How do People Feel About Advertising?

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When the foundations of our society have been rocked, when people have feared for their and their families’ health, when politicians have served up mixed messages, and our heroes have shifted from A-listers to health works and delivery drivers, we know it is not business as usual.

Within this disrupted and unsettled world, people are experiencing a roller coaster of emotions as the months pass since the Covid-19 pandemic began, making it a particularly challenging and difficult environment for brands to navigate. Faced with such high levels of personal strain, how receptive are people to brand communications? Will they tolerate commercial messaging amid global turmoil?

While there’s no doubt advertisers have a challenge to ensure their tone is appropriate in the current climate, research points to people being more than comfortable with companies continuing to advertise their wares.

Advertisers find themselves in an unusual situation where people’s emotional response is sharpened but brands are heavily reliant on digital advertising – invariably the form of advertising with the least emotional resonance. The lure of digital has been strong, seducing marketers to prioritise this type of brand investment with its direct, real-time measures of impact. But the ads are invariably short, sharp rational ‘buy’ messages with no time for subtly or charm.

And not all measurement is equal. The risk is that digital KPIs give marketing directors a false sense of ‘success’. What is needed is for physical reach and superficial likes to be separated from genuine emotional engagement and attitudinal change.

Of course, tactical and rational digital advertising still has a central role in communications, but online channels can allow emotional brand building to complement the rational messaging and nurture the customer journey to the point of purchase.

Even before Covid-19 turned over people’s lives, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising’s seminal paper ‘The Long and Short of It’, written by Les Binet and Peter Field, proved that emotional-based advertising is more effective than rational-based advertising for both short and long term measures of commercial success and brand building.

Researching almost 1000 campaigns from 700 brands, it found that while short term effects are essential for efficiency, it is the long-term effects that drive growth and profit. So, while rational messages can result in short term sales uplifts, longer-term emotional priming leads to brand building and longer-term volume increases.

The emotional framework within which people are now absorbing messaging is changing. The psychological disruption of coronavirus and the lockdown has served as a consumer reset on values, priorities and behaviours. People have re-assessed what is important to them, which brands are deserving of their money, and many of their changes in behaviours will be retained to reshape brand purchase and affinity in a post Covid-19 world.

This is evolving against a backdrop of an already shifting dynamic in brand relationships. As Kantar’s Purpose 2020 report showed, 80% of over-performing businesses have a clear purpose that infuses all that they do, compared with just 32% of underperforming companies.

People are now looking to brands that have a clear stance on things that matter to them, a ‘sharing of values’ that can form a strong basis for brands to build sustainable loyalty and stronger base relationships. Manufactured brand positions are quickly called out as people want meaningful and true communications that represent core values. For example, Unilever’s Sustainably Living Plan, has demonstrated top-down corporate policy, covers all aspects of the company’s business, and is followed through in strategy and communications.

Coronavirus has spurred a rise in conscious consumption – with limited opportunities, finances and occasions, purchasing a multitude of products will be much more considered. Brands must tap into people’s motivations, work out how their brand purpose fits within this purchasing landscape and adapt their advertising to encompass the emotional as well as the rational.

As lockdown restrictions are lifted, the mood of the nation has become one of cautious optimism, eager for collective recovery albeit weathering the inevitable recession and tightening of purse strings.

At any time – but especially currently – the two most important factors for brand success are empathy and authenticity. With that bedrock, brand communications can be timely and will always be attuned to the evolving mood of consumers at large.

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