Geico ad with woman balancing dog on her feet in the air
PHOTO: Geico

Building emotionally-resonant marketing campaigns was hard enough before COVID-19. Now, brands face a landscape fraught with questions: What are the right messages when the world has turned upside down? Are we being sensitive? What do people want to hear right now, and what turns them off? How do you market well when your target audience might not be in the mood to be overly marketed to?

These are hard questions, and companies must answer them appropriately. The bar has never been higher for businesses to get their campaigns, messages and all interactions with customers right. In times of great stress, people tend to remember both positive and negative experiences with greater intensity. That ups the ante on the importance of businesses exhibiting extraordinary levels of empathy and transparency.

Here’s another twist to the post-coronavirus environment: Media consumption has surged since the outbreak as people stuck at home flock to their screens to stay entertained, informed and connected. A survey by Visual Capitalist of 4,000 US and UK residents between 16 and 64 years old found that broadcast TV viewership has surged 36.5% and online programming by 34.5%.

With more people seeing the commercials that run there, it is even more critical that brands deliver the right messages. Never has it been more important to make an authentic connection with consumers and show true understanding of their emotions, motivations, fears and needs.

With that in mind, we selected 16 commercials that top brands are currently airing — all addressing the pandemic in one way or another — and conducted virtual viewing sessions with 400 people to gauge what approaches and messages are resonating and which are falling flat.

5 Signs of the Marketing Times

1. Companies engage consumers when they don’t just talk the talk but walk the walk

Empathizing with customers’ needs and concerns is much more powerful when words are backed with action.

Case in point is Geico's commercial about the 15% credit it is giving auto and motorcycle insurance customers because there are fewer drivers on the road. The commercial scored high with viewers not only because it demonstrated kindness, but also because of the subtle underlying message that the company is rewarding people for contributing to the greater good during the crisis by staying home.

Domino's Pizza spot about its contactless delivery appealed to viewers because it made them feel safe about ordering from the chain. (The humorous nod to the Tom Cruise dancing-in-his-underwear scene helped too, though as we’ll see in a bit, lightheartedness can easily backfire in pandemic-themed commercials).

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2. Companies that care about their employees and the world at large, not just their customers, earn deep credibility

Some of the strongest praise in our study went to an American Automobile Association commercial about its free roadside assistance to healthcare workers and first responders. Another winner was a State Farm ad that not only talked about that insurer’s own premium rebate program but showed various employees, including the CEO, working from home.

Our study participants saw a compelling message in these spots that transcended commerce: We’re all in this together.

Related Article: What Does Great Customer Experience Look Like Today? Giving Customers Peace of Mind

3. The public may not be in the mood for pathos

People are stressed out and overloaded. As a result, brands must be careful not to overwhelm their audiences with yet more emotion.

That explains why Dove’s “Courage Is Beautiful” spot got a thumbs-down from many of our viewers. The commercial makes a beautiful statement, with its still shots of medical workers, mask imprints covering their exhausted faces. But study participants thought it was simply too much of a downer.

“I think we're all already aware of what's going,” one said. “We are all quarantined at home, and I don't want to see these images right before watching something with the family … I just felt sad watching this commercial."

What this suggests is that brands need to tread a fine line between empathy and melancholy.

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4. Now may not be the time for humor

The lowest-rated commercial in our study was Old Spice's spot featuring a shirtless Terry Crews shouting “stay inside!” before inexplicably falling through a tree and turning into a cartoon woodpecker. Though our viewers appreciated the safety message, the ad struck them as too flip.

Notice how the Domino’s commercial also contained humor but had a more informational tone (the availability of contactless delivery). What this tells me is that brands don’t have to be all gloom and doom, but they must make any comedic touches don’t come across as gratuitous.

5. Humility is potent

“Thank you for not riding with Uber,” began a commercial for the ride-sharing service. The message: we care more about your safety than our revenue.

“Our message with this campaign is pretty simple: Stop moving,” said Uber marketing vice president Thomas Ranese. “We felt it was particularly relevant for a company whose brand stands for movement to reinforce this important message.”

Our study participants thought this was an elegant approach that also somehow offered hope when we can all ride again. There was something inherently forward-looking in the message.

Now more than ever, empathy and authenticity need to underpin marketing campaigns. Businesses need to be seen as a caring ally to customers by winning over their emotions in ways particular to these times.