Digital Audio

Get Creative: Messaging During COVID Recovery for Financial Services

Jun 1, 2020

Our country is reopening in phases, so what does that mean for advertising? We’ve seen a sharp decline in the economy and we know what lies ahead. In all likelihood, we’re facing a steep, sharp recession. How your brand behaves now will impact its ability to bounce back and recover. This piece will explore strategies for advertising amidst the choppy waters of a fragmented economy, specifically in the financial services category.

With such a history embedded in cultures around the world, advertising is more than the promotion of products and services. In addition to communicating a message, a main purpose of advertising is to connect people. It shapes communities, celebrates historical moments, and inspires cultural movements.

When advertising is good, it’s art. That’s why you’ll find so many art school graduates and film school majors in agency creative departments. Advertising allows artists to blend branding and art. That’s when creativity thrives.

Why advertising is an essential spend when the economy is bleak

The Research

Advertising during an economic downturn may seem like a non-essential, but all research points to this absolutely being an essential spend. Studies from WARC, Kantar, and Harvard Business Review (among so many others) have shown that brands who continued to spend during the last economic crisis came back stronger. Kantar predicts the forthcoming recession to be hard and fast. We’ve seen the incredible speed at which the economy closed down, and while states across the country are battling the virus in different ways—recovery is on every marketer and consumer's minds.

But how are you going to reach those consumers? How and where you choose to spend your media dollars will be different depending on the category and purpose.

Co-author of the renowned study “The Long and Short of It,” Peter Field stays true to his course of recommending upper funnel messaging priorities but acknowledges that right now there is a sliver of the industry profiting from the massive lifestyle shift. For those industries (gaming, videoconferencing, personal care—specifically hair care) a sensitive approach to lower funnel messaging is recommended.

Compared to previous economic downturns, spend against essential items (versus luxury or discretionary)will be much more pronounced in this one. While it is generally ill-advised to be messaging with hard sell, lower funnel tactics, CPG brands have a true need to keep their product top of mind and remind consumers that it’s available.

Don’t abandon your brand campaign

For brands that can afford to, it’s key that at this time they don’t cut advertising. A loss in share of voice will be harder to come back from when we’re out of the recession, so at the very least: maintain your position.

Where brands can keep their communications alive, it’s advised to stay the course with the existing brand campaign (unless it’s insensitive). Tailor the messaging, but don’t make a sudden shift from your brand voice. Now is not the time to go from funny to heartfelt. Lean into your brand voice and use this time to strengthen it.

Some brands will inevitably have to cut spend. For the industries that are bleeding, marketing dollars might be an unjustifiable spend at this time. However, that should be a last resort and these brands should continue to keep their audiences engaged via social where appropriate.

In those industries where brands are going dark, savvy competitors will seize the opportunity to grow their position. With the advertising market thinning out somewhat, it may be cheaper to maintain share of voice (by some accounts, 40-50% cheaper), and brands who can afford it should use this as an opportunity to grow their market share. Make your dollars work harder for your brand. If production of creative assets is a challenge, lean on your partners to help with creative execution. If your agencies are suffering, share the workload out.

This is not 2008

It’s tempting to compare this experience to the 2008 recession; the best data we have to reference (aside from forecasting models) is from that time. But this is a very different experience. This crisis is not stemming from economic failings and is not related to geopolitical events. But we are enduring unprecedented psychological and physiological challenges. As a nation, this is impacting our psyche through news, media, and advertising via emotional numbing.

Despite the best intentions of brands, hearing the same thing from multiple sources is actually impairing the comprehension of the core brand message in those advertisements. It’s all sounding the same, because life has delivered us all the same brief.

We get it, you’re here for us.

Despite the emotional numbing, the World Federation of Advertisers found that 86 percent of respondents expect brands to be a safety net stepping in to fill gaps in the governments’ response to the virus. Consumers need to know that brands are there for them, but we need to think bigger with the creative messaging.

The difference between this health and economic crisis vs. 2008 is that right now, corporate America (and the financial institutions therein) did not cause this and are not facing blame from consumers. However, consumers expect corporations to lead them out of the crisis. Because we are united against a common foe, communities are everything right now. Banks are the heart of the community; they bind people together across the country and strengthen local relationships with their physical footprints and small business support. Local is the new national. So, how do you build or strengthen your local community?

Insurance companies already build neighborhood vibes by the nature of their advertising. Many agencies (Allstate, State Farm) utilize the archetypes of protector and caregiver in their existing and well-established campaigns. This taps into the security that we’re all craving, and familiar characters are exactly what our advertising creative needs.

National campaigns are still important, but where you can, use targeted, local advertising to strengthen the sense of community you’ve already built. Bring the figureheads or familiar characters of your campaigns to local ones. You will be building trust and strengthening relationships with your customers now for the long term.

Stay in your customer’s minds now and they will remember you when this is over and consumer habits return to normal.

How to advertise during the recovery

Part of the reason everyone is tired of COVID-19 messaging with that somber piano music is because we’ve heard so much of it. The first brand to release a COVID-specific message was praised for being responsive; every brand since has been repetitive.

For your brand to stand out in this crowd, you need to be a leader and get ahead of the curve. Your consumer knows that you’re there for them, and they already expect late payment charges to be deferred. Tell them something they don’t know and be useful.

Be nimble

8 weeks ago it was hand sanitizer and toilet paper. 6 weeks ago it was face masks. 4 weeks ago it was flour. Active yeast is still a hot commodity and pasta is rarer than gold in some parts of NY.

This is a rapidly changing situation where so much is unknown. Most of your brands have COVID messaging on the website that’s updated regularly, so why is your advertising relatively static?

One of the greatest advertising moments from the last decade occurred at the Superbowl (shocker). But it wasn’t a multi-million ad campaign, it was a tweet.

Oreo’s Dunk in the Dark post during the infamous power cut is a case study in communication, leadership, and responsiveness. In my opinion, the creative itself isn’t award-winning—it’s the timing and delivery that make it so excellent. They captured a moment when the whole country was witnessing the same event. Those opportunities in advertising come few and far between, but we’re experiencing another one right now.

The greatest advertising moment during the pandemic? Budweiser’s Wassup stands out as familiar (comforting, almost) and refreshing amidst a sea of sameness. Bud gave us a throwback, tailored for COVID. Social distancing and shelter-in-place were silently acknowledged with analog easter eggs for creative discovery.

One bank has actually taken this format of reviving a pre-COVID campaign and adapting it for the current times. TD Bank’s quirky "unexpectedly human" campaign translated beautifully to a work from home environment. Here, the employee is the customer, depositing a cheque, as the virtual banking benefits are touted in an ad that is sympathetic to the time while maintaining a sense of humour. Licensing the same music as the original ad creates consistency and familiarity for the audience.

Humour may not be the right tone for your brand (humility and warmth may be safer territories) but we can take inspiration from the upbeat tone and nimble production techniques that the most adept marketers have flexed.

Show that you give a sh*t

Understand your audience and how their behaviours have changed. Is there a way to use the impacts of COVID-19 to reward them? Rebates on auto insurance due to decreased time on the road, or health insurance incentives for home exercise equipment are thoughtful ways to win with your audience.

This time is all about being customer first. For some, this is nothing new. Amex has forever been cardmember first, so this is a wonderful opportunity to build on those values and further strengthen your relationship with those cardmembers.

When it comes to strengthening the brand voice based off existing values, look no further than Amex’s support for small business. Small Business Saturday was initiated during the last economic crisis; it promotes holiday shopping and creates a sense of community in the largest cities. Going for over a decade, it’s blossomed into a wonderful antidote to Black Friday.

Now the brand has kicked off a social movement with Stand For Small. By uniting partners to support small business owners with educational resources, network connections, offers, and mentorship opportunities, Amex has created a virtual community for practical support when our physical communities are suffering.

Marketing at this time is about truly caring about people. Know your audience and figure out what they need. Design your messaging around those needs. If you have several LOBs, that may require tailoring your messaging for each of those audiences.

In that case, where does your master brand stand in all this and how is it supporting the wider audience? We’ve already established that lower funnel sales tactics aren’t right for most, we need more upper funnel campaigns that demonstrate empathy and humanity.

Themes To Use

Behavioural science research firm, System1 has carried out research during the Coronavirus to determine if people are responding to ads differently right now, and what kind of ads are holding up well in this climate.

Good news—they found no reduction in advertisements’ ability to connect with people at this time. People are not turned off by advertising in itself, but certain ads are more effective than others. The mood of the nation is changing, and as we move through recovery it’s going to shift further.

Advertisers aren’t expected to anticipate and respond to each of these moods, but (as we’ve discussed) create ads that are useful, original, and authentic to their brand voice. There is no blanket recommendation on what to message, but there is research supporting creative themes and content that are holding up well:

  • Campaigns that utilize characters and slogans that have been established over time (think Geico’s gecko and Progressive’s Flo) are working really well for audiences by providing consistency in a time of crisis. They can also live in a parallel brand world, one that might not be suffering from all of the same crises as the audience. Equally, ads set in the past allow for human connection and humour to play out in a way that isn’t insensitive. We can go on great journeys with storytelling from another time.

  • “Betweenness” is a strong theme right now as so many people are displaced into unusual situations. The inbetween status is relatable for so many families sharing childcare between households, adults sleeping back in their childhood bedrooms, and the myriad of self-isolating situations that don’t fall into a box.

  • And finally, ads with a strong connection to place and community are performing well for obvious reasons. We crave affection and a sense of belonging, especially when the national response is so fragmented. It’s a biological desire to fit in.

Themes To Avoid

Of course there are themes which aren’t holding up so well. Where lower funnel tactics are appropriate, they should be sensitively communicated.

  • A hard sell on price and promotion is seen as insensitive and in some cases, profiteering from a crisis.
  • Ads focused on things—versus people—are not landing because of the emotional sensitivity and desire for connection. We don’t feel emotionally connected to our phones, but the people we talk to on our phones. Vanity and an obsession with self image are also seen as insensitive when the household essentials are so primal and self care is more focused on mental and physical well being than a glamorous projection of oneself.
  • Overly rhythmic ads — think bright, flashy words on the screen — are performing poorly due to their lack of grounding in any sense of time, place, or community. There is no humanity or human connection in these.
  • And finally, steer away from aggressive or competitive ads. We are emotionally numb from the news and don’t need hyper-aggression from brands too. Overtly competitive language — price wars and fighting against the competition — is pushing against the sense of community that we’re all craving. We should be coming together despite competing sales goals.

Phased Creative During Phased Recovery

Phasing the creative means nimble and agile responses. What does messaging look like for small business owners in New York City versus Atlanta? The phased reopening is just one creative opportunity for diversity in your messaging. So how can you reach audiences around the country with messages that feel personalized when each one is facing a different challenge?

Very soon we won’t “all be in this together” in quite the same way, and how you message to your audience should be adjusted accordingly. In times of changing (and frustrating) news cycles, how can you bring good news, utility, and reassurance—without sounding like everyone else?

Learning from Oreo’s Dunk in the Dark timely Superbowl win:

  • Team of dedicated task masters: who is writing the brief, who is writing the creative, who is (remotely) creating the assets? With so many LOBs, how can you divvy up these tasks for efficient and stand-out ads?
  • Kraft and 360i achieved this by having a physical War Room on-site at the Superdome. What’s the virtual equivalent for creative problem solving? Does a regular meeting of the taskforce help to prioritize creative responsivity?
  • Lean onto your partners for creative production. They know what is working on their platforms and can help or completely own creative production.
  • Streamline the approvals process. This was pre-established for Dunk in the Dark, but admittedly it’s not the easiest within the myriad of regulatory considerations in the financial category. Where can you give creative freedom and be more nimble with getting ads live? Perhaps saying less is saying more. Budweiser just said one word.

Context is Key

Marketing Dive surveyed 7000 people in April and found that just over half felt that they’re hearing more from brands right now, and 73% of respondents felt that to be appropriate.

Over half of respondents wanted to hear from essential services (banks or doctors) versus food delivery services like Amazon and Doordash. Your audience wants to hear from you, but as we’ve discussed, how you speak to them plays a major factor in how the ad is received.

Where you message is as important as the message itself. The context of your message should be considered within the environment of the audience. How are TVCs playing against the context of news media? The latest Nielsen results show AM/FM listening down by 33%, but TV hours are — unsurprisingly — up.

Pandora has seen a rise in connected home listening with music playing a key role. From improving the listener’s mood, to relieving stress and anxiety, to providing a distraction—it’s a balance and respite from what we’re hearing on the news. People are using streaming platforms for escape, release, and entertainment. So how does your messaging need to adapt for this?

Going back to what was discussed earlier, make your media dollars work harder for you by making your ads contextualised to the environment and mindset of your listener. If you’re struggling with production, lean on your partners for support. They know what’s working on the platform.

Where do I start?

It’s a lot to take in, but consider these final thoughts in summary:

  • All of your advertising should be customer centric, or customer first. Now more than ever. Listen to what your audience needs, and respond with useful, practical information, where appropriate.
  • When you do start re-implementing late payment charges, how and when will it be rolled out? When interest rates go back up, how will you incentivise loans and mortgages?
  • How will you honor the celebration of businesses reopening and shopping going online to offline?
  • Try to remember that your communication channels are not advertising to, but communicating with your audience.
  • Don’t abandon the brand campaign, but shift it as needed to be more sensitive to the situation.
  • Consider the regional location of your customers, what they are experiencing and what they might be needing. Speak to your individual lines of business with personalized messaging and tailor your campaigns to the platforms they’re living on. Of course, never stray from your brand guidelines, but let your advertising enhance the environment it’s heard in.

Most importantly in all of this is the contextualization. This is important during non-pandemic times, but context will be key in helping you get the right message to the right people as our nation goes through the motions of a phased reopening, and the potential hurdles that lie ahead.

When done well, advertising can be a powerful tool for bringing us together, so let’s create more entertainment as we rebuild the physical communities around us.

Remember: when it’s good, it’s art.

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