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With Covid-19 emphasizing the human element in advertising, brands should re-evaluate their strategies and reframe their messaging to stay relevant. Saying nothing is wrong too, add experts.

“How do we respond to the biggest global conversation taking place?” asks Robert Grace, Founding Partner: Head Of Strategy, at M&C Saatchi Abel, an integrated advertising agency with branches across Africa. “How are you actually going to match what you’re talking about with action?”

This is where advertising’s role becomes interesting, far from simply acting like a loudspeaker to products, or putting out mushy messages to engender brand loyalty.

How has marketing had to help brands pivot their messaging at this time?

The global pandemic is influencing every aspect of life. “I’ve never heard the word ‘unprecedented’ used so much. We’ve used so much hyperbolic language in this time,” says Grace.

From changing work cultures, to countries in lockdown facing economic crises, Covid-19 is impacting everyone in tangible ways. For agencies and by extension, brands, to pretend it’s not happening or go on with business as normal, reads as tone-deaf at best and disingenuous and ruthless at worst.

With that in mind, some brands have opted for silence, fearful of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. “Saying the wrong thing is unforgivable – the consumer is smarter than they’ve ever been. You could have been in the right place but one wrong move could send you backwards,” explains Khuthala Gala-Holten, Managing Director at Joe Public in Johannesburg.

The risk of saying the wrong thing is paired with the risk of saying nothing at all. “Many brands have paused spending now, which is not the best thing to do, because people expect brands to play a role. 88% of consumers want brands to talk to them now,” says Shaun Frazao, Head of Digital at Wavemaker. The data backs this up – according to email service provider Everlytic, their March 2020 open rate was really high: 55.3 million unique opens.

Others that are still “talking” are dramatically pivoting on their marketing messages and communications.

“Whatever you say has to be authentic and not seen as a marketing opportunity,” explains Grace.

“There are some brands that should be going into quarantine over this period – don’t use this ‘opportunity’ to sell, rather use the time to refine your strategy. So that when you go back into the market, you demonstrate that you’ve understood what consumers will be wanting from your brand.”

Gala-Holten adds: “Strategy first – what are the guardrails? Sometimes clients have several agencies. So you really need to empower them with guardrails. This is now the ‘new normal’ – we will never be the same. From the creative perspective, in a way, it’s very exciting.”

Across sub-Saharan Africa, we’re seeing six key themes in communications and advertising, explains Frazao (see sidebar). “Consumer centricity needs to be first. Brands that are communicating now are looking long-term, to build trust, and not short-term at the sales they could make.”

Every agency interviewed for this article has seen a combination of two trends: contracts shrinking as businesses struggle to make money, and a shift to digital marketing. “The way business has been done will change in the advertising world. We have been moving gradually to a very focused marketing landscape, and this will be the tipping point to push them into that realm at a faster pace,” says Darren Leishman, CEO of Spitfire Inbound.

For digital agencies or agencies with digital service offerings, this shift has been less painful, but agencies with offerings like TV ads (that require crew and a studio to shoot in) and eventing (where large groups of people meet) are the hardest hit.

“People are spending more time online and media figures are reflecting higher views than normal for online ads. Clients are cutting spend in offline channels in favor of online ones. However, most brands remain very cautious with marketing spend in general at this time,” says Brian Carter, Executive Creative Director at Digitas Liquorice.

Clint Paterson, CEO at sport and entertainment agency Levergy, adds: “New behaviors and lifestyles will take root, but it’s critically important to remember, people’s passions won’t die. The role of the brand or event owner becomes one of adaption here, how can relationships be reinterpreted, reinvented and reimagined to generate the kind of connection with audiences appropriate to this new normality?”

Grace puts it another way: “Any cracks you had before Covid-19 will turn into gaping holes.”

Diana Springer, Partner: Head of Strategy for strategic consultancy Black & White, adds marketing as a whole has become increasingly performance-based and goal-orientated. But in unforeseen times, “brands have to reframe what they’re measuring,” says Springer. “Otherwise, they can lose relevance. You have to change how you define success to shift your strategy. This pandemic is really making us consider the fundamentals.”


‘6 Marketing Themes FOR This Time’

Shaun Frazao, Head of Digital at Wavemaker, advises six key pandemic-driven themes in marketing for Africa:

  • Supporting the frontline workers
  • Repurposing production (instead of making products, brands are making products to help their consumer, such as South African Breweries donating alcohol to make hand-sanitizer)
  • Helping the vulnerable
  • Health messages (posters on social distancing, Pick n Pay’s message to avoid panic buying, and SA Tourism advising people to travel later)
  • Making staying at home easier (brands are trying to be empathetic by making staying at home easier, like Vumatel increasing internet speed for free)
  • Distributing positivity (Nandos’ latest ad is all about remaining positive, and Nike did something similar).

– Samantha Steele

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