As political as I’ll get with this column is saying war is difficult. All parties, from those in the streets to those in the sands, would agree. The vast majority of us are here, not in immediate danger of being the target of a rocket. We’re rather bouncing along on the shockwaves generated by the war’s progress, trying to keep a course charted not to handle conflict but to generate growth.
Hello, advertisers. Glad you could make it. Now… what are we going to do with ourselves?
In the absolute short term, there’s no question the start of the war punished the ad market. In that difficult (and ironic) situation of ratings going up and desire for advertising going down, networks found themselves staying commercial-free for long stretches. Make that long stretches of premium-priced broadcasts, what with all that satellite time. Online, we saw some of the same: Ads pulled from many big news sites. Advertisers don’t want to be juxtaposed next to awful news or to seem callous and insensitive.
Every advertiser is re-evaluating her spring campaign, seeking one highly valued and elusive attribute: discretion. I’ve been in lots of meetings to determine a brand’s character. I’ve seen the usual parade of adjectives: “inspirational,” “empowering,” “authentic.” Have to say “discreet” is a word that’s never come up. Discretion is hardly something to which a brand would aspire, not when the mandate is to be heard, seen, felt, and, above all, noticed.
Discretion is not hiding. It’s acting appropriately. It’s communicating and making yourself heard not by being loud, but by saying the right thing at the right time. Yes, pulling ads because they might not fit is one form of discretion. It’s also a missed opportunity. It’s an opportunity not taken because saying the right thing is more difficult than not saying anything at all.
Let’s (for the moment) ignore creative costs and the difficulty of scrapping one campaign for another. It’s been well argued elsewhere this practice is more viable online than in any other medium. Let’s explore ways a brand can seek discretion. The reward is the ability to continue to speak and continue to build relationships with consumers during difficult times.
Note: The following suggestions apply only when a brand has some warning, when there’s time to view the run-up to a situation such as war and plan accordingly. When catastrophic events happen suddenly, the only real choice is to simply stop.
- Keep going, but don’t point to yourself. Assuming your campaign does not use imagery or metaphors that suddenly seem offensive, there’s nothing wrong with continuing. If you decide to continue the campaign, just do it. Don’t issue press releases commending your own bravery in the face of adversity. It will ring hollow.
- Reach out in a meaningful way. If you’ve never run a cause-related campaign, now’s an ideal time. This war is difficult, as causes are politically colored. Agencies such as the Red Cross are simply there to help. If you run a cause-related campaign, do it a meaningful way. A portion of proceeds as donations is good, but something related to the brand is better. “American Idol” singers, for example, are recording a song, with all proceeds going to the Red Cross.
- Build the corporate brand. Corporate branding occurs nearly as much as it did in the initial-public-offering era (some 50 kazillion years ago, according to geologic records). Back then, it was critical to introduce a company to the public and show what it stood for. During a crisis is an excellent time to remind consumers your company is really a group of people and you believe in something. Talk about the company, not about your latest product.
- Avoid war offers. The desire to provide incentives to get consumers spending again may be strong. This is not a bad thing. Price breaks, bundling deals, and promotions are excellent ways of catalyzing consideration and sales. Tread carefully and don’t brand offers as war-related. The danger of looking as if you’re capitalizing on crisis is too strong. It can have a negative effect on your brand in the long term.
Brands often seek to represent themselves as people: an informed advisor, a helpful friend, an entertaining cohort. The proof of a brand’s ability to forge and maintain a relationship comes into focus when times aren’t so good. Sure, pulling your communication is acceptable during a crisis. Not doing so and shifting toward a more informed, more mature way of speaking conveys relevance and will build credibility.
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