Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

How COVID should impact marketing strategy

By Simon Barnes, Group Commercial Director, tmwi

There’s no getting away from the fact that 2020 has been as brutal for the ad industry as it has for many other sectors. A drop in spend, declining forecasts, negative projections and the general sense of doom and gloom that seems to be pervading every corner of our lives at the moment. 

But enough of that pessimism. I’m here to tell you why COVID needn’t be the worst thing that happened to your marketing strategy, and rather why it could actually be a blessing in disguise. 

When the chips are down it’s very natural to close ranks to protect yourself, and when something as unpredictable and all consuming as a global pandemic hits, business leaders have no guide to follow. 

But what we have seen over these past nine months is a steady realisation that, for the most part, there is still a huge benefit to marketing during a recession. 

With the release of the IPA Bellwether report at the end of October, their Director General Paul Bainsfair said that “the evidence proves that those who can invest in marketing during the downturn will reap rewards in both the short and longer term”. This was on the back of a report which showed a second consecutive quarter of drastically reduced ad budgets, representing the second-biggest decline since records began.

Paul’s comments reinforce the old mantra: “In good times, people want to advertise; in bad times, they have to.” While I fully concur with this sentiment, I also think marketers should use moments like this to stop and reconsider their marketing strategy at a time when it is perhaps ideal to increase brand recognition, strengthen brand position and achieve successful land grab over the competition. Have the courage to embrace data-led strategic advice to influence whether your approach to delivering upon evolving goals can be changed in light of the economic challenges; consider carefully the longer term objectives and evolving market imperatives in the coming 18-24 months. Should you be focusing on a performance-based campaign or something that is more brand-led? Is your current use of media working efficiently, or could you be getting better value for money with a different longer term and data-led approach?

Any recession – and in this case the event that has caused it – changes consumer behaviour, accelerating market developments exponentially, and marketers should adapt their strategies accordingly. While Paul Bainsfair’s advice to continue to invest in marketing is sound, it should not be a case of wildly spending one’s way out of economic challenge but strategically targeting the long-term optimal return on that investment. 

Media and marketing agencies are well equipped to deal with the unexpected and should be guiding their clients through this difficult time. Utilising complex data analysis of multiple media and data streams viewed in a dashboard-type environment can provide almost real-time clarity on media investment returns and a clear snapshot on the potential longer term campaign efficacy.  

If you are minded to embrace the potential flexibility media can offer and try something different there are a multitude of ways you can do this that don’t require significant costs and potentially avoid having all your eggs in one risky basket. You could, for example, run a regional campaign and see how your sales are impacted in that geographical area. Or you could work with affiliates and track the individual success of each party involved.  Either way, changes to the media plan needn’t be drastic but should certainly not be dismissed. 

As well as looking at where you are speaking to your customers, consider how you are speaking to them. Striking the right tone as a brand is as important as anything else you do. Displaying empathy or awareness (and meaning it!) is crucial, especially as the majority of the planet faces a united enemy in COVID-19. Whilst I’m not suggesting you should confront the pandemic head-on in your messaging, do make efforts to ensure your messaging is tonally appropriate. Your creative focus should be true to brand values while remaining authentic and, crucially, socially aware.

Don’t be afraid to test, learn, pivot and activate in your pursuit of maximising efficiencies and the all-important campaign ROI. 

During an economic downturn, you have to fight even harder to earn consumers’ loyalty, therefore the manner in which you communicate is key. Demonstrate a helpful side of your brand and supporting campaigns to your customers and you will gain favour and, hopefully, a long-term, loyal customer base.

In spite of recent positive news specific to vaccinations programmes, we have no way of knowing quite how long the current pandemic will be impacting our lives. One thing we do know is that its presence has given rise to, and perhaps accelerated, consumer behaviour that is almost certainly here to stay. Whether that’s shopping online or consuming media differently, now is the time for marketers to learn from their historical strategies to ensure they have a dynamic living strategy that is responding to, and more importantly delivering upon, the emerging and rapidly evolving landscape.

Just maybe at the end of all this, we might be privileged enough to look back and say that we lived through the storm, learnt more than we ever knew at a speed we didn’t consider possible and emerged stronger for it.