In the emotional maelstrom of personal dismay, news overload and a feeling of helplessness in every respect, our Client Services Director Stephanie Marchio was initially inclined to advise businesses categorically against continuing with their ad campaigns. Given the current flood of information, who can seriously remember a brand name? And does advertising during a war not always seem out of place? Now that the initial shock has worn off, though, things are becoming clearer and concrete indications for brand communication in times of war are starting to surface. A personal report and six helpful tips.
How do you develop a professional consulting stance on a new topic called “war in Europe”?
During the first hours and days, I am just trying fathom the unfathomable. Even today, a good three weeks after the first troops invaded Ukraine, I still have not wholly succeeded at this. I am constantly clicking through news portals and need to actively stop myself from doom-scrolling. The frequency with which I use media has increased, yet my receptiveness continues to decrease. I feel helpless and those around me are reacting similarly – “Two years of a pandemic and now this?”
In the middle of my own personal crisis mode in the first days of the war, we began receiving questions from concerned clients: “Should we proceed with the campaign as planned?” My first, emotional impulse is: Who out there could possibly be interested in advertising at a time like this? People are losing their lives, European democracy is under attack, the war feels dangerously close at just under 2,000 kilometers away. That someone at this moment has the capacity to notice a brand name or product name, or even feel like buying new products, is utterly improbable. I feel the quote by Mark Ritson, a marketing professor in London, exactly as he wrote it: “At times of war, marketing is rendered superficial and ridiculous.”
Using emotions to develop a differentiated stance
However, it is more important now than ever to use rationality to overcome emotions when it comes to consulting. We must develop a differentiated stance even on this topic—this is our task. Initial feedback from our Strategic Purchasing Department states that we are not seeing any significant cancellations, however, clients are advertising on news channels and some ad blocks are being scrubbed for special broadcasts. The next reports confirm that most clients wish to continue their campaigns. Our team discusses businesses that have stopped advertising in Russia, Google Trends developments since the start of the crisis, donation communications from major brands, and the brand safety status of our tools and external platforms. No one is sure how to proceed in this situation.
I continue to read up on international opinions. I observe how more and more businesses, regardless of ongoing marketing, are examining how they use their brand essence to help: Ridesharing company Uber is offering free rides from Ukraine to Poland. Fashion brand armedangels is donating clothing and ensuring that they get where they are really needed. Etsy is waiving outstanding balances and fees for private sellers in Ukraine. Our client Aktion Mensch is starting a large project to transport highly vulnerable groups, people with disabilities and children, out of the war zone. Airbnb is asking property owners to provide 100,000 stays for refugees and, based on an influencer’s idea, has started a drive to book and utilize stays in Ukraine for direct aid. Various food producers and baby care product manufacturers are donating food and supplies, and are helping with their products. The slogan is “action, not words” and I notice that I very carefully look at how the brands I follow are handling the crisis while also embodying one of the most important future trends in communication.
The crisis seems to be an accelerator through which even companies that do not normally focus on any social aspects in their brand essence can embody purpose and add value with their product or service. Consumers are watching every move and rewarding grand gestures with many likes and interactions. Those that do not donate or get involved stand out. This creates more and more pressure on businesses and has produced a chain reaction in the business world that can already be assessed as a protest movement. Consumers are demanding brands take a stance – and not just in regard to exiting the Russian market.
Six guiding thoughts
What does this all mean for advertising communication? Following my initial inner conflict and discourse that always needs to be conducted with each and every client, I am becoming increasingly rational in my opinion that products and services will still be needed and purchased regardless of whether there is war or peace in another European country. Nevertheless, one must be very sensitive in determining whether each ad is well positioned for the current situation. The following six items can serve as a guide:
1. Content is king, but context is everything
This creed applies now more than ever. Brand safety tools, channel/site list optimization and even the rescheduling of current or coming campaigns are the order of the day. No client wants to see their advertisement next to horrendous images of war and we must make every effort to avoid this combination.
2. Check all creatives for sensitive content
No matter how well we avoid the airing of advertisements next to critical content, the text and images of the ads should also be eyed and used sensitively. If there is even the smallest chance of an erroneous attribution or misinterpretation, the motifs should be altered or the campaigns postponed for the time being.
3. What is the goal of the campaign?
Do I want to further grow my brand values? Especially in the first weeks of the war, consumers may have been unable to retain advertising messages in their heads for the long term. It makes sense to adapt goals, postpone the campaign or reconsider channel planning. You also should take care not to fall into rash actionism. “Adorning” your image with the crisis, such as with the color scheme of a logo, can swiftly have the opposite effect, as marketing and advertising psychology professor Karl Peter Fischer knows. “The goal of this kind of event-driven advertising is to improve one’s image. This backfires quickly. This positioning only succeeds if it is extremely credible because one already has been seen getting involved for some time,” he warns.
4. Check your media mix
When TV and radio are being dominated with war reports, you should examine whether a portion of your budget should be spent on nonlinear media. In its study titled “Connecting the Dots”, GlobalWebIndex has already examined the influence of the pandemic as an international crisis on media use. Following the frenzy of information at the start of the pandemic and a coverage boost from social media, many people developed news fatigue and consciously avoided emotionally stressful news sources, giving nonlinear media such as podcasts, music streaming, video on demand and gaming greater and greater reach. The audio and gaming channels especially continued to further the trend toward escapism: “Transitioning from a pandemic to an endemic context is likely to be an emotionally fraught process for many. Escapism is a quality that could well remain in high demand.” The current crisis could contribute even more to this trend and once again lure target audiences away from linear media.
5. Talk about the good you are doing
Many people are currently feeling a great sense of helplessness. Brands provide direction and the actions of large companies give hope and a foster a sense of solidarity. When offers of help are authentically developed from brand essence of even simply compassionately communicated in the form of a monetary donation, this attitude also wins over consumers.
6. Provide for fallback scenarios
We all hope for a swift end to this war. At the moment, the situation remains unclear; all the more important to discuss possible scenarios and their effect on communication. There will come a point in the war where any and all communication should be ceased. Clients should discuss with their agency team what grades of the crisis they see and when everything should be shut down. Everyone involved should be clear on the lead times for shutdown and especially on availabilities/emergency contacts on weekends. Crisis communication should be discussed not only with PR but also with media agencies.
As an agency, our task will continue to be shedding light on developments every day and factoring the variable of war into performance analyses. Above all, we must also talk to each other and factor this permanent crisis mode into the performance of each and every one of us. Our work gives us structure in these times, but we are all only human. The wave of solidarity, including at Crossmedia, is overwhelming and gives great hope, however, the feeling of hopelessness is ever just beneath the surface. It requires space in which thoughts can be expressed and joint projects that foster a sense of self-efficacy.
Three weeks ago, I would not have thought that I would ever write an article on a topic like this. My hope is that, soon, it will be obsolete once more.