How should your brand behave during public health and other emergencies when consumers are facing a threat to their lives and therefore have bigger priorities that listening to you? Should you continue to advertise as though everything is ‘normal’, knowing well that your brand risks sounding rather insensitive. You might get the audience thinking: ‘can’t you see I have bigger issues to deal with?”. No brand can afford the blacklisting that will ensue after you put yourself in this box. Alternatively, should you just keep quiet? Not talking at all can be just as risky, as consumers may misconstrue your quietness to mean an ‘a don k3’ (I don’t care: Ghana style) posture. Even worse, you may fall down the hierarchy of the brands in your targets’ top-of-mind-awareness and consideration set. Both are dangerous from a competition point of view.
So what is the best way to communicate with your targets during a dangerous emergency? It appears COVID-19 pandemic will have something to teach us. While the odds of frequent pandemics of the magnitude we have seen of COVID-19 are slim (thankfully!), Ebola, SARS, and Swine Flu are grim reminders that we all must stay battle-ready. Besides, we all know our brands are one mistake or misfortune away from the kind of unchartered course the pandemic plunged us into. Thankfully, COVID-19 offers the perfect laboratory to understand how people response to brand communication efforts in such situations.
As my research published by Communicatio shows, at the peak of the pandemic, people had a different script by which they judged brand messages. In other words, expectations of advertising content vary in ‘normal’ versus ‘abnormal times’. The paper is titled “Audience Expectations of Advertising during the Covid-19 Pandemic: Evidence from an Approach–Avoidance Theory Study in Ghana” which is book-long version for ‘what people want to hear in your advert during a pandemic’.
We pray there is never another pandemic. However, in the off chance that we must contend with another, or even other emergencies, the research shows that the sweet spot for continued advertising lies with blending messages with triggers of solidarity emotions. In other words, there is no need to shut up. You can and should continue to talk during such situations, budget permitting. However, be careful what you say.
According to the research, to catch audience attention in such situations, you will need messages that creatively combine something for you and for them. It found that at peak times during the pandemic, the audience deemed it appropriate for brands to include pandemic-related information in their advertising. This means if you revised your emergency-period advertising message to include information about the challenge – e.g., how to stay safe etc., no one will think you are out of line. The study also found that the audience preferred such messages over and above those that focused only on promoting a brand. Importantly, they were three times more likely to pay attention to such adverts. Why, because their wellbeing is paramount to them and so including messages about this gets them interested.
Thus, when talking to such audiences, you will need to revise your script to take on a more pro-consumer stance. People form relationships with your brand and expect that, like a friend, you will support them through hard times. When you are responsive by sharing supportive messages during such situations, not only do you meet expectations, but you also awaken positive feelings towards you. People do take note of friends who really care for them, so the act of kindness is not lost on them. So, take time to infuse your advertising messages with some education about the issue causing the emergency- statistics, safety tips, arrangements to ensure safe transactions, and so on. Include a note in your advert that says: ‘stay safe’, ‘this is how to stay safe’, ‘we are with you in this’, ‘we are revising the way we do things so you will be fine’ etc. If you cast your mind back to 2020, perhaps, you might remember how adverts often told you to wear your mask, stay home or wash your hands frequently. Now you know the benefit the advertised brands were seeking to cash in on.
The pandemic has made us acutely aware that our audiences are spoilt for choice and will not stick around to consume boring and irrelevant content. They want your content to be spicy, engaging and worth their while, particularly if listening to/watching costs them money spent to buy internet data. Remember, in such situations, they are bombarded with information including on how to stay safe (which is actually of interest to them). This can be overwhelming, making them even more picky when consuming advertising messages. Thus, as they battle the barrage of information fighting for their attention across different media, the already difficult task of catching and retaining their attention gets even harder. One of your best bets is to play a game of ‘we are in this together’ when advertising to them.
The author is a senior lecturer at the University of Ghana Department of Communication Studies ([email protected])
PS: The full copy of the research explained in this article is accessible here and may be subject to subscription fees: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/02500167.2022.2034907?needAccess=true