April 1st, 2020

COVID-19 Advertising: What Brands Should Keep in Mind


Ace Metrix

As the world moves into another week of the new COVID-19 normal, brands have ramped up their virus related messaging, and viewers are highly receptive to it. As of April 1st, the automotive industry made up 21% of the 90+ COVID-19 ads we’ve tested with another 19% from restaurant brands, 16% from telecommunications, and 12% from retailers. (Not including government ads or PSA’s)

Now that we’ve tested dozens of these ads, we’re starting to understand what really sets the best apart. The following are general rules-of-thumb from the first 90+ ads to help brands navigate COVID-19 messaging:

  • COVID-19 ads are scoring very high – consumers are open to and appreciative of brands’ efforts. On average, COVID-19 ads scored 18% higher on Relevance vs. the all-industry norm; +11% Likeability and +12% Information
  • Actions speak louder than words. Some of the most successful ads walk the walk, whether that’s giving back or adapting to customers’ needs
  • Be specific. Consumers want to know what brands are doing to help
  • Sales messaging should focus on a benefit being met or a problem solved, not perceived as a cash grab
  • It’s not necessary to mention COVID-19 by name, but it doesn’t hurt. Brands do need to do more than give vague reference to the “times.” Those that use vague terms underperform COVID-19 norms by 7% for Ace Score and Attention and 6% for Likeability
  • Quality still matters. Yes, consumers want Information, but it needs to be delivered in an entertaining, authentic or heartwarming way

Consumers are Highly Receptive

One interesting finding from the dataset is just how highly these ads are scoring. When done right, brands are achieving scores well above their category norms. The average Likeability score of the COVID-19 dataset is 11% above our typical all-Industries norm, putting these spots more in the realm of Super Bowl ads in terms of creative effectiveness. Even when compared to your typical Corporate Responsibility spot for the last year (a category that scores higher than norm), these ads are performing 8% higher. It’s not surprising considering COVID-19 is such an all-encompassing force on consumer’s minds 24/7. 

Supportive Messaging

One key reason why consumers are responding so well to the COVID-19 ads, is that they welcome information and so far these spots have delivered — average Information scores for this set of ads outperforms the all-industry average by 12%. The reason is because without solid information about what a brand is doing or stands for, it’s perceived as just talk.  “We’re in this together” “These are challenging times” and so on and so on. Talk is cheap unless an ad also informs exactly what supportive action(s) the brand is taking.

In our recent survey, 84% of consumers agreed brands have a responsibility to help during this pandemic. That help doesn’t have to be in the form of a charitable check — though consumers respond very favorably towards philanthropy spots. 

Adapt To Consumer’s Needs: Four of the five highest scoring ads on Information shared how brands were adapting to meet customers’ needs as they adjust to the new norm. Not only were they Informative but all scored above COVID-19 norms on Likeability. One of those ads was CVS Health’s “Be Prepared” which offered its prescription delivery service for free and provided specifics like turnaround (1-2 days) and where to sign up.

Applaud Those on the Front Line: Another type of well-received message was brands expressing support for people risking their lives on the front lines, like healthcare workers and first responders, and/or those negatively impacted by the pandemic, such as restaurant workers. Three of the five most Likeable COVID-19 ads — Sam’s Club “Thank You, All” GrubHub “Family” & DoorDash “Open for Delivery” — did just that. GrubHub and DoorDash shared similar messages encouraging delivery as a way to financially support local restaurants.

The most Likeable of the COVID-19 ads to date was Sam’s Club’s “Thank You, All,” which acknowledged and applauded its employees on the retail front lines. Overall, most praised the brand’s supportive intent by naming the Message as the Single Best Thing about the ad and expressing Heartfelt, Inspiring and Adtastic (appreciation for the ad itself) emotions. It also scored into the Strong band of signal on Empower — something only 1.3% of all ads do.

Despite a strong Likeability score and positive feedback,there was some caution that other brands can look out for in their own messaging. Sam’s Club fell below norm on our Information component which played a part in the But signal measured (highest among the COVID-19 ads). But typically comes from some internal conflict for respondents- there were elements they really liked, but there was something they didn’t. For a number of viewers Sam’s Club’s message, while appreciated, was a little too surface level and lacked specifics about what actions Sam’s Club is taking to reward its workers. Brands should be mindful that a “thank you” is not enough, consumers want to see action.

Giving Back: A surefire way to show support and have it resonate as authentic is through Philanthropy. But brands need to walk the walk with specific actions that are brand relevant like the most Empowering ads have done — Verizon “Pay It Forward,” Budweiser “One Team” & Miller Lite “Tip Jar” (in that respective order). Verizon broke into the Extreme band of signal on Empower — something only the top .004% of all ads ever achieve — with the spot about its #PayItForward initiative supporting small businesses. All three of these also beat COVID-19 Ace Score norms thanks to strong Breakthrough (Attention & Likeability), Information and Change (adaptability).

How to Talk About COVID-19

One thing advertisers must decide as they put together creative to address consumers, society and the pandemic itself is how they will refer to it. Do you allude vaguely to “the times,” or call the virus its medical name, COVID-19? Somewhere in the middle? 

Vagueness seems to be a theme for ads at the lower end of the performance spectrum. Loose references to “the times” tended to be smokescreens for a spot lacking a concrete message or action from the brand. 

Two phrases that seem to be getting old quick are “uncertain times” and “challenging times.” 13% of ads use one of these two phrases and as a group they underperform other COVID-19 ads by 7% (Ace Score, Attention) and 6% (Likeability). While Hyundai was able to wield “uncertain times” successfully, most ads that used that expression fell to the bottom third of performers.

Top scoring ads do not reference the virus by either of its names, but that is likely because the ads are strategic and specific with their messages, directly addressing how their business is adapting to “the times” for the betterment of their customers, employees and in some cases, society. 

For example, Doordash focuses on where they can benefit consumers by saying “doors may be closed” and “tables may be empty.” Denny’s mentions “if you’re staying home” and Clorox has the benefit of being able to get right to the heart of the matter.

Addressing the virus by name did not hurt Ford’s or Hyundai’s performance in their various spots. Both brands particular offers are for people who lose a job due to the virus, so likely needed to refer to it specifically. Other than the car manufacturers, Xfinity refers to the pandemic as “coronavirus” to show users how to get news and updates on their TV via voice control.

Approach Sales and Promotion Messaging with Caution

If you do decide to address “the times” (or any other way of referencing the COVID-19 pandemic), approach sales promotions with caution. At a time when millions of people are unemployed and stressed about paying bills for basic necessities, discounts on what might be perceived as frivolous goods is salt in the wound, and worse could be considered as exploiting the situation for brand gain leading to a social backlash. The key is understanding whether the deal or offer is going to help struggling consumers. If yes, focus sales messaging on the benefit being met or the problem solved.

In one instance where a discount was praised, Olive Garden mentioned a BOGO deal for its entrees and informed viewers about its curbside availability. The ad clearly explained why they were offering two entrees for the price of one — “we’re all family here and we want to help feed yours during this difficult time.” Thanks to this clear connection between the circumstances and the discount as well as the nature of food (necessity), viewers received this deal in a positive light:

“During this Coronavirus pandemic when restaurants are closed the call, curbside pick up and deal they offered is wonderful and helpful to so many people struggling because they are out of jobs right now. Everyone loves Olive Garden. Yeah, Olive Garden. Good job.” Female 50+

“I think it displays a very relatable sale that is very helpful right now and that would be valuable for many people. I like that it displays a family and clearly tells the sale and what it offers. It also displays good food and makes me want to order” Female 21-35

“I loved the two for one deal with the coronavirus going around. It shows they care about people.” Male 50+

“Free Delivery” is one of the more popular promotions among brands so far. Of those ads that mention “delivery” options, over 50% waived fees. While prominent among restaurant and QSR brands, retailers like CVS Health and Best Buy are early adopters of “free delivery” promotions as well. Those that resonated best with viewers on overall Ace Score tacked on extra promotions (like Olive Garden) and/or clearly communicated how (free) delivery would help customers, like CVS Health’s “Be Prepared.”

Quality Still Matters

Brands are doing incredible work with limited resources- putting together effective, at times emotional advertising with stock footage, text and virally-sourced video. Delivering a positive message is not enough, however. Viewers still want to be engaged and even entertained as they watch ads that address some tough topics.

Ford, who was quick out of the gate with their spots offering relief to owners and lessees, is a nice case study in how images and sound elevate an ad. One of their spots (the lowest scoring one) was text only, with no accompanying visuals and somber music. The message was similar to their other ads, but those had visuals and voiceover to help keep viewers engaged. 

Verbatims from the 15 lowest scoring ads indicate injecting some life into the ads could have done more to drive the message home:

“This looked like a middle schooler made this. It looks cheap. I would never choose to watch this again. The message they had was good, but I couldn’t get over the cheap looking presentation. It was boring boring boring.” Female, 16-20

“The ad was extremely boring. There was no exciting imagery. Listening to people talk against a monochrome background is no way to get your message across. I lost interest almost immediately.” Male, 21-35

“That was quite boring to me, I wanted to see something to grab my attention but it didn’t. Even the chosen car was not spectacular enough to remember. I do, however, applaud the company for helping out in these times. Great!” Male, 50+

“The message is important but the ad is boring. Everything about it is boring; the music, the black and white, the dialogue. It’s boring, that’s my take away.” Female 36-49

Rise to the Challenge 

Research from past epidemics indicates that brands that hold steady (or increase!) their advertising during periods of adversity fare better. The most successful ads resonate in a relevant manner by addressing “the times” head on and remain authentic to their brand. Avoiding the issue altogether has its own set of risks.

Brand messaging needs to have a purpose, not just a vague “we’re in this together.” Viewers want to know: Who are they helping? Is it believable and authentic? Is the brand doing its part? Can I trust this brand? Do I share its values?

With our COVID-19 ad count increasing daily, we’ll be continuing to provide insights into what is (and isn’t) working with consumers.


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