Businesses have been hit in multiple ways since the coronavirus pandemic, one of which is figuring out how to navigate the message of their advertising. 

Hillary Haley, Ph.D, Senior Vice President and Executive Director of Behavioral Science at RPA Advertising, tells Inside the Issues that advertisers and marketers need to approach pandemic-related advertising in phases. A lot of brands, she says, found themselves scrambling to adjust or take down ads as the outbreak progresses.


What You Need To Know

  • Marketing expert Hillary Haley, Ph.D, says brands need to think of their advertising in phases

  • She says focus groups and other testing shows most ads are receiving positive ratings

  • Haley tells small businesses to keep communicating with customers and figure out a digital strategy


“There were ads like KFC’s ‘finger lickin’ good,’ which, great for the brand in normal times, suddenly was wildly inappropriate. You also had brands scrambling to pull down sports sponsorships. You had brands looking to operate with reduced budgets and you had brands wanting to produce new work, but being constrained in terms of their ability to do so,” she says of how the brands began to respond. 

She said brands began to acknowledge what was happening and their messaging was focused on showing people they are supportive and empathetic to the situation. Over the last five to 10 years, Haley says, brands have “taken on a more dominant role in society.”

“They’re now being looked to by people not just to sell products, not just to create customer experiences, but actually to have an opinion on social issues, to contribute and participate in shaping cultural values, in shaping the economy,” she says. “I actually think brands have a responsibility to play a role right now.”

She says focus groups and other testing shows most ads are receiving positive ratings, despite some brands that made some missteps along the way. And the fact that production has shut down means they are relying heavily on stock images, old footage, and voice overs.

Haley says most brands jumped on the same strategy at first, but people are ready to move on from the message of “helpfulness.” 

“People are starting to feel a little bit tired of being victimized and big corporations coming in to help. People want to take action themselves,” she says.

She says ads need to communicate in a way that is true for that brand.

“Farmers Insurance: ‘We’ve seen a thing or two but we haven’t seen this,’” she gives as an example. “They used Professor Burke, J. K. Simmons, who's a figure who’s in all of their advertising, and took that helpfulness message, but fit it into what they’re doing.”

“We’re seeing some ads ... that are talking about the coronavirus and talking about a new set of values, potentially, resilience and family and simplicity but in a softer way and those brands are starting to resonate a bit more in how they're communicating,” she said. 

Haley says smaller businesses will have a different branding strategy than large, national brands. 

“For big national brands there is an expectation to survive a certain kind of messaging right now. There is an expectation to donate to workers on the front lines. There is an expectation to treat employees in a certain way,” she said. “I think people know [smaller brands] are facing difficult times and I think there’s increased awareness that we don’t want to live in a world with gray streets with shuttered windows. We want those local businesses to flourish. We understand they’re going through hardships.”

She says smaller brands should optimize distribution strategy and get into digital channels.

“Figuring out how to embed themselves in consumer habits that are emerging,” said Haley. “Smaller brands have a harder time pivoting, because they don’t have the scale, they don’t have the resources. Those brands are smart to communicate with people on a regular basis.” 

Let Inside the Issues know your thoughts and watch Monday through Friday at 8 and 11 p.m. on Spectrum News 1.