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COVID-19 Changed the Advertising Playbook. Now What?
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COVID-19 Changed the Advertising Playbook. Now What?

Even as the world begins to re-open more permanently, it’s clear that the pandemic will have a lasting impact on consumer behavior and brand-to-consumer engagement.

My advice: Learn to embrace uncertainty. After all, the only constant in today’s media ecosystem is change.

The good news is that 2020 offered us a wealth of evidence of what did and didn’t work, how brand messaging has shifted and how consumer behaviors accelerated. But the question for tomorrow is: which consumer behaviors will stick and which will revert?  Here are three lessons.

Digital-First is Finally Ubiquitous

During peak pandemic months, Nielsen saw a rise in digital game purchases, streaming video engagement, online ordering, and working from home. Out of necessity, businesses quickly moved not just their workforces but their services and more of their advertising online.

While digital advertising was not immune to the knee-jerk reaction of reducing ad spending at the onset of the pandemic, brands quickly began to reinvest on digital platforms to keep a line of communication with consumers. Even with the reduction in ad spending, advertising grew nearly 4% in 2020 over the prior year according to a Nielsen analysis done with BIScience.

In 2021, that shift could be even more significant as brands continue to navigate uncertainty and consumers embrace their digital lives even more. GroupM estimates that digital advertising will account for 55% of ad spend in 2021. As advertisers adapt to the latest ad trend and cross-media currency becomes a reality one thing is for sure, digital-first has truly become ubiquitous with advertising.

Many of the digital-first behaviors consumers adopted during the pandemic will be permanent. Already, many companies are planning to allow their employees to continue to work from home, according to The Nielsen Remote Workers Consumer Survey, 80% of respondents said they would like to be able to work remotely from a location of their choosing.

These changes have begun to alter the economic and demographic landscape and will continue to have a significant impact on consumers’ media behavior and free time.

As the world re-opens, people will gradually return to in-person dining and shopping, but the convenience of online ordering and curbside pickup will remain an important service for many retailers and restaurants.

Silence is Deadly

When the pandemic hit, some brands chose to go silent, while others doubled-down or tailored their messaging. In the first half of 2020 TV ad spend dropped 15.3% in the U.S. and 10.1% across France, Germany, Italy and U.K., compared with the previous year.

The biggest loss came in April, when ad spending fell by an astonishing 31.8% year over year in France, Germany, Italy and U.K. 

While reducing ad spend was a necessity for some, it was risky considering that it can take three to five years to recover both brand equity and revenue. Small and large brands that chose to continue advertising took different approaches, shifting media spend, messaging and tactics.

For example, Nielsen Ad Intel found that in the U.K., advertisers like Unilever actively increased their spending in the first half of 2020, compared with the previous year. The brand doubled-down, moving its investment to digital and TV as consumers gravitated more toward those channels. 

In the U.S., auto advertisers began ramping up their local TV spending in the late half of the year after cautiously cutting back in the initial pandemic months.

According to Nielsen Ad Intel, General Motors (GM), the No. 1 advertiser in local TV, had more than tripled its spending in November to $72.4 million from $19.7 million in June. We saw similar jumps in advertising investments from Toyota Motor and Ford Motor, among others. Not surprisingly, GM outperformed the industry in the fourth quarter.

These smart, flexible, yet bold, choices helped these brands remain top of mind for consumers, helped shrink the overall impact to sales and provided a positive launching pad into 2021.

COVID Fatigue is Real and Will Be Back

At the start of the pandemic, many brands immediately reacted with health-safety messaging, which helped to build trust with consumers.

As the situation wore on and brands established their pandemic protocols, COVID-fatigue began to set in and brands began to focus their messaging more on hope, support for health care workers and embracing the new normals within pandemic life.

The percent of COVID-themed TV ads in the U.S. declined from 18% in the second quarter of 2020 to 12% and 11% in third and fourth quarter 2020 respectively.

Internationally, COVID-related ad creative peaked, making up 48% of total ads in the second quarter of 2020, according to Nielsen Ad Intel. This figure dropped to 20% by the fourth quarter as COVID-fatigue set in among consumers.

Now a new line of messaging is ramping up around the vaccine and continued health safety. At the same time, many consumers are looking forward to emerging from a pandemic world. It’s safe to assume that as more people get vaccinated, and as we reach the one-year mark for lockdowns, another wave of fatigue will set in. Advertisers will need to remain cognizant of which communities and consumers were more affected by the pandemic and will need more help rebuilding their former lives.

Understanding these trends, embracing uncertainty and remaining agile are keystones to a successful advertising and messaging strategy in 2021.

When a new challenge arises, use these three guiding principles to stay on course:

  • Be flexible and iterative
  • Maintain a consistent share of voice
  • Reach consumers where they are


This article originally appeared in MediaPost.

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