In this guest post, Foxtel Media chief sales officer David Roddick puts pen to paper to discuss the paradoxical sentiment of consumers in lockdown and the three contradictions marketers are currently facing…
Last week, The Coca-Cola Company decided to withdraw all advertising across the world because they deemed it insensitive at this time to advertise.
The mic-drop example of how branding can reach the point where a logo is more recognisable than any religious symbol, Coke has decided it’s just the wrong time to be selling stuff. People have more important things on their minds than carbonated beverage. Like keeping a roof over their heads and finding some loo roll.
It’s not alone. UK Marketing Week found that 60 per cent of brands currently have reduced budgets or delayed activity. Either because they are directly impacted by lockdown restrictions, or because they see the present health crisis as an awkward moment to be selling and don’t want to seem insensitive.
This, for a salesperson, or at least for one who is not completely devoid of human compassion (which narrows it down a bit!) is a genuine moral maze. Is it right to be trying to extract cash from customers, corporate or individual, who are focused on survival? Or is it crass and tone-deaf to bang on about how great your business is, when the future is so – let’s be honest – frightening?
The answer has come, in part at least, from a March 2020 Kantar survey of 25,000 consumers worldwide, which concludes that 92 per cent of us believe companies should keep advertising. But the same survey suggests we overwhelmingly think advertisers’ first responsibility is to their staff.
In my view this exposes the first of three contradictions that face marketers at present: consumers want to be reassured that life goes on in as near-normal a form as it can, while also wanting recognition that, actually, it doesn’t.
1. WE WANT REASSURANCE THAT THINGS HAVEN’T CHANGED, BUT RECOGNITION THEY HAVE.
Social hook-ups for drinks over videoconference; gym class videos via livestream; a religious address by email: we want life to go on as normal. It’s comforting if things we’re familiar with continue.
So we want brands to advertise and tell us that people are still switching energy suppliers, buying home insurance and, yes, consuming fizzy drinks. And if you’re employed by those businesses, that’s exactly what you want to see: your company is drumming up demand and not giving up. Seventy per cent of consumers in Kantar’s survey said they wanted brands to offer comfort and reassurance at this time.
But the same survey highlights that the images and tone we accepted only a couple of weeks ago are now jarring. Forty per cent of us don’t want to see humour in advertising. Seventy-five per cent believe brands are in danger of exploiting the situation for their own promotion. Telstra has called out its own creative, which shows a family on the way to the airport in nose-to-nose traffic. The message isn’t wrong, but by their own admission the creative now feels uncomfortable.
So consumers want their familiar brands to talk to them as it’s reassuring. But the message needs to be sensitive, appropriate and helpful. It’s where Nike’s messaging about staying indoors and IKEA’s creative celebrating the home are landing positively.
2. WE’RE DESPERATE FOR NEWS, AND IT’S THE LAST THING WE WANT
This sense of wanting two apparently contradictory things at once also plays out in media choices. With almost no commuting and no public gatherings, TV, social and especially digital video are seeing significant jumps in audience.
The drivers are a thirst both for news and for anything but news. So the second apparent contradiction is that consumers are desperate for news about the virus, and at the same time news about the virus is the last thing they want.
At Foxtel, where content is lined up by genre, we are seeing big spikes in Sky News channels (+66%) YoY and 133 per cent for key buying demographic (P25-54) but also in escapist content like Selling Houses Australia Ep2 (+51%), music channels (+9.0%), movies (+8.0%) and drama (+72%). In my household that rings true: rolling 24-hour news helps keep us informed in a rapidly changing situation, but when it overwhelms, we even have a ‘Novid-19 day’ when we take a deliberate break from everything to do with the pandemic.
For marketers this is an opportunity. Never has context been more important or the power of association been so starkly laid out. Right now, perhaps more than it ever has, news content lends brands authority, gravitas and the ability to offer comfort. In the Kantar survey, 75 per cent of consumers want brands to help inform them about the crisis. Where better than a news channel?
And on the flip side, rarely has the escape offered by entertainment content been so necessary and so welcome. The opportunity for that positivity, indulgence and aspiration to rub off on brands is clear.
3. SEPARATION HAS BROUGHT US CLOSER; CLOSENESS HAS SENT US AWAY
Of course, the paradox of both wanting and trying to escape coverage of the pandemic is actually just different need states of the same consumers at different times.
And these needs are clearly inconsistent between members of the same household, who are now spending much more time together in a confined space.
This is leading to the third contradiction: we are coming closer together through separation and seeking distance because of proximity.
One positive side-benefit of the current crisis is the amount of time we are spending reconnecting with family and friends via technology. Go to a park, a beach, the supermarket, anywhere that people are allowed to go for legitimate time out of the house and you will see people on calls, FaceTiming, even zooming. Not just texting, WhatsApping or emailing, but actually talking and often with their face in full view.
At the same time, those in the same household seem to be seeking distance. One of the trends coming from lockdown is the exponential rise in live streaming of linear television, both free-to-air and subscription. At Foxtel by virtue of having the largest share of viewing on both live streaming and VOD content we have one of the best vantage points into what is happening. Foxtel’s dominance in live streaming has always been put down to dominance of live sport, but live streaming volumes between March 16 and March 30 were up 7 per cent on the same two weeks in 2019, despite there being almost no live sport.
What it suggests is viewers in the same household are choosing to watch different linear content through handheld devices rather than the TV. Where the family used to gather in the living room of an evening, they are now in separate rooms watching what they want typically through an IP device. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from your personal experience on what that says about families who spend a lot of time together!
This theory is backed up by the evidence on device usage. Over the four weeks of March 2020, the number of streams started on handheld devices was up by more than 6 per cent on Foxtel against the same period in 2019. Viewership on mobile was driving that growth, despite the lack of live sport to consume and a population instructed to stay in their homes with TVs within easy reach.
The interesting thing about this, and what it has in common with the trend towards talk over text, is the sense of intimacy and personalisation we are craving as we become more isolated. For marketers, then, there’s a great opportunity for brands which are tonally correct and well-targeted to show understanding and empathy and build strong bonds.
LIFE BEYOND THE LOCKDOWN
Get it right and the rewards are significant. There are a number of studies currently doing the rounds highlighting the cases that emerged successfully from the Great Depression and the way that period redefined market share. It created now-giant brands like Kellogg’s, which doubled advertising spend while competitors cut back. A BrandZ study into the recovery from the GFC showed the top ten brands recovered from that downturn nine times faster than average. And WARC research shows going dark can have devastating long-term effects on sales.
“Brand health becomes vulnerable when companies stop advertising,” says Kantar Insights global head of media, Jane Ostler. “If they do this for longer than six months it destroys both short and long-term health.”
But the contradictions of living in this hibernated world show it’s a tricky balancing act. Don’t go to ground, it’s not insensitive to advertise, quite the reverse. It’s what the public expects and is reassured by. Marketers who can make sure the message is helpful and reflects the reality of the new normal, deliver it through the right medium and in the right context with the right level of intimacy, will emerge from this with relatively healthy and well-thought-of brands that are loved more than ever.