media costs are reducing dramatically, eyeballs are up and we have had a (literally) captive audience. However, getting the tone right and understanding how your customers feel is absolutely central to what you do now and next.
With the world of working changing dramatically for everybody, increased pressures on cost and much greater concern about the current environment, companies must pay attention to their own people. Employee engagement will be crucial to all sides of the marketing fence.
"It is a time for great communication, clarity of purpose, humanity, agility and resilience"
Service brands need to always build from the inside out and this is why we see a lot of advertising featuring frontline staff and celebrating the great work they are doing to keep the business moving in the lockdown.
It is a time for great communication, clarity of purpose, humanity, agility and resilience. It’s time to take care of each other and that’s why the partnership between clients and agencies is at a pivotal point.
I used to say: take care of the people, take care of great work and the money will take care of itself. It’s not that simple now, but there are some great partnerships flourishing even in these difficult times and a lot to learn by using the data smartly.
UK marketing director, Just Eat
Just Eat has always been a marketing-led business, investing in driving long-term growth. This has been supported by an always-on approach to TV and some of the biggest broadcast partnerships in the UK. This enables us to amplify our offering to a broad audience, growing from a start-up to a FTSE 100 business in a little over a decade.
Our focus has always been on staying relevant and front of mind for customers, restaurants and couriers. This has never been more of a focus than now, as we grapple with the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic. Its impact has changed the way customers behave and the way that they engage with communications, and it has shifted our approach.
First, to provide information, guidance and financial support to help our restaurants, couriers and customers. Then, as the crisis developed, promoting social good and celebrating and amplifying the contribution our restaurants and couriers have made to their communities with initiatives of our own – to support the NHS and raise funds for frontline workers.
We have a brand that allows us to have some fun, and we’ve harnessed that to deliver joy at the right moments too, with a multichannel campaign launch with Snoop to make people smile.
Just Eat is a global business and maximising our marketing muscle across markets and teams is integral to what we do. Investing in the tough times enables a business to stay front of mind and remain there when the good times return. Customer sentiment, trading conditions and the media landscape will continue to evolve and it’s key that the approach that brands take is reflective of that.
"Investing in the tough times enables a business to stay front of mind and remain there when the good times return"
Marketing director, British Gas
Brands going dark during the Covid crisis have probably made a mistake. Getting back to growth is going to be even harder if you’ve gone AWOL. The key is to adjust what you do and how you do it. Our first action was to turn off most of our sales promotions activities, boost our social-media support and switch to brand-led messaging, reassuring our customers that we were still there for them by adjusting our messaging around our new "Here to solve" platform.
When it felt like all TV ads were saying the same thing – "now more than ever…" – we launched an ad focused on how our colleagues were continuing to solve, whether that’s answering customer calls at home or delivering food parcels with The Trussell Trust. We got that ad made, from concept to airing, in under 10 days, with good results in terms of enhanced brand sentiment with customers and non-customers.
With the economy reopening, bringing ever-greater pressure on budgets, and demands for responsiveness, effectiveness and transparency, it was an invaluable experience that gives us confidence that we have the right skills and agency partners in place to tackle the challenges of the post-Covid world.
Chief executive, WFA
The Covid crisis is set to be the most severe downturn we’ve seen since the Great Depression. The disruption it creates will push brand marketers to embrace digital transformation even faster – given that there’s no status quo to upset any more. That transformation creates, for marketers, a unique opportunity to take back control. To stop funding blindly a murky and dysfunctional digital ecosystem, where ad fraud, brand safety and data privacy issues are endemic.
Now is the time for brand marketers to opt for new media-purchasing models that are more transparent and more adapted to their needs. That will require them putting in place a first-party data strategy, radically simplifying their adtech value chain and holding to account all the intermediaries operating on their behalf. But, at times, it may also mean being prepared to pay a premium to quality publishers for brand-safe supply.
Brand marketers will also have to reconsider their brand safety strategies. Blacklists and whitelists are important tools, but in some cases the misuse of these is causing significant damage for news and other sites. This crisis should be the trigger which prompts brands to abandon blanket keyword lists for more granular brand safety tools.
Brand marketers should also challenge the way media is being measured. Walled gardens and incompatible media-centric measurement systems have long stood in the way of making media spend more accountable. That’s no longer acceptable. Brands should join forces with WFA’s initiative that seeks to create a framework for a holistic, cross-platform measurement system.
This is a once-in-a-marketer’s-lifetime opportunity to reshape our industry. If we can grab it with both hands, we’ll come out of the crisis stronger.