Analysis: Is your COVID-19 ad getting lost in the sea of sameness?

Plenty of ads nowadays are focused on unity, solitude, solidarity and of course, positivity. The rationale is understandable given the world is now looking to tide through troubling times and prepare for an uncertain future. Unfortunately, this has resulted in a sea of bland ads in the world of marketing.

Noting this sameness, a YouTuber under the name Microsoft Sam uploaded an edited version of a video with US COVID-19 commercials that are all seen using the same tropes over and over again and cliches such as “family”, “here for you” and “times like these” repeated endlessly.

The video makes a strong point that many of the ads running today, are simply exhibiting signs of sameness. But of course in a world where we are all so reliant on data, it is understandable that many marketers are simply depending on the path data has carved out for them. For example, a recent Asia Pacific study by Kantar said that in some categories, ads needs to be product-centric, focusing on people’s reported needs. In other categories, brands should "provide emotional support by showcasing positive values or suggesting solidarity and togetherness". Moreover, ads during this period need to be sensitive and a majority of consumers believe that brands should not exploit the situation.

But does that mean that consumers need to be exposed to the same catch phrases and content over and over again?

Speaking to A+M about authenticity, KFC Malaysia's CMO Angelina Villanueva said human elements of being genuine, honest and transparent matter even more now during this period of isolation. Perhaps, that is why we see more of such themes emerging in ads. She added that what is more crucial is for brands to understand what people are going through, and "fill consumers needs best" to really stand out. Nonetheless, Villanueva said while content that shows more heart appeals to consumers, there is also a fine line between being positive and preachy. "Brands can come across patronising and disconnected from people's realities, especially if they are not authentic to who they are and what they do as a brand," she explained.

Alvin Teoh, ECD of Naga DDB Tribal which works on the KFC account, added that it is important for brands to walk the talk before they can talk the talk. "Consumers can tell if it’s a ‘pseudo-let’s-jump-on-the-band-wagon’ solution. If so, you’ll create an image of one that capitalises on a pandemic. That’s not nice. And the Internet never forgets," he added.

As individuals, Teoh explained that consumers seek a few fundamental aspects - emotional support, hope through actions, a reliable source for useful information and entertainment to help them cope. Meanwhile, society has needs too. SMEs are impacted hard, education is partially disrupted, and the issue of loans and finances are bearing down on consumers. For a brand to stand out, Teoh said it needs to provide solutions to some of the above needs.

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Brand marketers largely believe their role is to either enhance the lives of consumers or address their problems with solutions by listening, empathising and connecting, said Tenaga Nasional's (TNB) GM, strategic communication and branding, Sutapa Bhattacharya. She added that this is the moment for brands to demonstrate commitment and integrity.

"People today are worried, stressed, and uncertain.  They are cynical and can see right through brands that try to placate or are not authentic," she added. “I believe people, not just customers will connect with those brands that are authentic and are addressing the real pain with real solutions.”

In light of this, TNB revisited its communication and marketing plans and budgets, with the appreciation that it is not about telling its story at this time, as much as it is about empathy, reaching out and helping people, reassuring in whatever way we can in our own way. "I believe each brand will need to find that unique way in which they can help, putting the needs of people before our own," she added. Among the types of posts TNB publishes on social media include PSAs for consumers to stay home, as well as tips to remain safe at home such as keeping an eye on children and not letting stick their fingers into electric sockets.

Providing a different point of view

While he agreed that communications nowadays has been derived from a cookie-template, Teoh said the issue of sameness is a tough one to fix unless there are unique point of views that brands are trying to convey.

One example of a different point of view, according to Teoh, was the individuals who choose to stay in their less-than-ideal homes. "Everyone’s celebrating the front-liners and rightly so. But what about the people who choose to stay in their less-than-ideal homes? The cramped-up and densely occupied homes with little or no access to the Internet," he said. Teoh explained that such an act also demands a high degree of sacrifice too, and there are plenty of everyday heroes who are not celebrated. 

Another example he brought up was the fact that the mask is now seen as a sign of a pandemic, that the world beyond our four walls is still a dangerous place. But what if we saw masks as a sign of unity? It’s that one thing we all have in common.

He explained that underneath each mask is an individual story of different people sharing common hopes and common fears. "We might not be on the same boat, but we are wearing the same face-garment as an outer expression of our common and inner needs. As the saying goes, we’re all more common than we think. We’re just seeing different variations of the same truth," Teoh added.

While most brands are zoned in on what they can do to cut through the clutter during this period, Amit Sutha, CEO of Universal McCann, UM Studios and Ensemble Worldwide, which also works on the KFC account, said the point is not what brands can do but how fast they can do it.

The ones who are fast are the ones who will stand out and capture consumer love and loyalty.

While consumers are consuming plenty of content now, the challenge for brands, Sutha said, lies in the fact that even if they come up with unicorn ideas, it is difficult to produce them due to restrictions. "A lot of effort goes into thinking up tactical programmes, as riding on existing content spans all type of content," he explained.

Nonetheless, what brands need to do to stand out is not rocket science. According to Sutha, increase consumer attention will come from promoting products and services on real-time bidding that consumers are looking for, by having an intense focus on eCommerce, and creating work to mirror the myriad of emotions consumers experience through the day (read digitally). Of course, it also important for brands to show empathy and respect to front-liners and those who are not stuck working at home.

Have consumer preferences changed?

Left-brain advertising was recently found to be less effective in engaging consumers during the pandemic compared to right-brain advertising. Ads with words, rhythmic soundtrack, abstracted body part, audio repetition are all part of left-brain advertising, according to marketing research company System1, while right-brain advertising comprises character, scenario, a scene unfolding, or was set in the past.

The probability a change in content consumption post-Movement Control Order (MCO) is high, Naga DDB Tribal's Teoh said. He explained that it takes 66 days to start a new habit and throughout the duration of the MCO, which covers this period, most audiences have shifted to the sofa and are keeping up with events via online videos as well as broadcast. Gaming, Teoh said, has also seen an increase in popularity during the MCO.

While it is hard to predict how long these new habits will last, Teoh said content consumption will still be based on needs and the one thing that seems to cut across every age is entertainment. "While people have always been looking for temporary escapes to help them cope with the humdrum and challenges in life, the need for entertainment, together with useful information and learning new skills, will become more apparent when it’s all doom and gloom around us," he said.

Meanwhile on the brand side, KFC's Villanueva said it is looking to understand how consumers' beliefs, values and priorities will change after the MCO. "We need to be alert to the evolving circumstances and the resulting changes in people’s outlook in life. With this understanding to the best of our abilities, will we know what role our brand can play and hopefully offer content that will be useful and meaningful to people in the new normal," she said.

To keep consumers entertained, KFC recently jumped on the work from home cooking hype with a digital cookbook via its social-led #KepciKitchen campaign. It is also offering consumers the ease of having a KFC meal at home via its "good for today and tomorrow" reheat instructions, which Villanueva said is ideal for Ramadan. 

Also weighing in on the conversation was Elizabeth Inkan, managing director of Indonesian creative agency Mata Angin, who said consumers will appreciate a brand that is honest and real, as it is relevant to the current situation. "One way to stand out is to establish a strong and tangible message that supports the new normal," Inkan said.

She added that branded content should be able to support its audience to face the new normal in a tangible way. Mata Angin was appointed by Indonesian telco Indosat Ooredoo this March. Citing her client as an example, Inkan said the telco is consistently creating digital content to show various unique ways to support productivity at home, and these can be accessed through YouTube and Instagram Live.

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