March 19th, 2020

How Brands Are Navigating the COVID-19 Pandemic


Ace Metrix

This unprecedented pandemic has pushed businesses, communities and entire nations into uncharted territory. With so much unknown, we’re all adapting day-by-day, maybe even hour-by-hour, and that includes marketing.

In the past week, brands have ditched campaigns because of cancelled TV events (eg. March Madness) and content deemed insensitive or inappropriate for the current times. While those losses could never compare to the personal risks individuals are facing, it’s still not ideal. 

With so much uncertainty, brands are questioning if they should even advertise at all? If so, what should they advertise and what should they avoid? Do consumers want them to address the coronavirus? Do brands have a role in the fight to flatten the curve? And so on and so on.

Since we test every ad within 24-48 hours of airing, we’re able to assess US consumer response towards all ads, including those that have acknowledged the pandemic in some manner. As things progress, we’re monitoring changes in ad performance to see how the pandemic is affecting consumers’ perception of ads in general. But first we wanted to share consumer reactions to the initial ads addressing the virus.

What we’ve learned so far:

  • Consumers are open to brands addressing COVID-19 in ads: 42% said “yes, any mention is ok” & 44% said it “depends on the message and/or brand” — only 10% said it wasn’t ok
  • Gen Pop viewers showed strongest resonance towards uplifting themes of unity & resilience
  • In order to Empower viewers (make a positive cultural impact), it’s important that there’s a strong connection between the brand and message
  • It’s key for brands to show actual action, not just words — 75% of consumers believe brands have a responsibility to help out during the pandemic
    • At a time filled with so much uncertainty, viewers want specifics in regards to brands’ actions
  • Ads are driven by Relevance and Information, but viewers are still looking for entertainment (measured by Attention and Likeability scores) and storytelling as it relates to COVID-19

Quick Glance at Consumer Sentiment

As for whether or not brands should address the COVID-19 pandemic in ads, a majority of over 1,000 viewers surveyed are open to it with 42% agreeing that “yes, any mention is ok” whereas 44% think it “depends on the message and/or brand.” Two of the ads below that saw the strongest resonance among Gen Pop viewers had uplifting themes of unity and resilience, reminding viewers that we will get through these hard times:

Chart: "Do you think it's appropriate to mentino the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic in ads?" 42% said Yes, 10% said No, 44% said Depends, and 4% said No Opinion

Those same two ads also communicated philanthropic efforts from the brands in this time of need. In its St. Patrick’s Day ad, Guinness pledged $500,000 to communities affected by the pandemic and Ford is offering payment relief to Ford Credit customers. In the same survey, 75% of respondents thought brands have a responsibility to help out during this pandemic.

Take Notes: Guinness Promotes Unity

In the first Coronavirus-related ad (hitting airwaves March 13th) Guinness promotes unity, resilience and the human spirit. The ad acknowledged the unusual circumstances surrounding this year’s St. Patrick’s Day but never directly called out COVID-19 (or Coronavirus). 

To say Guinness knocked it out of the park would be an understatement. Among Gen Pop viewers, the overall Ace Score for “St. Patrick’s Day Message” was 34% above 90-day Beer ad norms thanks to the strength of its Likeability, Relatability, and the Information delivered. Beer drinkers ranked it as the #1 beer ad of all time — that’s nearly 1900 ads going back to 2009 — and seven in ten reported increased purchase intent.  

On top of that, “St. Patrick’s Day Message” achieved Strong signal on the Empower metric from our new Cultural Perception scoring system — which measures the risks and rewards of communicating values and social objectives in these modern times. Gen Pop viewers of all genders and ages connected with this spot in such a manner:

Ace Metrix Cultural Perception:Empower Score of 3.4 for Guinness's "St. Patrick's Day Message"

Below, a handful of the 400+ viewer verbatim comments we received about the ad illustrate the overwhelming praise and the positive cultural impact:

“Wow, I am sitting here in tears. This is the ad that sells. I really do not like the taste of Guinness but I just may have to buy some when I can. This ad speaks so strongly to my heart. Sure, this was the oddest St Patrick’s Day ever but we have to come together to defeat this monster in our midst and there will be other times. Thank you ad creators and Guinness!” Female 36-49

“I love the message of this ad, bringing people together and people raising each other up through tough times. It fits what everyone is going through right now with the virus” Male 21-35

“That was a wonderful commercial. One of the best I have ever seen. Congratulations, Guinness; that was a beautiful message to witness.” Female 50+

“I like Guiness anyway, but this was a well crafted ad cognizant of the difficulties brought on by COVID-19.” Male 36-49

“I really liked that it addressed the current social situation with COVID-19 (without saying it outright) and had a warm, reassuring feeling to the narration. Phrases like “if you can do so safely,” reminding us that there are so many people working through this pandemic to try to get things back on track, and visuals of small groups of people helped address what the ad was talking about (besides their product). The whole ad felt like a comforting pep-talk with just a little mention of their product peppered in.” Female 21-35

More Direct: Ford’s “Built For Right Now”

The first to explicitly mention COVID-19 in its ads, Ford offered up Empowering messages and relief for customers affected by the pandemic. “Built to Lend a Hand,” which featured a stronger brand narrative and more stimulating visuals, resonated better with Gen Pop viewers.  Information, Change (new direction), and Relevance were the strongest components for both, but viewers also found “Built to Lend a Hand” Attention-grabbing and Likeable at levels that exceeded Corporate Branding norms thanks to its execution:

Ford COVID19 AdsComponent Scores_Ace Metrix

Unsure of how to address such a somber topic, Ford’s ad results suggest viewers still want to be entertained. Viewer verbatim comments about “Built for Right Now” (the more bland of the two) reveal the execution – or lack thereof – took away from the impact of the message:

 “Extremely boring. I want to watch TV, not read TV. I understand that the overall message of the ad is to assist people during the COVID-19 crisis but you have to have my attention before you can tell me anything.” Male 50+

“Not the most appealing ad but great message” Female 21-35

“The message was good, but it was delivered blandly. The ad needed photos or something more than just words.” Female 50+

Between the two ads, 58% of viewers reported a positive change in perception of Ford vs. only 4% negative. This sentiment is echoed in Solid signal on our Empower metric for both ads — a level more empowering than 95% of all ads.

Ford COVID19 Ads Empower Scores_Ace Metrix

A handful of the 800+ comments we received indicate the level of Empowering impact:

“This is the first ad in a long time that actually brought tears to my eyes. VERY moving, and it shows that Ford cares about those affected by the Covid-19 (coronavirus) virus and is going to help those who are having financial trouble or are affected by this disease that Ford is here to help.” Male 50+

“i like that they are being proactive helping people out with issues from the virus, hopefully other companies will follow their lead” Female 36-49

“I liked that Ford is having that initiative, it is reassuring for those that are on leasing right now” Male 21-35

“Love this ad. This shows that we can all come together in a time of need. Hopefully motivates others to lend a helping hand as well.” Female 36-49

Subtle but Reassuring: Verizon’s “We’re Here. And We’re Ready”

As pandemonium erupted at grocery stores over the weekend, Verizon reassured consumers that the company is constantly monitoring it’s network. Even more subtle than Guinness, Verizon didn’t allude to COVID-19. With such subtleties, only about 7% of viewer verbatim comments acknowledged the relatability towards the pandemic (when searching words like “times,” “virus” & “corona”). Based on the other ads and consumer sentiment towards brands addressing COVID-19, viewers are looking for specifics at this time filled with uncertainty.

Still, Relevance was the strongest component for the ad. As with Ford’s “Built for Right Now,” Verizon’s “We’re Here. And We’re Ready” could have benefitted from more Attention-grabbing content.

Here at Ace Metrix we will continue to analyze ad performance in the current climate and work to uncover insights to help advertisers navigate the unknown, so stay tuned. In the meantime, if you have any questions directly related to recent ads in your category or brand get in touch.


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