Prior to 2020, advertising spending, on average, in the United States increased 8% - 10% annually since 2015. Increases in spending in each year were in excess of $10 Billion USD year over year and were about $241 Billion USD in 2019. 2020 looked to be even better until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, of course.
The US economy was partially shut down in mid-March due to the spread of the Coronavirus. The negative impacts created a ripple effect throughout the economy that was not generally visible or taken notice of prior by the general public in normal times, myself included.
What most people don’t think of or realize is that the economy is interconnected in ways unseen. It’s less a straight line that it is a spider’s web.
Put another way, it’s actually a well-oiled machine that, when properly functioning, keeps the economic gears moving smoothly. The pandemic was the biggest monkey wrench tossed into those gears since the Great depression in 1929.
Let me give you an example. Once the economy was closed, businesses were shuttered. This shuttering created a number of obvious and less obvious changes. An obvious change was the huge increase in people going on unemployment after being laid off. Another was a drop in GPD, or the Gross Domestic Product. This is a fancy economic term for the value of the economy including the money made for all goods and services sold in the USA.
A less obvious change was a huge drop in advertising spending. Businesses that are closed don’t spend money on advertising because they can’t do business. Canceling ad spending meant the ad agency had to close because it had no business. As such, I had no work from them because there were no ads to produce so my income dropped and I was forced to spend less so I could keep my head above water.
However, that’s just me. The companies that ran all those canceled ads lost money, too, including many regional television stations, cable TV companies, newspapers, radio stations, magazines, web site sponsorships and even national companies, such as social media companies. All lost money because they earn revenue by selling advertising (print ads, TV commercials, radio spots, etc.) and their ads were all being canceled.
As those organizations lost revenue, they laid off even more employees who cut their spending to economize (like I did personally) and make their dollars stretch further. Many were forced to cut ad rates just to make something. At one point, by early July, after over 3 months of the shutdown, local TV stations were selling 15 second spots for just $25.00 USD that normally ran close $800 USD. That’s unheard of.
After the initial shock of the shutdown wore off, I had a Zoom meeting with the other folks at the ad agency to strategize on what to do next. This was in the third week in March when the shutdown was brand new. I should say that I’ve never had a Zoom meeting before and knew nothing about the program at the time, but I’m a pro now since I use it so much.
What we settled on was helping those businesses still open (or wanting to stay open if possible) to pivot their advertising strategy to the new reality for as many of our clients as possible.
Most businesses closed completely, of course, but many, deemed essential, either remained open at their brick and mortar locations or were “open,” but working remotely from home (or online) rather than the office, as we all were doing for the ad agency as well.
A mistake that companies make to their advertising strategy is to stop advertising during economic downturns. It seems to make sense to cut costs before closing locations or laying off staff, but this will hurt companies in the long run. It’s always important to keep your company name in front of the public so you come out the other side of an economic downturn stronger than those who failed to advertise.
We pitched the idea under the concept of “Hijacking the News.” So, what is the high jacking of the news? It is is taking advantage of an already-existing event, such as the pandemic, that people know about and are talking about, and changing your marketing to reflect that current event.
For this to be successful however, your marketing plan and/or your business and its products or services need to be relevant to the newsworthy event. Otherwise it will be a complete failure. I can’t stress the importance of this enough. If your business model can’t be adapted to or related to the changing conditions, this will not work and your business will suffer.
For example, for restaurants, we pitched advertising take out and online ordering if they remained open to serve food, but were unable to have customers dine in as normal due to social distancing restrictions.
Here’s an example:
The thing to keep in mind is that since people weren’t able to dine in, they switched their online restaurant searches to “Delivery” rather than “Near Me,” as they were previously, so we convinced those clients that they had to adapt their marketing strategy accordingly and begin to begin to offer delivery service themselves or partner with a food delivery service such as Grub Hub or a similar company. Or, they had to change their location in such as way as to allow for pick up in store of customer orders, while maintaining social distancing, crowd gathering limits, mask wearing mandates, etc. All this was done in order for those businesses to remain open.
Another pitch idea went out to a B2B company suggesting that they’d be there to serve your business once your business re- opens. This spot here:
Both these spots were produced in the middle of the pandemic. Our focus has been to convince clients to embrace the new reality rather than run from it.
The first thing to do in a hijack campaign is to identify an existing current event that has already captured the attention of the public. The pandemic certainly fell into that category.
Then you need to expand on the story being told, but do so in a different way or approach the story from a different angle. The spot above for National Business Solutions is a good example of that. This company new that their business was going to drop because their customers were other business and with business closed, they were going to face financial difficulty. However, they chose to advertise in a way that let their business customers know that they’d be still be there when their customers were ready, i.e. open for business as usual once again.
We pitched many ideas to our clients in this vein. For example, we have suggested that clients change their websites and ads to directly address COVID-19 and how they are helping customers and what specific steps they are taking to keep their customers safe such as “Contactless Delivery” or “Sanitization Methods” as these general topics are on the minds of the public.
Getting it right isn’t easy. If a brand or company fails to create an authentic connection with its customer base or disrespects the essence of the event, their relationship with consumers can sour quickly. This is why it’s important to be certain the changes to your marketing are relevant to your business as mentioned above. Failure to do so will be recognized by the pubic easily and will damage your company's reputation.
All advertising boils down to the following goal: Get your customers to know, like & trust you so they buy from you. If your disingenuous in your hijacking strategy, your reputation will be tarnished and your ad campaign will fail. It’s that simple.
Fast forward several months into the pandemic and the next big news story was George Floyd. In our increasingly polarized time, few events galvanize the public into agreement in the way that horrific event did.
Normally, we advise clients to avoid political issues like the plague. Doing so only brings political polarization down upon your company which, in turn, alienates your potential customer base. In the past, I’ve had clients ask about venturing into politically touchy areas and I’ve always advised them to against it. In fact, I’ve gone so far as to tell them that the only color in business that matters is green while I pull out a bill from my wallet and show them the green ink on the back of the bill.
However, the George Floyd incident was a rare exception due to the egregious nature of the event and the ensuing public outcry, protests, etc. A number of businesses wanted to adjust their campaigns to mention their commitment to diversity, inclusion, etc. Although controversial to an extent, public opinion was so overwhelmingly on one side, it’s less controversial than it seems at first glance so hijacking that newsworthy story made sense.
If you look carefully at TV ads now, you’ll start to recognize this happening more. Many ads running discuss health issues such as mask wearing or will show people meeting in a teleconference. All are examples of companies Hijacking the News in their campaign strategies.
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