Dentsu's Dan Harris on Marketing Amidst Covid-19

The two most common statements I have read over the last couple of weeks are, “the new normal” and, “these are unprecedented times”.  Understanding what this means for brands, marketers and our own business is a focus for many of us, alongside the not insignificant challenges of figuring out new daily routines and managing our physical, mental and financial health.  

To give a perspective on how global media agencies are working in a time of great uncertainty, the best place to start might be with Sir Martin Sorrell. He has reflected that, “Q2 will be terrible, Q3 will be slightly better and we’ll see a sharp recovery in Q4; brands will let rip. This will be a V-shaped recession”.  He goes on to say that the old adage of brands “spending their way through a recession” no longer applies, which of course it doesn’t in a world where marketing strategies are digitally focused and extremely agile.

The question we on the agency side are trying to answer for our clients is, how do we effectively plan for a V-shaped year?  

As a brand, depending on your category, distribution and liquidity, you may be tempted to freeze marketing spend in an attempt to weather the storm and protect your staff.

Some brands have tried to use their marketing skill to do good: Budweiser has helped pubs and bars with a pre-purchase gift card initiative, L’Oreal warned people against panic-buying and H&M is offering its social media channels to global aid organisations like the Red Cross to amplify public health alerts. This consideration of social utility is likely to see certain brands benefit from a smarter approach to marketing in a crisis.

The reality is that outside of food producers, supermarkets and the larger pharma companies, sales are going to be adversely affected. New car sales are down c.40% year on year and may get worse. The airline industry is on its knees.  Once these brands have figured out what’s best for their people and what steps they must take to protect their business over the summer, their thoughts may turn to marketing.  They will be focusing on building a plan to replace lost sales as quickly as possible in Q3 and Q4.  To do this at a global level is a true test of how well your performance models hold up and how firm a grasp you have of your marketing levers, in order to stimulate demand from customers who will also be reeling from what could be the biggest economic downturn of our lifetimes.

Brands are inevitably shifting to or accelerating existing direct-to-consumer offerings.  This disruption has already been a major trend of the last 5 years, but the cutting of budgets and a refocus on digital activities where people are spending (even) more time will become critical as governments ramp up their comms to encourage people to stay home – we received our letter to do just this from the British Prime Minister earlier this week!

The next question I would ask as a marketer is, should I be worried about my brand equity?   This is a far more nuanced topic, and one that many marketers may discard as low priority.  Cutting marketing budgets as a way to preserve cash - that oh so precious commodity in crisis scenarios - seems like an obvious move.  Our advice is, wherever possible, brands should strive to deliver those socially beneficial or purpose-driven programmes that might make a real difference to people’s lives and the way they think about your brand, not over the next few weeks, but for their rest of their lives.

Beyond that, there are lots of pragmatic ways in which Agencies can help our Clients.  We are trying to roll out market intelligence from our Global Media Partners as quickly as possible to help identify new audiences, new channels and new ways of thinking about marketing challenges.  

We are also fast-tracking solutions that enable clients to cost effectively repurpose existing assets for new campaigns as quickly as possible, at a time when ‘shooting new’ is challenging.    

Finally – and this applies both personally and professionally – we should take this opportunity to reorganise and focus on ourselves.  In the same way that I would like to use my extra downtime to learn a new language, marketers may choose to focus on training in a marketing discipline that they thought they’d never get around to learning.  

As professional athletes often say when faced with career-threatening injuries, we should all be striving to “come back stronger” in every respect.  

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