How the pandemic has changed the game for marketers

For years, the three pillars of a great marketing campaign have typically involved a combination of data, creativity, and execution. All equal, all pivotal. But the coronavirus crisis has disrupted business and marketing in an unforeseen way, and has placed communication paramount among business imperatives as the world seeks to make sense of a future where forecasting is hard. It has also elevated marketing to a new role as a differentiator, and highlighted a need to level up on all three pillars, with particular attention on delivering trusted, targeted messages, with empathy at their core.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, brands had become increasingly reliant on technology to provide data and insights that would help drive campaigns. That represented a change from a focus that historically had been more creative to one that meant technology was now also pivotal to campaign success.

The world is still in the grip of the coronavirus crisis, and there are signs that the crisis will bite into campaign budgets. According to a recent Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) study in the U.S. almost half of respondents planned to cut performance marketing spend in the short term.

And yet, an opportunity exists for marketers to help reshape businesses, led by a dual creativity and technology focused approach.

Against this backdrop, it is clear that there is now a huge opportunity for the marketing function. Many businesses are working to evolve as they look to return to some level of normality and adapt to this new reality. Marketing can now be central to any renewal, offering nimble, impactful solutions to business critical problems. Consultants at McKinsey & Co., suggested in a recent article that, “entirely new businesses and business models will potentially emerge from the crisis,” adding that, “marketers should act as a catalyst for that change.” In many senses, for things to simply go back to how they were, would be a huge missed opportunity.

So, we all accept that change is coming, but what will that look like and who will drive it? The news likely to be welcomed by most marketers is that humans and not machines will need to be at the heart of ‘recovery marketing’. Now is a time for nuanced, sensitive messages. The post-pandemic world will call for many businesses to evolve their operational models as well as the way they represent their brands and demonstrate value. Sensitive marketing can help with that process. 

The discipline of creativity will always need to be led by data and insights. However, this new environment in which we find ourselves - hastened by the disappearance of third-party cookies - calls for a flight to quality data-led solutions and sophisticated ad-tech, combined with a deft human touch in storytelling in what will be an evolution of the quant/creative relationship. Technology and data will of course be useful for measuring campaign effectiveness, while human sensibility will be called on more than ever to craft intelligent and empathetic messaging.

Despite advancements in AI, creativity in marketing is a largely human endeavour. Last year, The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising’s ‘Crisis in Creative Effectiveness Report’ found that high-performing, award winning campaigns that have a creative core, are almost 16 times more likely to bring major profitability growth. So, we know that creativity will clearly be an important ingredient in the successful marketing mix in a post-pandemic world. The challenge for marketers will be finding the right balance between reliance on data-led optimisation solutions and focus more on emotive, human-led creativity.

The good news is that consumers expect brands to communicate in a crisis. As recently highlighted in a white paper developed by our in-house creative studio, The Trust, entitled "Advertising During a Crisis", data from McGraw-Hill Research shows that advertising during a downturn is an investment in future growth. 

What will be crucial is a focus on tone and empathy, and the pandemic could accelerate the move for some brands to invest more time, creativity, and money in values-based marketing. We have seen many strong examples of businesses not only embracing more values-based creative mindsets but driving whole businesses to quickly change course. Allowing them to switch to providing essential goods and services for consumers looking for coronavirus-related products. It takes creative thinking to quickly deliver that.

As many countries begin to relax restrictions, economies and markets will begin to understand the shape of their likely recovery. Marketing teams must seize this opportunity to not simply return to how things were being done pre-crisis. Underpinning that approach should be a renewed focus on utility, empathy and authenticity that could amount to a renaissance in creativity. Getting back to first principles of really knowing a customer and what they want, should be the catalyst for that renaissance.   

This article is contributed by Julia Clyne, head of media, Asia Pacific at Dow Jones.

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