New York, NY 23.11.2020

What to say when no message seems right

In any environment, great advertising and brand messaging can be a real challenge.  During a pandemic, it can become downright dangerous.

The pandemic has created a highly charged atmosphere for brands. In the early days of COVID-19, many companies dove into the fray, with ads proclaiming their support for customers and essential workers. What began with good intentions led in time to what some have called “COVID messaging fatigue” – exhaustion with solemn messages of empathy and a growing sense that the pandemic was becoming just another “marketing moment.”  We have even seen some sensitivity to ads where clients have shown people in masks in everyday situations.

Moreover, since the initial lockdown, consumers have been leaning into all media.  GfK research shows that screen time across devices has increased up to 80% during the pandemic. With increased media time comes increased exposure to advertising, with 34% of consumers reporting that they see advertising more frequently. Two-thirds of consumers said they feel “constantly bombarded” by ads, and this continues to intensify.

But heightened exposure to ads does not always breed affection. GfK Consumer Pulse research finds that consumers are just as likely to feel companies are taking advantage of the situation as those seeing brands as a “force for good” during the pandemic (GfK Consumer Pulse). So consumers are being exposed to more advertising, are increasingly annoyed by ads, and their “BS” meter is on full alert.

So what is a brand to do? If simple messages of support have worn out their welcome, how can brands pivot – proceeding with sensitivity while not seeming exploitive? When asked what themes brands should embrace after the pandemic, US consumers were also starkly divided; roughly half said that the new, post-virus world would require all-new messages, while another contingent said that we should act as if the pandemic never happened – in hopes of forgetting it as soon as possible.

The advertising challenge is to get and keep consumer attention with messaging and storylines that are compelling and believable. In times of stress, we need to honor proven principles – of brand messaging and ad value. GfK’s Ad Fit Optimizer (AFO) reveals what works, when, and why. Drawing on our AFO database, here are some key guidelines and watchouts that advertisers would be wise to remember in these pandemic times.


Advertising must be relevant to both the consumer and the company.  Storylines, talent and messages are most effective when they ring true to consumers own lives.  As importantly, the message must be connected directly to the company’s business, and the storyline must reinforce that connection for the emotional benefit to be achieved.  Even ads about community and the common good are most effective when they establish a meaningful connection to the brand.


The message and creative idea must be unique.  When consumers are overwhelmed with ads, it is important for them to feel this is not the same thing they keep seeing, or it risks just being ignored. Too often, great insights work can lead companies to similar strategies; the key is that advertisers make those insights their own – in terms of message content, storyline, and visuals.

Emotional connection

Achieving relevance and uniqueness can help an ad make an emotional connection with consumers, which will make the ad more impactful in the short and long terms.  Platitudes generally are less effective, and the lack of uniqueness can reduce the emotional impact – or even turn it negative. Avoid the trap of creating emotional stories that do not directly make a linkage to the brand, or they will not capture the benefit of those emotions.


When consumer trust is shaky, storylines and messages must be believable – and, more importantly, consistent with a brand’s image and values. A moment of crisis is no time to act like a brand consumers have never met before; be yourself – and let consumers know that they can rely on you for authenticity.

At times, it may feel like brands and marketers are working without guideposts or precedents as they navigate this time of extraordinary stress. But the rules of solid advertising and brand practice have not changed so severely; sensitivity has never been out of style, and speaking to consumers’ fears and wishes should always be top of mind. Remembering to embrace the things we know and are learning will guide advertisers through this storm – and many others to come.

Jon Brand is SVP of Marketing Effectiveness at GfK and leader of the Ad Fit Optimizer program.