The coronavirus continues to test us all. Marketing communications have been on the forefront as customers are highly tuned into the approach their favorite brands are taking.
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Unlike anything in recent history, this public health crisis hits us all very close to home, putting our values on display and putting our priorities into perspective. While core values such as deep family connections, link to our community and faith traditions are common throughout the U.S., they are the ties that bind the 60% of Americans living in the New Heartland.
But if you watched many of the ads addressing “the new normal” (can we officially retire this term?) during the “uncertain times” over the past few months, you would have been hard-pressed to find those values represented in a meaningful way. The parodies began spreading like wildfire as consumers noticed brands wrapping platitudes and promotions in thinly-veiled empathy as a shortcut to communicating with them about current events. No industry was left unmocked. Car manufacturers, cosmetics companies, and more felt the sting from customers who felt their messaging came across as more pleading and pandering than helpful.
In the rush to respond, some brands forgot to consider their intended audience’s culture, values, attitudes, and lifestyles. And it showed…However, not all brand responses fell on critical ears.
There were some good spots and better-if-they-were-not spots.
I’d be happy to cheers the creative team behind this St. Patrick’s Day ad from Guinness. Leaning into its 261-year history and a 9,000-year lease, the brewery reminded us that they’ve been around for a while and plan to stay around. It maintained that although celebrations might look different this year, they could be just as fulfilling. Through clips from St. Paddy’s Days past, Guinness showed us that the holiday is about more than how you celebrate it, but who you celebrate it with.
“On St. Patrick’s Day, we’re all Irish. But let’s not forget that everyday, we’re all human. What matters is being with people you care about,” the narrator tells us.
Sure, the brand recycled B-roll from past commercials to Frankenstein this ad together. But it works for three reasons: it keeps its product relevant to customers, conveys empathy for the present situation, and puts community at the center of the message. Guinness’ ad hinged on the promise of a tradition reimagined, not a party ruined.
As a bonus, Guinness added a discrete announcement at the conclusion of the ad. Simple white text on a black background explained that it would be giving back to the communities “where we live, work, and celebrate” through its Guinness Gives Back Fund.
I immediately knew this ad, by The Richards Group and Starcom, would be a winner when I heard Brothers Osborne. Ram borrowed a snippet from the band’s newest single about cherishing life for what it is, clearly tapping into the lifestyle of the New Heartland cultural segment.
Ram is known for catering to real truck customers. Its taglines range from “America’s longest-lasting pickup” to “Guts. Glory. Ram.” It’s no surprise, then, that they dug into their gritty roots with their response to COVID-19. Central to most of the brand’s messaging was the idea that with hard work, we will see better days.
New Heartlanders take the work they do seriously, and they expect the brands they engage with to understand the expectations their families and communities have of them. This goes beyond “we’re all in this together” to “we all need to work for each other now.” It’s a small tweak, but a powerful one.
But that doesn’t mean Ram isn’t doing its part. The company used a separate 15-second spot to communicate its new offers like payment assistance and special financing to customers. This ad was on brand with its customer base, while also remaining sensitive to the gravity of the situation.
A survey by Morning Consult revealed that customers didn’t want advertisers to keep beating the “new normal” (are we still saying this?) into their heads. Instead, 44% of people wanted to know how brands were adjusting their services as a result of widespread restrictions.
KFC announced contactless delivery through GrubHub and the always reliable drive-thru option in an expertly crafted ad that tugged at heartstrings in all of the best ways. Their ad, aptly titled “Sunday Dinner,” placed their $20 fill-up at the center of a treasured tradition for New Heartland families without being pushy.
According to our New Heartland 2020 Generational Study, 83% of New Heartlanders claim family to be a very important core value. A big round of applause for FCB and Wieden+Kennedy for recognizing even though things are different, customers are always going to wonder how a brand can help their family.
Since 2013, Brandon Moynihan has appeared in ads for Hotels.com as the sardonic character, Captain Obvious. He was back at it again in this hilarious spot recalling all of the places that exist, despite the fact that we aren’t allowed to travel to them.
The travel and hospitality industries were hit hardest by COVID-19, with projected losses of $2.1 trillion and 75 million jobs.
But Hotels.com knew it couldn’t come out the gate with a somber ad reflective of its less than desirable position. Instead, the company put itself in the shoes of its customers and deciphered their values—a quality that inspires 56% of New Heartland Gen-Zers to engage with brands.
The point of the ad, by CPB and MediaCom, was to inform customers of the company’s promise to waive cancellation fees, but it achieved so much more. It connected emotionally with house-ridden viewers who are dreaming of the days they can visit “not your house,” places that have “wine that’s not in a box,” “free toilet paper,” and “air you haven’t already breathed.” Two thumbs up.
Not So Good
For an example of a car company that could have prepared a better response to this pandemic, look to Ford. While it’s true that 24% of people would have preferred hearing how a brand was contributing to the cause over an expression of its concern, Ford went about it in a way that left a bad taste in my mouth.
I appreciated the behind-the-scenes look of Ford employees building masks, ventilators, and shields and supporting frontline healthcare workers. At the beginning, you feel like this ad might be exploring Ford’s connection to its vast communities. But then they capitalized on their good will by meshing it with a promotion. You can’t start a sentence with “how can I help you” and end it with “how can you help me?” The contrast is jarring alone, but when it’s sandwiched between a dozen other ads from brands asking the same thing it became monotonous.
Great marketing puts the customer in the driver’s seat. This ad barely made me feel like a passenger.
I believe this ad had really good and positive intentions. It was a brilliant move on Next Insurance’s part to incorporate its customers stories from business owners affected by the crisis. At least 4 billion businesses applied for financial assistance through the Small Business Administration earlier this year.
But instead of telling us about the 25% cut on premiums they extended to their customers in April, Next showed us a confusing montage of products and projects created by their customers to promote their own brand. Their claim at the end of the ad that they’re “transforming insurance for the self-employed” seemed off point and placating. As a small business owner, I needed evidence of this supposed transformation, but all I got was branded content without attribution of the small businesses involved in the effort. It would have been great if I could have learned more about them.
Brands were working with limited resources, little to no production capacity, and a life-changing global crisis. I understand the pressure to acknowledge change and inspire hope. However, Keurig’s commercial didn’t connect me at all to their brand aside from the various displays of coffee cups sprinkled throughout the user-generated videos.
What if they had sent a package of their coffee inserts to parents tackling new homeschooling responsibilities? Or compiled footage of their community-driven campaign in Massachusetts and Texas to donate coffee to hospital workers? There were several different ways that Keurig could have gone with this ad, which would have positioned them favorably in the New Heartland.
Times of monumental change require a response from brands. But action taken too soon with too little empathy results in a message without purpose or impact. Like any industry reeling from COVID-19, marketers can use this experience as an opportunity to consider how valuable their customers’ values can be to the development of both creative and strategy.