Monday 23 March 2020 10:03 am

Adbreaks during an outbreak: How to advertise during coronavirus lockdown

After a week in which the coronavirus outbreak has turned life on its head for everyone in the UK, companies are having to learn quickly about how best to operate over the coming months.

Some, like toilet roll manufacturers, find themselves in prime position to both help society and make huge steps forward commercially from the crisis — if they can swiftly increase supply.

Others, however, are facing unprecedented shortages in demand, to the point where their businesses are no longer viable until strict social distancing guidelines are lifted.

In both cases, companies face major conundrums over how they should market their products — if at all — during a time of economic and behavioural upheaval. Is this a golden opportunity to build trust in the business in the long term, or is it a risk best avoided?

As firms work out the role they can play over the coming months, City A.M. looks at some of the approaches taken so far.

Backing off

Cadbury’s upcoming spring advertising campaign was set to celebrate not just the exhilaration of an Easter egg hunt, but also the selflessness of setting up the game in the first place.

In the 40-second piece, a grandfather meticulously hides the company’s Easter eggs inside his flat in anticipation of a visit from his grandchildren. “One for him,” he says, placing one on top of a bookshelf. “One for her,” he exhales, putting another inside a cupboard.

When they arrive, his young granddaughter and older grandson embrace him and embark on the hunt.

But last week, Cadbury was forced to pull the heartwarming ad. As the nation continues getting to grips with the fact that children should not risk visiting the elderly for the time being, the chocolate maker admitted that it did not promote the right behaviour.

“Our TV ad was intended to invoke generosity and happiness in the run-up to Easter,” said Cadbury in a statement.

“However, due to current government guidance on social distancing, we recognise it is no longer appropriate to encourage close physical contact amongst families.

“For that reason, we have made the decision to replace our current Easter advert with spots that are mindful of the current climate.”

Quick coronavirus thinking

On the other hand, some have taken aim directly at the virus. Before shops began to close, high street toiletries retailer Lush was offering passers by the chance to wash their hands in-store for free.

Brewdog, the craft beer company, meanwhile, has turned to producing branded hand sanitiser in a bid to combat shortages across the country.

Joe Stubbs, vice president of Interbrand Group, says that moving quickly but responsibly like this will benefit companies once the country returns to normality.

“In the UK, companies are changing their modus operandi,” he says. “In doing so they are able to demonstrate that they truly understand the needs and preferences of their customers, that they are on the side of their customers, and that they are able to put the needs of these customers before their bottom line.

“These companies are demonstrating better intuition than their competition – and that will surely serve them well in the long term.”

Keeping their hands clean

Most brands are steering clear of directly addressing the outbreak in their marketing campaigns altogether, however, for fear of looking like they are taking advantage of it.  

Already, the Competition and Markets Authority has had to crack down on companies hiking their prices to take advantage of increased demand for products like toilet roll. This has come largely through second-hand sellers, but illustrates the danger of becoming associated with the crisis for the wrong reasons.

Christian Polman, chief strategy officer at Ebiquity, thinks firms are right to avoid the risk, and that focusing on the short-term during times of crisis could damage a brand’s image in the long run.

“Brands should instead rework their marketing strategies to focus on long-term brand building within the limitations of the current climate.

“But they should also shift strategies to follow new media consumption patterns, such as more daytime television watching, more time online, and more time on ecommerce.”

“The brands that can afford to resist the temptation to focus on short-term activation will weather this storm less scathed — when it eventually passes.”