Do or don’t? Advertising in corona times
Published on 14 May 2020

The brands that continue to advertise in a crisis come out stronger. That much is clear from various articles, posts and webinars. But what, if anything should you do with corona in your advertising? Based on the latest insights from two ‘Corona Monitors’, System 1’s Corona Tracker and Validators/VU’s Consumer Behaviour Monitor, we see 3 possible strategies. One isn’t necessarily better or more effective than the other. The choice depends primarily on your marketing and brand strategy. One finding does stand out: the brands that tell a clear, recognizable story that fits their identity are the brands that will emerge stronger from the crisis.


1. Keep using your old commercials

Our reality has changed dramatically. But we haven’t. System1’s ad tests demonstrate this clearly. They show that pre-corona ads continue to score well during the crisis. In fact, they score even better than before. This fits with the finding that 70% of Dutch consumers people expect brands to continue to advertise like they have always done (Validators/VU). But some advertising does really work better.


What works well?

The ads that are most effective have five clear characteristics. Characteristics that Orlando Wood of System1 has already identified as real ‘brand builders’:


1. The use of (recurring) characters: this works especially if they are already known and live in their own brand world that is not or less affected by the crisis. In this world it is also easier to use humour.

2. Stories: and preferably stories that are recognisable, or that are a new episode in a ongoing series.

3. Stories that are set in the past: they make it possible to distance oneself from the present reality.

4. Human interaction: Wood calls this ‘betweenness’- what happens in the story between people.

5. Place and (local) community: stories that take place in a clearly recognisable place with a focus on connection between people.


What doesn’t work well?

Advertising that is currently less effective is more sales-driven. These are ads with sales promotions, that show objects instead of people. They are ads that are about self-image and appearance, that use words and rhythm in images, that are about competition or performance or that show aggression.


Below you can see the difference in effectiveness (the Star Rating of System1 expresses the effectiveness of the ad). For more information: System1 Corona Tracker.


Surprisingly, all the one-size-fits-all corona commercials that have aired recently, also score well on a number of these ‘success factors’. System1 shows that these ads hit the right emotional chord. What they don’t score on is ‘distinctiveness’.


Brands that work with characters and recurring storylines (think of the big supermarkets in the Netherlands) can continue to use their existing commercials (with some adjustments here and there). Moreover, it is precisely those brands that can transcend corona uniformity by applying the 2nd strategy:


2. Place your brand in the context of the crisis

System1 shows that the more empathy you show now as a brand, the more effective your brand will be. You have to show that you understand how people currently feel. This is most likely to become the dominant route in advertising. In which brands place themselves in the ‘new normal’ and the different ways people deal with it. Validators/VU’s Consumer Behavior Monitor shows that 42% of consumers expect brands to adapt their advertising to the current situation.


However, it is important to make sure that you are distinctive. This can be done by communicating consistently from the identity of your brand: what kind of archetype are you, what are you fighting for and what are you fighting against? With these three simple questions you have everything you need to tell your ‘own’ story that fits with current reality.



3. Do something about the crisis and communicate it

Brands that do more than just advertise can also count on people’s appreciation. 57% of people expect brands to play an active role in the crisis. 23% also expect brands to communicate about what they are doing about the corona virus. This is the moment to live up to your brand purpose. The societal contribution of a brand now represents about 30% of a brand’s value. It is a Category Entry Point that will grow in importance in the near future. So this too can be an effective route if it fits your brand and if you actually act on it.


So dear brand builders, keep doing what you already did well. If your strength is in building your brand with advertising, keep doing it. If you want to act on your purpose, do that. But stay active as a brand right now. And no matter how paradoxical it may sound, try not to ‘sell’ too much in this period when maintaining sales is probably the biggest challenge for most brands. Just try to be there.