Can Brands Make Long-Term Gains From Advertising in a Crisis?

New insight from System1 shows what is resonating in a COVID-19 world and why

Over the weeks of lockdown TV viewers have seen an increasing volume of COVID-19 related ads. With 79% of the UK population watching TV, brands have unprecedented opportunities for reach – but are they running the right creative?

Brands have been attempting to reach audiences with messages of hope and togetherness, but will these result in long-term brand building impact? New insight from System1 shows what creative elements are resonating in a COVID-19 world and why.

System1’s benchmarking tool Test Your Ad predicts long and short-term effectiveness by measuring emotional response to ads. The higher the star score, the more an ad can act as an amplifier for investment.

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Amongst the over 500 Covid-19 related ads that System1 has tested, brands such as Brewdog, ITV and Sport England have achieved the coveted 5-Star score, creating spots that the agency predicts have very high long-term growth potential.

Maverick beer brand Brewdog are more associated with shock-tactic marketing, but their “Making Our Punk Sanitiser” video scored an excellent 5.6 Stars with the public, showing how people appreciated their attempts to help early on in the pandemic. Sport England scored 5.4 with “Stay In Work Out”, encouraging people to keep fit with a mix of delightful crowdsourced videos. And ITV’s moving “Clap from our carers” video scored a high 5.2, thanking the public for supporting NHS workers.

The Sport England and ITV ads both use extensive real-life and user-generated footage, creating a “real-life” feel and establishing plenty of connection. And the emotions aroused are positive: hope, sense of community and happiness – offering an emotional counterpoint to the overall feelings of fear and sadness many British people are currently feeling (as shown by System1’s Covid-19 mood tracker).

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Some brands are making more sombre ads to better reflect this mood, but System1 predicts that these will contribute little to long-term brand building. For instance, one of the poorest scoring ads tested – for BBC One – is built on feelings of sadness. Sadness is an emotion that rarely provides long term gains through emotional resonance in normal circumstances, and particularly in today’s climate. There is little need for ads to acknowledge the current difficulties – people are well aware of them, and prefer to see more inspiring or escapist content.

That said, ads appearing in lockdown are connecting better than those aired during the same period last year; compared to a usual average of 2 stars, COVID-19 ads are averaging 3 stars. Older ads, though, have not lost any effectiveness, and the newer ads include many that perform poorly as well as some that perform well. In general, if a brand has an existing strong ad, System1 recommend sticking with it rather than making something new.

For brands that do make new work, System1 reveals that some features are working better than others.

The data from retesting pre-Covid-19 ads shows that ads with a repeatedly used scenario or that feature established brand characters (‘fluent devices’) achieve a higher star rating. For example Xyzal’s owl reading a bedtime story rose from 2.0 to 3.1 Stars when retested and the Philadelphia Schmelier, who goes to extreme lengths to craft the perfect cream cheese, moved from 4.0 to 4.6 Stars. Established characters provide consistency in a time of crisis and can be used to reference the current context safely from a distance.

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Ads that are set in the past or that communicate a sense of “between-ness” have also proved to be effective long-term. A Doritos ad set in a fictitious past, which parodies the scene of a Western gun duel, moved from 5.1 to 5.9 Stars. These kinds of ads enable advertisers to show groups, human connection and humour, while avoiding any sensitivities associated with a modern-day context. Ads which celebrate togetherness and local community also perform marginally better in today’s context.

On the other hand, ads that stress price and offers are not resonating well among viewers, examples include Talk Talk’s (UK) fibre broadband ad and BT’s (UK) broadband ad.

Those that focus on things over people, that rely on words or that come across as aggressive, competitive and performance-focused, are also scoring poorly.

Orlando Wood, Chief Innovation Officer at System1, explains that “The features of the ads that are performing slightly better today read like descriptions of classic brand building advertising; the features of the ads performing slightly less well today, like descriptions of classic sales activation advertising”. Wood continues “the ads that are performing better today feature many of the right-brain features that are so effective at connecting with audiences and eliciting an emotional response. Conversely, the ads that perform slightly less well today are those which feel distinctly left-brained — those focused on things over people, those that are direct, self-conscious, and reliant on words and rhythm, those that are competitive, those that focus on control and performance, and those that are more aggressive in tone”.

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