3 considerations for brand messaging in moments of discord

Brianne Janacek Reeber / November 2020

What a year. A pandemic and its rising toll. The fight for racial equity and a long overdue influx of activism and attention. Missed celebrations and family traditions. Looming economic uncertainty. And in the U.S., a cherry on top: an election season that’s been anything but normal.

As brands look ahead to the rest of this year and an uncertain 2021, there are lessons to be learned. Here are three considerations as you think about your brand’s messaging — and even its broader purpose — in these tumultuous times.

1. Don’t scrap your playbook completely

Remember back to when lockdowns first began. Do you remember the onslaught of ads with somber music and talk of togetherness from afar? There were plenty of spoofs of coronavirus response ads (like this one) — a recognition that some brands threw out their playbooks and tackled crisis response messaging. Looking ahead to a postelection period, I’m likely not the only one bracing for Americana-themed ad overload. As tempting as it may be to answer cultural division with a unity-themed ad, it’s not necessary.

What this year taught us is don’t assume the creative you already have won’t work. Experimenting and pretesting is more important than ever.

Ben Jones, global creative director at Google’s Unskippable Labs, and his team reviewed the 1,500 best- and worst-performing ads on YouTube in March and April. While there was certainly an increase in ads mentioning the pandemic head-on, they found the vast majority were business as usual. And those business-as-usual ads continued to perform well. The pandemic-specific ads netted slightly higher recall, likely from their increased relevance. But consideration, favorability, and purchase intent didn’t see upticks. Why? The team hypothesized that “many ads overindexed on the crisis itself, without creating a strong connection to the underlying brand.”

Suzana Apelbaum, Google’s head of creative effectiveness, adds, “What this year taught us is don’t assume the creative you already have won’t work. Experimenting and pretesting is more important than ever.” She encourages brands to think about mini adjustments that can make a big difference, like adding voice-overs, or playing with different calls to action, or even reusing existing social assets as paid assets on YouTube.

2. Keep your advertising messaging simple, clear, and helpful

Simplicity and clarity are paramount. And while those are always good principles to follow, it’s especially true now given the number of distractions and the information overload people are grappling with.

Ads are more likely to drive consideration and purchase intent when featuring a message about simplicity or therapeutic value.

According to McKinney Research’s report on (ahem, the “s--- show that is”) Q4, U.S. consumers are conflicted and overwhelmed. On a number of topics, the team observed cognitive dissonance among respondents who reported believing one thing, while doing another. For example, 64% of respondents agree they need to be conservative with their spending, yet of those, 38% are likely to spend a little extra on holiday gifts this year, and 48% are likely to splurge and treat themselves to something nice.1 If people are in a constant mental tug of war, clarity is all the more important to cut through.

Google’s own Unskippable Labs team found something similar. In a study about YouTube ads for premium brands, the team found ads were more likely to drive consideration and purchase intent when featuring a message about simplicity or therapeutic value. “The best ads are making their messages super clear, concise, and easy to digest. And there are simple creative fixes that can help — ads with voiceovers, superimposed copy, and clear calls to action are more likely to be effective than those without,” said Jeff Miner, a creative and strategy lead for Google’s Unskippable Labs, who led the research.

If people are in a constant mental tug of war, clarity is all the more important to cut through.

3. Decide which social or political issues your brand will publicly support

More than half of U.S. consumers (54%) believe companies should drive change on important social issues. And, compared to just a year ago, that sentiment is up 74%.2 If you’re not already thinking about the kinds of social or political issues your brand will publicly support, now is the time. But proceed with caution.

It’s important brands don’t just tack onto the purpose of the moment. The key is sticking to issues that connect to your brand’s purpose. “Authenticity matters for brands in tumultuous times. Show up as who you are and what you stand for,” says Kat Gates, a creative director at Google.

Paul Argenti, an expert in corporate communications at Tuck School of Business, developed a framework to help companies navigate when and how to speak out that’s useful when applied through a brand purpose lens as well. At its core are three questions to evaluate:

  • Does the issue align with your company’s strategy?
  • Can you meaningfully influence the issue?
  • Will your constituencies agree with speaking out?

If the answer is yes to all three on a given issue — green light, go. If there are some noes, a different approach may be warranted.

While we all hope to turn a fresh page in 2021, the reality is that we’re in this for a while longer — as brands, but also as people. The pandemic won’t magically disappear, nor will cultural division, or racism. The demands on brands aren’t going away. If anything, 2020 has taught our industry that quick pivots, experiments, clarity, helpfulness, and staying true to values are more important than ever.

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