We love data and research here at TrendSource, but we are also a little bit superstitious. So, as we push towards spring, higher COVID-19 vaccination and lower infection rates are cause for optimism—the numbers seem to indicate we are turning a corner. But at the same time, we don’t want to jinx it.
Nonetheless, with better days seemingly on the horizon, companies are necessarily beginning to reimagine their advertising campaigns, in an effort to pinpoint the right tone for this strange moment.
As Neal Arthur, COO of ad agency Wieden + Kennedy recently told the New York Times, “every single one” of the agency’s clients are trying to find the right messaging for their 2021 campaigns. While companies are cautious, Arthur believes we are currently, in a “moment for optimism that it would be foolish not to communicate.”
It’s time to figure out what to say and how to say it.
So how can companies best market to this specific transitional moment? What lessons can be learned from the pandemic-inspired campaigns of 2020? And, most importantly, what note can campaigns strike that will harmonize with the public’s current sentiment and future aspirations?
We’re putting in the marketing and advertising market research to find out.
Marketing and Advertising in a Pandemic, Year 1
To understand where marketing is headed, we first have to understand where we are coming from, namely the era of pandemic-inspired campaigns. We all know what the quintessential pandemic commercial looks like—we’ve been seeing them for almost a year now—and there does seem to be a safe formula that marketers zeroed in on early and have yet to abandon.
This formula has been so common that one astute YouTuber actually made a supercut of dozens of pandemic commercials, which all fit seamlessly together. It’s like every company in the country got a group discount and bought in bulk from the same marketing firm.
Here’s how they go: There is somber music, generally playing while showing empty urban landscapes and lonely people in their homes. They begin by reminding consumers of their history with the company (“we’ve been with you from the beginning” or “we’ve been through a lot together, but nothing like this”), and then remind customers that, during these challenging (or “uncertain”, or “trying”, or “unprecedented”) times, it’s home and family that matter. The brand, which implies that its closeness to the viewer is akin to that of their family, then promises that they’re here to help as we all get through this together.
Indeed, these advertisements all follow the same path to the same conclusion: 1) in tough times, it’s those close to you that matter the most, 2) even though we are a brand, we feel like we are close to you, and 3) we will get through these tough times together. We see you, we are with you, we will get through this.
Obviously, while there isn’t a lot of variance in these advertisements, there is still a lot to unpack because, when multiple brands and advertising agencies independently go into the kitchen and come out with almost identical dishes, we have to start wondering about the public’s taste.
And, in the immortal words of Reality Bites, “It’s so cheesy I can’t watch it without crackers.”
But let’s not go too hard on advertisers.
Over the last year, it’s been tough enough for me to figure out what kind of mood I wake up in each day, even harder for me to keep it consistent as I push through the day, and even harder still for my poor boyfriend to stay ahead of any shifts. Advertising tones target our collective moods and mindsets. Hitting the mark for a broad audience of shifting and conflicting needs and desires, well, it’s a big ask. Nobody really knew what to do at the beginning of the pandemic, and that includes advertisers, so we can give them a break even while noting how very stale these campaigns have become.
Early pandemic ads spoke to us like wanted to be spoken to at the time. It’s just that, since then, we’ve had pandemic fatigue, pandemic resurgence, and pandemic fatigue again.
Marketing and Advertising in a Transitional Moment, a.k.a. The Changing Significance of Saliva
Our sentiments are changing, however, and marketers are starting to catch up.
Remember when saliva was one of the scariest things in the world? It was around the time we were all disinfecting our groceries, when saliva droplets and aerosols were literally thought to be the death of us. Remember when, in late April 2020, KFC retired its “finger licking good” slogan?
“We find ourselves in a unique situation,” the company said at the time, “having an iconic slogan that doesn't quite fit in the current environment.”
Well, if the recent “New Normal” campaign from Suitsupply is any indication, we’re moving into a new collective thinking about saliva—mainly that we miss sharing ours with other people.
That’s the only way to interpret an advertisement from a clothing company that does not focus at all on clothes but instead zeroes in on gorgeous people kissing one another in a post-pandemic…um…orgy? In the most memorable image, a woman is licking a man’s lips and nose, with a stream of saliva literally cascading down his face. Don’t believe me? See for yourself.
Suitsupply founder Fokke de Jong says the campaign is all about timing in this transitional moment.
“It’s pretty obvious that post-pandemic life is on the horizon,” Fokke de Jong said.
“We’ve done social distancing for long periods of time, and that’s conditioned people to be fearful of social interactions, which is totally understandable. But we wanted to show a positive outlook on a future where people can get back together and get close again.”
Of course, our future fantasies of the new normal do not yet match our current realities, so in order to produce the campaign, Suitsupply turned to couples who have quarantined together.
Whereas Suitsupply offers us passion without context, Diesel’s new campaign, “When Together” situates a similar return to physical contact and saliva swapping around a group of (real life) couples who were separated during the pandemic and have recently reunited. The incredibly steamy (seriously, we need a cold shower and a cigarette) advertisement shows couples doing what couples do when they finally can see (and touch!) each other once again.
This ad depicts a celebratory return to normal for a set of couples who are diverse in every way but one—they are uniformly, insanely attractive. It is mainly about sex, yes, but also about rebuilding relationships and entering a new, more hopeful era. Watching it feels like being a fly on the wall of a real-life relationship as opposed to the Suitsupply ad which is like being a fly trapped in a glass of wine at an ancient Roman bacchanalia.
Preservation v Perseverance: Marketing and Advertising Market Research for 2021
That hopeful context of returning to normal and persevering is the most likely note to resonate in 2021.
As marketing expert Leslie Zane points out in the Harvard Business Review, advertisers must “skip the platitudes in 2021.” Platitudes had their place, Zane argues, in the earliest stages of the pandemic because people were guided by a preservation instinct—they wanted to hunker down and hold onto what matters. Marketing to people in preservation mode is difficult—people aren’t looking to consume; they are looking to save—which explains why so many companies ran eerily similar campaigns built around platitudes about unity.
But these campaigns were never likely to move the needle, because, as Zane notes, “Ads showing that it’s nice to get along, just like ads saying that brands care about you during the pandemic, don’t offer something concrete to buy into.”
It is understandable that companies took that route in 2020, but now is the time for a new message. Zane believes that message is perseverance which, while similar to preservation, is nowhere near the same thing.
While people want to preserve, Zane believes there is also a fundamental human need to persevere, to “move forward despite obstacles” and “resume the activities we love, make progress, achieve our goals.”
With consumer confidence tanking (our most recent data from November of 2020 showed an even further dip), an economy built around personal consumption must find a way to compel consumers to return to their pre-pandemic purchasing habits. A lowering tide will sink all ships, even the ones with ace marketers. So, companies must communicate their brand proposition and value, as well as the value of spending.
It is these sentiments that marketing campaigns must appeal to in the months ahead. Not just to get their brands resonating with consumers once again but also to implicitly tell consumers that it’s time to return to normal - time to spend again.
This isn’t just about the brand, it’s about the economy.
Some recent campaigns thread this perseverance needle rather effectively. Consider Nike’s “Never too Far Down” campaign, which shows the career low points of several of Nike’s most iconic brand ambassadors—LeBron down 3-1 in the finals, Tiger struggling through injuries at the Masters, Serena serving against match point.
The advertisement uses these moments as a metaphor for the last year we have all lived through, culminating in each athlete overcoming the odds and doing what they do best: winning. This is perseverance par excellence, triumphant without being cheesy, hopeful without being patronizing. Similarly, Guinness’s new ad featuring Joe Montana offers a “toast to our future” to “the comeback kid in all of us.”
And finally, Disney’s recent “Tomorrow is Just a Dream Away” campaign also asks consumers to look forward to a return to normal, when they can tool around the magic kingdom like the good ol’ days. The ad doesn’t show empty theme parks or a sad and lonely Mickey Mouse, but rather families who look like they are ready to turn the page, ready for Tomorrowland.
With campaigns built around marketing and advertising market research, companies can also prepare themselves for Tomorrowland. The post-pandemic marketplace is going to be crowded and companies have to find a way to stand out (not like THAT, Burger King!) while striking the appropriate tone.
The House just passed a COVID relief package, Johnson and Johnson is roaring onto the vaccine scene, and music festivals are releasing 2021 lineups. People are beginning to feel like they are on an upward trajectory and, despite our fear of jinxing it, it is time for marketing campaigns to meet them on their way up, and maybe even help them rise a little higher.