Creative lessons from the Covid-19 period

ITV's "The people's ad break"
ITV's "The people's ad break"

Nielsen looks at the top Covid-related creative trends.

Without using the dreaded "unprecedented times" moniker for this period of our lives, since Covid-19 disrupted everything, the challenge for advertisers that found themselves having to adapt or completely overhaul creative was a unique and enormous one. 

Across sectors, advertisers had to go back to the drawing board. Seeing creatives rise to the challenge has been testament to the adaptability and resourcefulness of the industry, from the midst of the lockdown right through to the slow emergence back into some semblance of normality. What can we learn from the successful creatives that were born from this crisis – and what trends are here to stay?

Lockdown limitations

The lockdown itself saw some creative responses from channels and advertisers. For example, ITV’s "The people’s ad break" invited the general public to remake a classic TV ad. Entrants were tasked with recreating one of five commercials from past and present: Aldi, Haribo, Honda (pictured, top), Walkers and Weetabix. A winner was picked for each and then aired together as "The people’s ad break" on ITV1 during Britain's Got Talent in late May. 

These ads actually outstripped the originals in terms of brand recall, as the audience were directly involved and became the creatives. This "home-made" format, conceptualised in response to the limitations of lockdown, clearly demonstrated the impact of a collaborative approach with the audience to advertising. KFC also relied on its customers to drive advertising, poking gentle fun at customers’ attempts to recreate its famous chicken and reassuring them that "we’ll take it from here".  

Meanwhile, the NHS campaign featuring England chief medical officer Chris Whitty to encourage lockdown compliance showed the power of stripped-back communications to drive a message home powerfully. Our Nielsen TV content evaluation study found that phase two – delay and phase three – lockdown NHS ads featuring Whitty were far more memorable than those that did not include him. This demonstrates the value of keeping it simple and using a trusted expert to reinforce messaging – something we’ll likely see more of in future public-health messaging.

The rise of video conferencing

With the usage of video conferencing soaring during lockdown, it’s no surprise that we have seen an increase in advertising for these tools, and with many office workers continuing to work from home for the foreseeable future, the opportunity for these remains ripe. The investment into these products goes against the grain of the electronics, household appliances and tech category, which saw a 41.6% drop in adspend over the course of the lockdown, as advertisers adjusted to changing priorities from consumers and looked to promote the most relevant lockdown tools.

Google launched TV and press ads for Meet and made the premium version of the service accessible and "free for everyone" until September to help people communicate under lockdown conditions. The company also aired a minute-long TV spot urging people to "Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives".

Meanwhile, Microsoft debuted a campaign for Teams bearing the slogan "Nothing can stop a team", which showed people using Teams to help public services, schools and universities continue to operate under lockdown. These emotive ads extoll how essential video became to us all and help to create an emotional connection to what was previously viewed as a simple comms tool. 

Zoom, on the other hand, whose popularity has skyrocketed during the lockdown, ceased all advertising activity in mid-April, as the platform of choice enjoyed its status as the de facto video platform. 

To secure cut-through in this competitive market in future, providers must pivot to ensure their products are placed at the centre of our new way of life – emphasising their role in ensuring society keeps moving. From keeping businesses functioning and the economy afloat to enabling public-sector workers to carry out their jobs as safely and effectively as possible, video conferencing is now an essential service. Communicating this to the consumer is crucial.  

Looking to the long term

The travel industry faced particularly difficult circumstances; going back on holiday requires a leap of faith that it is safe to do so. Our Nielsen Ad Intel data tells us that travel and transport advertising over lockdown (23 March to 30 June) dropped by 90% year on year – but there were some exceptions. 

Sandals, one of the biggest holiday advertisers, ceased promoting 2020 breaks in April and launched a branding-based press campaign, telling customers: "When the time is right to travel, we will welcome you back." TUI later launched a campaign bearing the slogan "Welcome back" as it prepared to resume flights to Spain and Greece in July. Ryanair, meanwhile, debuted a TV campaign from mid-June, saying that flights to Europe would resume from 1 July and that "new health measures" had been implemented on its flights. 

These advertising efforts show the importance of remaining front of mind for customers and reflect the uphill battle facing travel companies: to raise awareness of the possibility of holidays and assuage widespread concerns over flying. This will continue to be the key battleground for travel advertisers, which will need data-driven and emotionally powerful creative to overcome the unpredictable nature of holiday restrictions for the time being. 

Changing channels

From addressing new creative barriers to new customer barriers such as caution around shopping and travelling, the advertising industry has seen a major transformation over the past few months. Not least of which was played out in the use of channels, where adspend levels plummeted across all media, with some feeling it more than others.

But we are now starting to see initial signs of some of that spend returning. For example, out-of-home made a small recovery in June, as spend increased by six percentage points from the low of -88% recorded in May. Weekly radio adspend is still well below the levels recorded in March, but the trend is slowly progressing upwards, while press advertising is inching its way to recovery, recording a 38% year-on-year decline in June, from a 44% fall in May. TV adspend is making a faster recovery, up 43% in the previous month to a 27% year-on-year decline registered in June. However, total adspend is still well below the levels experienced in January, February and March. 

The importance of digital was compounded in this period for advertisers as consumers hunkered down to laptops and phones for entertainment and keeping in touch, while TV has also shown its strengths as a favourite consumer resource during a time of crisis. These factors may well reflect in spend figures in the future, as advertisers lean on channels that saw success during this tricky period. 

Looking forward, advertisers are facing two significant headwinds, alongside Covid-19, before they have the confidence to ramp up adspend. First, consumer confidence remains low and may impact spend. Secondly, the government's pre-watershed ban on junk-food advertising as part of its post-Covid-19 campaign to cut obesity will hit media companies hard. 

As we navigate these difficulties, I expect that the lessons we will learn will stay with us far past Covid-19, as advertisers respond to a new society.

Barney Farmer is UK commercial director at Nielsen Media

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