Six months after the coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a juddering halt, Ebiquity’s client partners have been talking to marketing leaders about where they are today and what their priorities are. We spoke to our clients in many different sectors – including FMCG, auto, home improvement, telcos, and betting – categories more and less affected by COVID.
Where companies are able to trade, across the board we found clear evidence of cautious optimism and increasing activity and spend. “We’re moving from survival to recovery and reopening mode, with 2021 planning already underway,” commented one. “Things are less frantic. Now it’s about prioritisation and focus,” said another. ”Growth with a healthy dose of crisis management thrown in.”
With the exception of travel and live entertainment, we found that many marketers are very definitely in growth mode, looking to take advantage of the recent improvement of trading conditions and the gradual reopening of society. And while there is ongoing concern about a seasonal second wave of infections and local lockdowns taking the wind out of recovery, there is a palpable desire to spend, to recoup sales lost in the previous six months, to unlock budgets that were held or paused earlier in the year.
Flexibility and agility
Two of the most important skills in post-pandemic marketing are flexibility and agility. With trading conditions and consumer behaviour changing faster than ever, brands constantly need to reappraise, reset, and reallocate marketing investment more rapidly than before. They need to be able to ramp spending up and down based on rapidly-shifting business performance and consumer confidence metrics. Brands are committing less spend medium-to-long term, and advertisers increasingly require their agency partners to accept that their budgets must remain fluid. To address this need, our Analytics team has developed RapidOpti, a new tool to help advertisers quickly re-optimise their media plans.
The marketing services community was quick to pivot to working from home, both client and agency side. Account management and planning, creative development, and even pitching are now routinely run successfully from home offices, and those marketing leaders we spoke to praised their teams and partners for the ways in which they adapted to this new way of working, a spirit captured in our recent Viewpoint paper on agility. But working from home – certain to endure for most well into 2021 – has lost its novelty factor for many. Despite the benefits on no commute and more time with partners and families, there are concerns about whether leaders can continue to inspire their teams effectively when 100% remote.
In many categories, advertisers appear to be moving back to tried and tested techniques, resisting the temptation to be too innovative and sticking with tactics and channels they know deliver for them. In insurance and financial services, for instance, where purchases are routinely made online, the leading players have followed established online media strategies. Likewise, with people spending more time at home and home improvement experiencing a boom, the established TV and press paradigm is working well for this category. In both cases, there’s been no need to reinvent the wheel.
For other categories, meanwhile, there has been an urgent requirement to reimagine marketing plans and channel selection. In fashion retail, for instance, consumers are spending much less time looking for inspiration in store, window-shopping, trying clothes on. Accordingly, many fashion brands are now investing more in influencer marketing and social media to address consumers where and when they’re now making purchasing decisions. Changes in consumer behaviour are shaping changes in marketing tactics in line with how each category is impacted by the pandemic.
Online betting and gambling firms have adapted to change the times of day and week during which they advertise, from the weekend to the week, from evening to daytime, as the time of day at which people bet has changed. With up to half the working population working from home, in front of a laptop, the category has mirrored a shift in consumer behaviour with changed schedules for its direct response campaigns.
Across the board, there’s greater pressure to secure return in the short term. Brands are prioritising investment decisions across markets and channels that deliver today not tomorrow – and that can be proved to deliver with robust metrics. And while this has led to an emphasis on lower funnel tactics – an emphasis driven by marketers’ increased agility – connecting marketing inputs to business outcomes has never mattered more.
Most brands’ creative messaging is now post-pandemic. The look-alike “we’re all in this together” corporate ads from March to May 2020 are a now footnote, and the return to on-set production has hastened the demise of “shot-on-iPhone”, hand-held creative. Tonally, messaging is changing, too, with more – positive – emotion and more humour entering TV and video ads in particular, with brands steering clear of creative that might induce anxiety, conflict, or polarisation.
The price comparison website Confused.com, for instance, has moved from issues-led to humour-led creative, and supermarket Asda has embraced humour and fun in its latest campaign, bringing back its trademark back-pocket-tap for the first time in more than five years. Asda is also focused strongly on price and value, themes that those we spoke to expect to see featuring more strongly in the months leading up to the usually-buoyant Christmas trading period. As Asda’s Anna-Maree Shaw has said: “It’s giving our colleagues renewed energy, a bit of wind beneath the wings after a truly epic last five months. We are trying to bring a bit of fun back.”
Measurement and analytics
Where brands are looking to invest, there’s growing pressure for accountability, with CFOs demanding high-quality data and meaningful analytics to provide evidence for the business case marketers are marking. In straightened times, all investment needs to deliver a return and be able to show exactly how it’s going to achieve that.
The pandemic has taught marketers to be more agile and flexible than ever before. This naturally makes them more short-termist in their outlook, less prepared to commit to major, sustained investment in case consumer behaviour or government action forces them to pivot and reinvest. By staying lean and not committing too much too far ahead, those that are able to trade are very definitely in growth mode, cautiously optimistic and well beyond pure survival mode that characterised the first quarter of lockdown. And while there’s no sign of an end-of-year bonanza in media and marketing spend – and only modest office parties run over Zoom to match – the skills, approach, and keen eye on measurement adopted during lockdown look set to serve marketers well in 2021 and beyond.