Dispatches from April: The latest observations on creative effectiveness amid COVID-19

Ben Jones / May 2020 / Video, Content Marketing

Google’s Unskippable Labs recently reviewed 1,500 ads that ran on YouTube in March and April to understand how the coronavirus is influencing consumer response. Ben Jones, the team’s global creative director, shares their key observations here.

Now that we’re several months into the coronavirus pandemic, the scope of the public health crisis is coming into focus. But the scope of the economic crisis is only just beginning to emerge. What’s clear is that it’s historic, and the gravity and uncertainty of it has most advertisers asking, “What do I say and how do I say it?”

To explore this question, we reviewed 1,500 of the best- and worst-performing video ads that ran on YouTube in March and April. We gauged performance using four Brand Lift metrics: ad recall, consideration, favourability, and purchase intent. Then we compared their performance to the best- and worst-performing YouTube ads from March and April 2019, using the same metrics.

When considering the video ads that were most effective since the coronavirus pandemic began, the patterns we see are intensely local (varying country by country and state by state) and fluctuate in the short term. What works one week in one place can feel off the next week in another place. And by stepping back and looking at year-over-year performance comparisons, we made a few key observations. For brand marketers and creative teams trying to find their footing amid the turbulence, these may help.

Observation #1: You don’t need to make a coronavirus ad

While we saw an uptick in April of video ads that explicitly or implicitly referenced the pandemic, the vast majority of ads running were “business as usual,” not crisis related. In fact, more than 80% of the ads we reviewed had no change in tone, expression, or messaging. They did not mention the coronavirus and continued to showcase products through pre-pandemic behaviours and experiences, such as groups of people together in public places, touching, and so on.

Business-as-usual ads showed no observable decrease in performance across brand metrics.

Crucially, the business-as-usual ads showed no observable decrease in performance across brand metrics; they continue to drive recall, consideration, favourability, and purchase intent. So the fundamentals of storytelling still apply and existing footage and campaigns can still work, as long as they’re not irrelevant to people’s present circumstances.

Observation #2: Coronavirus ads boosted ad recall but had minimal impact on other metrics

When looking at ad recall only, 35% of YouTube’s top-performing ads in April were coronavirus related, compared to only 5% of ads that were virus-related in March. Across both months, these ads ranged in tone from somber and emotional — often focused on solidarity — to practical and upbeat, especially when touting new service propositions or accommodations in response to the situation.

Despite consumers being highly receptive to crisis response ads, their appeal isn’t scaling broadly to brand impact for advertisers.

While an ad’s acknowledgment of the crisis seemed to improve ad recall, it didn’t significantly influence shifts in consideration, favourability, or purchase intent. Why was ad recall the only metric that moved? Our hypothesis is that the relevance of the ads triggered recall, but that many ads overindexed on the crisis itself, without creating a strong connection to the underlying brand. So despite consumers being highly receptive to crisis response ads, their appeal isn’t scaling broadly to brand impact for advertisers.

Observation #3: There are a range of viable production options

Most of the ads that ran in March and April were produced before the pandemic and reflected typical production quality. But as the coronavirus began to restrict video production capabilities, we’ve begun to see a shift to more user-generated content, hand-held shots from mobile phones, and alterations to voice-overs and graphics.

For brands toiling over what to do next, creating a completely new video asset or pivoting to tell a story dominated by the crisis may not be necessary. Making slight alterations to an existing ad has the potential to acknowledge the current context while also staying true to your brand values. Even simple changes to music, voice-over, and graphics can reposition a message in a meaningful way.

Here’s a simple framework to think about your production options and partners right now:

Production options and partners

A line graph charts the increased time and cost necessary to produce high-quality ad creative, based on type of editing and net new features involved in production.

Observation #4: This crisis is bringing out the best in many brands

As an industry and a global community, we’re in a place we’ve never been before. It’s a place where immense challenge and uncertainty pervades, but also where your brand can be the best version of itself. Lean on your creative agency to identify what connects deeply to your brand’s equity and bring it to life through actions and expression — visuals, copy, music — like this beautiful film from Budweiser or this funny spot from Burger King.

This can be the moment to invest in brand building. It can be a time to experiment with ad formats, approach, and whatever part of the marketing funnel your brand typically plays in. Is there an opportunity to share the promise of a service provided, along with the story of it? Can you supplement brand building with more tactical product-first messaging for short term revenue? These are questions and possibilities to explore and learn from.

Fundamentals still apply, always

So far, advertisers have been more aggressive about adjusting their business strategy than their creative strategy. The data we’re seeing on ad effectiveness supports this choice. As consumer sentiment and circumstances rapidly evolve, focusing on the fundamentals — product offering, access, brand equity — will do more for business than an aggressive change in creative expression.

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