Adapting to adversity: advertising lessons from lockdown


2020 and the impact of COVID has caused many people to re-evaluate what is important to them – this has been no different in business.

The pandemic has brought about change at break-neck speed for brands. Priorities shifted, society began to behave and function differently, and marketing strategies have had to quickly adapt to reflect this.

Thinkbox commissioned research agency Work Research to explore what the COVID crisis meant for marketers. They conducted interviews with twelve senior clients at the end of 2020, who reflected on the pandemic’s impact for their business and a future perspective on what changes they foresaw in their marketing plans for 2021.

Six strong themes from the research emerged which were reflected across all advertisers, regardless of category. Take a look at the them all below. 

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

Week six: 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 to help them weather the stormiest of seas.

It was the equivalent of ad hokey-cokey – with ads dropping in and out at a moment’s notice depending on restrictions and the mood of the nation. A more flexible approach was essential so that advertisers could pivot their activity appropriately.

Marketers relied more heavily on their agencies. They drew upon their expertise to understand shifts in behaviour and adjust their messaging accordingly, but also to measure the impact of their activity-shifts on the bottom line.

And of course, the flexibility offered by the broadcasters summed up this collaborative spirit. Advertisers appreciated the ability to pull activity altogether without penalties or to leap in to take advantage of the surge in viewing and the incredibly value on offer.

Week five: Signalling

All media are not created equal. Different media signal different things about the brands that advertise on them. Signalling is a powerful force (as we know from our own research, which you can see here.)

Lockdown meant the importance of brand signalling sky-rocketed. The was a fundamental need for reassurance, and the desire for accurate information was right at the fore of consumer’s minds. In a world where fake news and misinformation was rife, TV was valued by advertisers as reliable and effective vehicle for building brand and awareness trust on a mass-scale.

TV was also unique in its ability to help people feel good again during a challenging time. The importance of charity and community was heightened and whilst some brands, such as Domino’s, used TV to thank key workers and staff, others such as Tesco and Cadbury, harnessed the emotional impact of the medium to tell heart-warming stories about togetherness.

We know that the perceived cost and scale of an advertising channel can enhance brand attributes in the eyes of the consumer. In lockdown, this effect was magnified, and the signals of trust, quality and brand-strength conveyed by TV were more important than ever to advertisers.

Week four: Fast Forwarding Innovation

The pace of brand change has been unparalleled since lockdown started. One client described it as “ten years change in one”.

Plans were forced to evolve at a moments’ notice, leading to initiatives that were previously ‘unimaginable’. Some advertisers have had to create whole new ways of doing business. For example, retailers being forced to go online for the first time, the introduction of new payment systems or the creation of whole new supply chains.

Ultimately, businesses changed because people changed. New priorities like safety and reassurance were paramount, and brands that innovated more playfully also fulfilled the need for some light relief during lockdown.

Innovation was also at the heart of the broadcasters’ agendas. New programme formats, ways of watching and an increased back-catalogue meant that TV stayed relevant for both audiences and advertisers as they adapted to the pandemic way of life.

Week three: Reach and Growth

One of the most radical shifts COVID has had is the resulting shift in purchase behaviour. Whilst the pockets of some online retailers are bulging, others have had to make huge leaps to move their businesses online or stop trading completely to comply with lockdown rules.

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 challenge for marketers is how make those changes stick so they can retain the customers that they have acquired through lockdown.  Or for brands that have lost out due to distribution issues or behavioural shifts, how can they win back the customers that have been lost as a direct result of the pandemic?

The year ahead will be challenging for marketers, but they recognise that it provides an opportunity to refresh the thinking around mass reach, distinctive assets and light consumers.

Week two: Brand and Response

Fine tuning the balance between branding and response is one that occupies many marketeers’ time and COVID brought it into sharp focus.

Advertisers were forced to rethink their campaigns. Firstly, because the hard sell no longer seemed appropriate, but also because mental availability became even more crucial. It was essential that advertisers hit the right note emotionally and were top of mind and trusted when the chances of their brands being physically seen and bought were reduced.

It was crucial that advertisers demonstrated stability and safety during tumultuous times and that lay at the heart of their marketing strategy throughout much of 2020. In many respects, for the advertisers that could continue trading, the pandemic provided an opportunity to step up to the mark and demonstrate their commitment to their customers and staff.

With safety such a concern, trust was propelled top of mind. It made sense that marketers turned to the channels that consumers saw and trusted – and time and time again that channel was TV.

Recovery was also front of mind. It wasn’t just about riding the wave through generating immediate sales, but using the sustained impact of TV advertising to shore up business prospects in the longer-term.

The crisis created a perfect opportunity to reassess, reset and get brand and response working together again.

Week one: Tuning in to the mood of the nation

Successful advertising has always tapped into popular culture, sometimes it has even had a hand in creating it. The COVID crisis has created a new need for cultural awareness as advertisers have had to tune in to the emotional state of the nation.

Advertisers had to quickly assess their messaging as the world turned upside down. All talked about an audit of what they were saying and obvious edits followed; no more mentions of meeting up with friends, enjoy with your family, drop in for a chat or visit us at our new Superstore in Croydon.

There was something else going on too though – it wasn’t just what they were saying, it was how they were saying it. Tone became a critical factor and many marketers talked about having to be in tune with the mood of the nation. Yorkshire Tea hung on Boris’ announcements before resurrecting the office tea break. Quorn picked up on a renewed closeness with nature as skies emptied and birds whistled in the first lockdown. Habito almost dropped their campaign ‘hell or Habito’ (playing with comic-book themes of fever and death), until research showed that people found it insightful and sympathetic, not exploitative.

TV itself adapted with socially distanced audiences, quiz shows with screens separating the contestants and a Welsh setting for I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here! TV advertising gave many brands a way to be at the heart of what the nation was going through.

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