Advertising in times of crisis

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Keep on Sending Me OXO Keep on Sending Me OXO © IWM (Art.IWM PST 10805)

If you’re like me, you are currently being targeted with offers to pick up online training, yoga lessons and language courses while you’re in corona virus confinement.

Tacky? Perhaps, but not always. New? Not at all.

If the history of advertising tells us one thing, it is that the show must go on. Admittedly, I have yet to see a TV spot that directly mentions the corona virus COVID-19, but I have no doubt whatsoever that one will come (just as I was typing this, I spotted this one from Guinness which talks about St Patrick’s Day this year feeling “different”. Yes, it certainly does).

But how did previous generations of brands and advertisers manage? How about the first and second world war, for example? Looking at the UK alone, brands proved to be particularly inventive.

War gives a sense of urgency and community, two emotions that several brands tapped into very enthusiastically. One of the most bizarre must be Decca’s ad for portable gramophones, based on the tale of a player that was stolen by German troops (“cussed Huns”, no less). Bovril and Lea & Perrins also advertised and marketed extensively, adapting the packaging to the times.

But the Palme must go to Oxo. The little beef cubes spent considerable resources maintaining a marketing presence throughout both wars. In the first world war, it developed six and twelve-packs that could be sent to troops on the front. They even came with paraffin blocks so the boys could heat water. How neat is that?

What can we learn from advertising in wartime?

I don’t have figures about Oxo and Bovril’s sales during the war, but there can be no doubt that they were top of mind when the war ended, as they had simply never stopped marketing. The Guinness message is clearly along these lines too, keeping the brand alive and positioned in the community while millions of people are confined.

Is it a case of carrying on regardless? Certainly not, as marketing claims sound very hollow in severe crises. The message has to be relevant to the times and context we are in – now even more than ever.

The ads that cut through the fog in these times will be ones that appeal to a higher sense of community. As the Guinness ad suggests, “When you raise a pint of Guinness, also remember to raise each other up. Be good to one another, celebrate safely, thank the ones protecting us.”

Although they can improve sales, the distinctive ads will not be overtly sales-y. Their purpose and intent are very important. For example, there is plenty of room for selling things that finance funds for people or businesses in need (whole sectors of the economy are being decimated). Depending on the product or the reach of your ad, I would favour the local over the global.

Marketing has the ability to change things. Remember all those lovely things you wrote in your brand mission? Now’s a good time to show the world that you meant them.

If you want to talk about messaging and relevance in today’s crisis, just call me on 32/496/62 68 43.

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