Adapting to adversity: advertising lessons from lockdown


If Covid has taught us anything, it’s that adaptability is not just needed to thrive, but to survive. This has certainly been true in business where the mettle of marketers has been thoroughly tested since the start of the pandemic.

The arrival of Covid brought about change at breakneck speed for brands. Priorities shifted, consumers began to behave – and feel – differently and marketing strategies had to turn on a sixpence to accommodate the state of flux brought about by various lockdowns. To delve into this further, Thinkbox commissioned agency Work Research to explore what the Covid crisis really meant for marketers. They conducted interviews with 12 senior clients at the end of 2020, who each reflected on the pandemic’s impact on their businesses. They also revealed their perspective on what changes they foresaw in their approach to marketing throughout 2021 and beyond.

Six clear themes from the research emerged which were reflected across all advertisers, regardless of category. Take a look at them all below and watch the videos above.

Advertisers who have contributed to these videos are Ben Newbury, Yorkshire Tea; Abba Newbery, Habito; Julia Sparrow, Mondelez; Gill Riley, Quorn; Gareth George,; Gayle Noah, L’Oreal; Amy Clayden, Wilko; Sophie Parfitt,; Chris Ladd, Nationwide Building Society; Simon Wallis, Domino’s; Graeme Adams, BT Group and Amy Butterworth, Tesco.

You can download the relevant nickable charts relating to the themes explored by clicking the download button at the top of this page

Tuning in to the mood of the nation

The Covid crisis created a distinct need for enhanced social awareness as advertisers were required to sensitively tune in to the emotional state of the nation. Marketers had to quickly assess the appropriateness of their messaging as the world turned upside down – and kept on changing. Tone became a critical factor and many marketers talked about the pressure of empathetically reflecting the national mood. Broadcasters also quickly adapted with virtual programming and socially distanced audiences. TV advertising gave many brands a way of aligning themselves with what the British public were going through.

We had to always take that healthy sense check of ‘what’s really going on?’ and [we knew] we were going to get this right or wrong before we pressed go. It’s paused a lot of stuff that we made. And we held it, and we held it, until we felt the time was right to go live.

Ben Newbury Yorkshire Tea

Brand and response

The balance between brand and response was brought into sharp focus by Covid. Advertisers were forced to rethink their campaigns, often at incredibly short notice. Firstly, because the hard sell no longer seemed appropriate, but secondly because trust and mental availability became even more crucial in the post-Covid world. It made sense that marketers turned to the channels that consumers were most likely to see and trust. Payback was also crucial as brands needed to generate immediate sales but also shore their brand-health up in the longer term, to withstand any future lockdowns.

We used three guiding principles as some kind of compass. Firstly, to keep serving our customers and looking after our people. Second to build brand preference and look after our communities, and to ensure that the brand comes out of the crisis stronger than it went into it. In other words, take actions today that our team members and customers will remember for a lifetime.

Simon Wallis Domino’s

Reach and growth

One of the most radical shifts Covid has instigated is in consumer behaviour, particularly when it comes to purchasing. For many advertisers, a positive benefit of lockdown was a growth in their consumer base as customers either chose, or were forced, to deviate from their usual brand preferences and try something new. The inevitable challenge is how to make those changes stick – or win back the customers that had been lost due to the pandemic. This challenge is causing marketers to refresh their thinking around mass reach, their distinctive assets and light consumers in 2021.

Targeting really changed from a sub-segment of society, to everyone who does a shop – no matter where to be honest – everyone that needs to buy food, so basically the whole population.

Amy Butterworth Tesco

Fast-forwarding innovation

The pace of brand change has been unparalleled since lockdown started. One client described it as “ten years’ change in one”. Evolution went into overdrive, leading to many brand initiatives that were previously unimaginable. Some advertisers even had to create whole new ways of doing business. Ultimately, businesses changed because people changed – and the effects weren’t just limited to advertisers. Innovation was also at the heart of the broadcasters’ agendas. New programme formats, ways of watching and an expanded back catalogue meant that TV stayed relevant for both audiences and advertisers as everyone adjusted to the pandemic way of life.

We’d already started on the ecommerce journey many years ago, but I would say that Covid really accelerated our plans by about three years. So within a matter of weeks we had really activated a lot more platforms and channels and retailers to start driving ecommerce.

Gayle Noah L’Oréal


All media are not created equal. Different media channels signal different qualities about the brands that advertise on them. The importance of trust, quality and brand strength have been amplified throughout lockdown. These signals are entrenched in TV advertising and one of the reasons TV was so valued throughout the pandemic. TV was viewed as a reliable and effective vehicle for building brand awareness and trust on a mass scale. It was also unique in its ability to help people feel good again due to its ability to harness the power of positive emotion. These attributes were of huge benefit to advertisers throughout lockdown.

I can’t believe there won’t be some long-term benefit from us being present in the market in the medium that has always given off a sense of trust and stature.

Chris Ladd Nationwide

The importance of partnerships

The most powerful advertising always comes from the most powerful partnerships. Lockdown amplified the importance of strong media relationships where all parties came together for the benefit of brands. A more flexible and collaborative approach was required so that advertisers could pivot their activity appropriately. Marketers relied more heavily on their agencies to read consumer behaviour and understand the impact of their activity. The flexibility offered by the broadcasters allowed advertisers to more easily shift their messaging or leap in and take advantage of the surge in viewing and the incredible value on offer.

The brand teams in our business have really seen the value of that collaborative spirit and I do think that everyone has rallied round to come together.

Julia Sparrow Mondelez

In conclusion

Marketers have played a crucial role throughout this crisis. They’ve been tested like never before, connected with and reassured consumers on a deeper emotional level and pivoted activity around ever-changing rules and regulations. Whilst the future still seems uncertain, the ability and reliability of TV to deliver for brands in times of crisis remained reassuringly unchanged.

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