Richard Kirk, Zenith UK Chief Strategy Officer takes us through the importance of consistency during COVID-19.


If marketing is an investment a business makes to deliver profit, then it follows that a board will judge the case for marketing vs other potential investments it could make.

This is why demonstrating advertising’s value in financial terms should be any marketer’s top priority. Our new tool; TORCHLIGHT, allows marketers to show the response advertising can generate, and the risk linked to that forecast, all adjusted for changes induced by Covid-19.

Of almost equal importance, marketers need a plan to improve the rate of response to their advertising. Improved rate of response is key to generating outsize growth.

This is the subtext when marketers ask “Should we change advertising communications to be more relevant?” – because great messaging acts as a multiplier of customer response.

Today, messaging is under even more scrutiny: Attitudes, behaviours and the economy are in flux. Other brands have switched their ads already, and existing assets may not seem ‘relevant’ post-Covid. The CEO is demanding marketing talks about the company’s Corona response…

Surely all this necessitates a rethink of the brand’s advertising message and new assets?

In short… no.

The bold move for advertiser’s today is to be consistent.

Moods change, attitudes remain the same

Many boards believe their brand should “reflect the mood of the nation.” After all, Covid-19 has shifted people’s attitudes. Brands don’t want to appear out of touch and risk the ire of a frustrated population. Hence, many new campaigns aim to make a brand appear “in-touch” with the British public.

Brilliant research from SystemOne shows that yes, the mood of the nation has changed, but importantly, emotional response to advertising (a proven multiplier of share of voice, and therefore market share) has not changed. Ads from pre-Covid generate the same response scores today as they did in January. They will work just as hard to drive response now as they did then.

Familiar advertising devices (e.g. The Meerkats) or scenarios (e.g. ‘Should Have Gone to Specsavers’) are holding up particularly well, with emotional response scores for the same ads improving post-Covid. When EE dropped their existing creative to rush out a Covid-specific message, they still used Kevin Bacon, not a staff member with an iPhone – an investment this research suggests was worthwhile.

In addition, whilst moods have changed, people’s demands of culture may not follow. Yes, the UK is a more fearful, sombre place, and new campaigns reflect this: “we’re here for you”, “We’re doing all we can” etc.

But is seriousness what folks want? It seems not.

Demand for comedy and films has grown since Feb. 59% now actively avoid the news. History is repeating itself; during the Great Depression, Hollywood production of comedies doubled, and in 2009, stand-up clubs across the UK saw a spike in ticket sales. Consumers always want escapism from the gloom.

People want culture (including ads) to show a world where Covid isn’t omnipresent. Arguably, a consistent comms approach makes this easier for brands, whereas “reflecting the mood” seems to lead to less effective messaging.

Finally, it is worth advertisers being aware of the mere-exposure-effect: which states familiarity breeds preference. The inconvenient truth for advertisers is 99% don’t care about your firm’s Covid response, they’re just watching Britain’s Got Talent, browsing their feed or reading the paper. So as long as brand comms don’t jar with the current situation, (e.g. this unfortunate KFC campaign) they will work to drive response, which ought to improve with repetition. Consistency generally makes advertising work harder.

Sameness brings savings

Less theoretically, there is a solid cash-based argument for maintaining the brand’s existing comms in this period.

Firstly, consistency negates the need for additional production and the planning that goes along with it.

Secondly, consistency brings familiarity, which allows advertisers to land the same message faster. In the insurance category, Scottish Widows can maintain the same level of awareness using 10’ ads where everyone else needs 30’ – thanks to the lady in the black hood.

Brands are also limited in terms of production possibilities; hence a flood of ads that look like Zoom calls. Whilst these messages are ‘relevant’, they’re also very likely to suffer from misattribution, reducing effectiveness drastically.

Stay on target, despite the distractions

Change in advertising can be driven on to the agenda by other forces, not just shifts in public attitudes. For instance, previously stable responses to attitudinal brand statements like “here for me”, or “on my side” have started to shift significantly in some categories. Often this is because a brand has produced a message saying this exact thing.

This can spark a rush by other category brands to play catchup in terms of that particular measure, but again, the smart move is to remain consistent.

Changing ads to pursue a new goal should only be done if there is a credible case to show that an improvement in the related comms measure produces a profitable outcome. Without this argument, marketing swiftly moves from an investment to a cost for the business, and cuts follow.

Is now the time to be increasing risk?

When forecasting return on marketing investment, both the predicted response and uncertainty associated with the forecast need to be taken into account. This is especially true at the moment when companies are keen to minimise unnecessary risk.

Abandoning an established message or approach adds more uncertainty into any prediction of ROI – a fact that ought to be weighed heavily by the marketing leader looking to plan for the coming months.

Should everything stay as it was? No. But wholesale reactionary change ought to be avoided as well. Budweiser reaching back for “Wassup?” The Meerkats adapting their long-term focus on customer rewards to be lockdown-specific, or Lloyds continuing to gallop horses on a beach all strike a good balance.

Right now marketers should not ask “what do we change?” but rather “why can’t we hold our course?”

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