Small businesses are essential to the US economy and job market — of which they make up 99.9% of enterprises and employ 47.3% of workers. When faced with the coronavirus’s swift and widespread impact, many were forced to adapt, pause operations or shut down for good. Those that survived initial lockdowns still face a long, dicey road to recovery. With that in mind, some big-name brands are advocating for the little guys.
Right after lockdown orders took effect, advertisers including Verizon, GrubHub and Miller Lite were quick to assemble relevant ads and/or initiatives in support of small businesses. These initial efforts were often philanthropic and focused on keeping businesses and their employees afloat before the Paycheck Protection Program was signed into law. From there, other thoughtful themes emerged, like encouraging consumers to shop locally or demonstrating how owners can manage reopening volatility.
Brands started taking a stand long before COVID-19 and the latest Black Lives Matter protests. Communicating purpose, whether held by the majority or minority, comes with risks and rewards. However, right now supporting small businesses is about as universal as a cause gets. It’s a safe stance.
We’ve tested 70 ads since the start of the pandemic that advocate for small businesses from 27 brands spanning a range of industries like alcohol, finance and technology. When it comes to understanding the risks and rewards of these ads, we turned to our Cultural Perception measure. In the case of small business ads, 89% were positively impactful enough to score on our Empower metric. Historically, consumers have only found 12.5% of all ads we’ve ever tested Empowering, making this set of ads an anomaly.
In the Cultural Perception matrix above, the 40 highest scoring ads all fall along the Empower axis. Only one, Bud Light’s “Complimentary Drink” scored on Exploit, which measures an ad’s degree of risk (negative impact).
Out of all the small business ads, only seven scored on Exploit. All of which fell in the weakest band of signal with the lowest scores possible that paled in comparison to the level consumers found the ads empowering. Among those seven, the small business standpoint was not the sole cause of Exploit signal.
That said, even the safest stances have a few dos and don’ts in creating effective ads.
One such brand that mastered this when it comes to small business, is Google:
Google’s ten ads were mini use-cases for the sites’ business profiles, showing owners things like adding take-out menus and editing business hours while also subtly urging consumers to support in ways such as leaving online reviews. Six of these ads scored highest out of all the small business ads from June to present. The other four were still strong performers and significantly outscored website category norms.
The visuals and use cases in the campaign remained true to the brand with Authentic coming through as the most common emotion across all of the ten ads (as shown in the Ace EMO Heat Map below). Viewers also picked up on the Convenience of using Google My Business to stay up-to-date with local businesses during these turbulent times:
Times are rough. There’s no denying. When advocating for small businesses, it’s important to strike the right balance between addressing reality and uplifting consumers. Ads that come off as depressing or too negative will turn away viewers.
Most of Square’s small business ads were strictly focused on storytelling without any sign of product promotion. Using voicemails from real users, the ads commiserate with COVID-19 hardships, but encourage resilience at the same time:
While the goal of Square’s “Seller Stories” campaign was to elevate POVs from businesses, some of the ads came off as too negative for viewers and/or lacked a clear connection to the brand for those less familiar. Nearly 10% of viewers between the the two lowest scoring ads mentioned words like “depressing,” “sad” and “melancholy” in their verbatim comments – all of which felt negatively towards it:
“99% of this ad was downright depressing. Not what I or practically anyone else wants to hear right now. Definitely not enough of the accentuating the positive.” Female 50+
“I think there have been too many of these “sad” ads this year. I get it, but prefer fun and interesting ads over depressing ones.” Female 21-35
“Depressing. Not holding out much hope in the vocals; defeated. Music didn’t help.” Male 50+
“this was too depressing to watch and with everything happening this year it made me sad needed more of a hopeful message” Female 36-49
“To dark, dreary, sick of seeing so much negativity” Female 36-49
Amidst these ads from its “Seller Stories” campaign, Square also ran a more product-focused spot (“Preparing You”) that clearly communicated how the company is capable of helping small businesses adapt to the “new normal.” It hits on our previous point about making an authentic connection to the brand (through the product), while doing so in an uplifting and supportive manner (as shown in viewer verbatim comments below).
“I like it. It seems like Square could help me do a lot more than I realized with my business.” Male 36-49
“As a craft business person, I feel supported and inspired to keep making” Female 21-35
“The ad was good. I had never heard of this brand before. However, the ad was informative to let me know what they offer. It made me want to learn more.” Female 50+
“Good information and visuals to help me learn about the product.” Male 21-35
To avoid coming off as pandering or preachy, brands sometimes hide their contributions to a cause behind a link, which they then promote instead. More often that not, this lack of concrete details creates a gap in an ad’s emotional storytelling that leaves viewers with a sense of “so what?” — “What’s the brand doing to help?”
This sense of “so what?” does not inspire consumers to seek out information hidden behind a link. They expect it upfront in an ad. Eight of the lowest scoring promoted links with additional information. Not a single viewer even mentioned these links in their verbatim comments. Instead they were often left with a feeling of missing out (on information, relevance, clarity etc.):
“It was actually hard to discern what local company was being supported by the big “brand” name” Female 36-49
“I thought there was a good story there, but we didn’t hear enough of it. The ad was slow to start and I feel that you could have told more about the business and what your company does to help.” Male 50+
“The ad itself is very compelling, relevant to the times, and seems to offer a message of hope. The problem with the ad is that it fails to connect how Square is used to benefit the community during this pandemic.” Male 50+
Not a small business ad, but Frito-Lay’s “It’s About People” exemplifies this point perfectly. From an industry insider’s perspective, it might’ve felt a bit braggadocious, but the average consumer really resonated with it. So much so, it ranks among the top ten highest-scoring ads of the last decade.
One benefit from clearly communicating contributions is that consumers won’t feel like brands are putting the pressure on them to do something. It’s not empowering when brands tell viewers what to do, even if it’s the gentlest nudge. Instead, brands should think of leading by example.
Of the small business ads, 40% took a philanthropic approach — either donating money or resources to established charities or starting their own initiatives. The lowest scoring ones were those that hid these efforts in a link and/or gave viewers the impression it was their responsibility to help too. As one male viewer put it, “don’t use celebrities to pander to customers and get them to donate to small businesses when as a large company you could very easily support these businesses yourself.”
Supporting small businesses won’t lose its relevance anytime soon. It’s a long road to recovery. While all of these dos and don’ts apply to purpose-driven marketing in general, they are especially relevant for brands advocating for small businesses during these times.