When we return to some kind of recognisable reality, when we wash, dress (and I mean properly dress, like grown-ups) and leave home for work, those returning to the directional, scatter-cushioned hot-houses that are the nation’s creative agencies and production shops will face a sobering reminder. Their cutting room floors – actual and metaphorical – will be a socially responsible two metres deep at least with the abandoned creative work of happier times. And by happier times I mean just a month or two back because, despite the weather’s fanciful decision to swerve Spring altogether, it was just a few weeks ago that brands were lining up their marketing set-pieces full of confidence and swagger. Fast food frenemies finding new ways to throw shade, suricates flogging us insurance and inexpensive lager brands ready to help us win the Euro’s…probably.
But I’m sure you all noticed, given the relative explosion in media consumption and broadcast TV’s unplanned-for renaissance, how advertising suddenly became, frankly, one long unchanging 30-second spot. How all the diversity in ideas, tone, emotion and delivery – the stuff that makes brands, well, brands – had been beaten-up by the pandemic as surely as we all have.
For a few weeks, it seemed as if every creative idea with a mission to differentiate had been ordered indoors and was politely coughing into its sleeve while newly available ad inventory was choc-a-bloc with work that looked and sounded exactly the same. Plinky, plonky piano soundtrack – check. Deserted city centre panorama – check. Mellifluous, reassuring voiceover – check again. Against this stark backdrop, the need for us all to hear the same messages about legacy, trust and togetherness was never more in evidence. That our favourite brands have been here for a reassuringly long time. That they’re ‘here for us’, ‘on our side’, ‘now more than ever’. The importance of family and home and connection was reflected back at us with an urgency that suggested we weren’t all experiencing it firsthand. That it was everyone else clapping from balconies or blessing decent Wifi as social lives now came courtesy of House Party and Zoom.
Of course, I’m being unfair. The new rules of engagement meant that many ads already made, in the barrel and ready to fire, were simply off the table. Cadbury’s intended Easter heartwarmer about grandchildren visiting their Grandad was suddenly promoting potentially dangerous interaction. Mass gatherings, eating out, public transportation, fist-bumping and high-fiving are all newly taboo. Companies are rightly responding to a very real, very worrying and quite unimaginably causal pandemic, but it speaks to a very human need in all of us that we suddenly welcomed everyone explaining the same few simple truths, marvelling as each, almost identical execution, communicated the surrealness of our new and eerie reality. And if advertising really does hold a mirror up to society then never before has it been so evident that we are all feeling diminished and walled-in, scared and in need of reassurance.
So brand messaging became briefly homogenous of necessity and no one flinched. Eschewing the need to make decisions based on what ‘our’ brands say about us, we all became as one, craving the same reassuringly reductive communication.
A few weeks on and agency commentators are making comparisons with wartime messaging, looking over our shoulders with a collective “did that just happen?”.
Of course, this creative re-focus rightfully played a role in helping hammer home lockdown – an imposed state of affairs that prompted new challenges. Indeed, one of the most powerful ads of the last few weeks played hard on this same pandemic-inspired visual currency to make work of heart-breaking relevance and power. An advert from Women’s Aid, that we all wished didn’t need to be made, packs an even harder punch when appropriating the new, short-term lingua franca of adland.
On a lighter note, it’s been refreshing to see the wit and confidence evident in all the best advertising push its way through. Some brands were able to pivot quickly, redeploying facilities and know-how. So while adidas are advertising 3D printed face masks, Tesla engineering ventilators and Brewdog promoting their understrength Punk hand sanitiser, some brands simply re-wrote themselves into relevance. Others are letting loose their carefully accrued creative equity; the power in a tagline allowing Budweiser to slam-dunk with a re-released, re-edit of its famous and oft mimicked ‘Whassup’ spot to promote the power of connection. While IKEA reminded us all why we really love them, tweeting the recipe for their famous meatballs in the style of their flatpack instructions while their stores are closed.
I’m sure agency creatives will continue to rise to the challenge of making client work that works in a context that is shifting hourly. They’ll have to do it from their sofas for a while longer before we all return to the office to juggle with that most disconcertingly labelled scenario, the (wait for it) new normal. And they’ll need to, because rarely before have brands found themselves needing to peer inwards, assessing how robust those lofty purpose articulations really are and finding out anew what they actually mean to us. Or could. Or should.
One thing is surer than ever. We crave authentic, relevant and meaningful communication and rarely before has corporate reputation been under such intense glare. We like being in touch with each other as well as the brands that surround us. As we all look ahead to brand marketing that will no doubt continue to make us smile, think, reassess or simply spend again… I’ll give the final word to Fastcompany, concluding in a recent article that “The gap between a brand’s advertising and a company’s actions has been narrowing for years. This crisis will (or should) slam it shut.”