Light at the End of the COVID Tunnel: Advertisers Take Stock of Pandemic Best Practices

Advertisers have come a long way since the panic of March 2020.

Last spring, when stay-at-home measures were first introduced around the country, out-of-home and movie theater advertising fell practically overnight. Meanwhile, consumers’ time spent on social media, publisher websites, mobile gaming, and streaming platforms (remember Tiger King?) shot up, and advertisers reacted by increasing their digital spends.

Through trial and error, advertisers learned what approaches work best in a pandemic – and what pitfalls to avoid. As the vaccine roll-out continues across the country, the ad tech industry will adapt its shopper marketing, influencer marketing, and e-commerce marketing to maximize return on ad spend.

Shopper Marketers Take on Private Label

Almost every prediction shopper marketers made in Spring 2020 has come true. Yes, online grocery and touchless delivery saw a boom, but brick and mortar stores didn’t decline with the substantial growth of curbside pickup. Yes, free, in-store sampling found a way to move virtual, settling on using influencers to do the sampling for consumers. And yes, promotions and couponing saw a large move towards digital – think automatic coupons when you add-to-cart. Though shopper marketers stayed afloat in the treacherous waters of 2020, 2021 brings a new slate of challenges.

One hurdle brands will have to face is the rise of private label store brands. During the early days of the pandemic, private label brands from stores like Target, Amazon, and Aldi gained traction due to supply-chain shortages. Consumers were far less picky about which brand of toilet paper or hand sanitizer they could find in March 2020.

Even though the customer trials of the store brands were circumstantial, the experience was positive and oftentimes cheaper than the name brand option. A Ketchum study showed that 62% of people who have changed their brand preference will make that a permanent change before the pandemic is over. As more people are vaccinated and return to their pre-pandemic shopping behaviors, shopper brands will have to better educate consumers about why it’s worth paying the premium again.

Influencers Continue to Set an Example for Consumers

At first, influencers saw most of their sponsorship deals and events dry up and disappear. Influencers found themselves stuck at home unsure of the safety of promoting products that would require consumers to go to the store in person. Brands paused large ad spends and regrouped. As the pandemic wore on, however, it was clear social media usage was hitting record highs as consumers flocked to Instagram and Facebook. During a crisis, consumers look to those they trust to dictate lifestyle and purchasing decisions.

This new breed of ‘homefluencers,’ coined by Jausen Gillespie of Criteo, inform their followers about the best practices and the best products to cope with COVID-19, such as juggling remote working, schooling and raising kids, and dealing with health risks when leaving the house. Even travel influencers managed to adapt by swapping flights for road trips and rerouting their trips to remain stateside as global travel restrictions increased. The travel industry is poised to rebound as the US vaccine effort continues – expect the 2021 holiday season to be one of the largest travel periods ever. Until then, ‘homefluencers’ will correctly read their audience and continue infusing empathy with their unboxing videos.

E-Commerce Will Thrive on Stuck-at-Home Consumers 

If bears could order Seamless delivery of fresh salmon during their hibernation, I assure you they would. E-commerce sales across dozens of verticals have skyrocketed during this pandemic, from industries like clothing (but apparently not pants) and children’s toys to home goods and groceries. As consumers remain stuck at home this winter, brands will shift their ad spends towards digital and driving online sales.

In a presentation in September 2020, L’Oreal’s chief digital officer Lubomira Rochet said 50% of its business is now digital. Speaking on the company’s third-quarter earnings call, Unilever CEO Alan Jope said the company is ramping up hiring for new digital hubs, citing the emphasis in 2021 on “content-driven, highly-targeted, data-led campaigns.” And last month, Nestle acquired healthy meal delivery startup Freshly, to better cater to the rising consumer demand for e-commerce. As brands lean further into e-commerce, their ad spends will follow. As always, the targeted campaigns that utilize first party data to maximize the return on ad spend will win out for brands.

Knowing the end of the pandemic is near won’t make the remaining months any easier. Avoiding indoor gatherings is hard, especially during winter when outdoor dining and socializing aren’t tenable. But it’s important to remember the reason we’re continuing to follow Covid protocol: it’s the safest and fastest way to knock out this virus for good. With vaccines on the horizon, this is the homestretch. And hopefully as early as Fall 2021, we’ll be free to cement this decade as the next roaring ‘20s.