Many brands appear to be working from the same crisis playbook, observes Mike Teasdale – here’s why that’s not working.

This month’s column should be read to a sombre piano accompaniment (I suggest something in D-flat minor). Picture a strategic consultant looking wistfully out of his home-office window at the empty streets of North London. He has only a cat for company (and the cat is giving serious consideration to meandering over the road to Highgate Cemetery in search of more action). We hear his anguished thoughts (the consultant’s, not the cat’s).

“Why are there so many crappy corporate ads right now?”.

You know the ones I’m referring to. Faceless corporate overlords (the ones who normally keep us on hold for 15 minutes while reassuring us that our call is important) bleating on about how they’re here for us in these troubled and uncertain times.

They all seem to have been working from the same playbook. The music is that piano track I mentioned earlier. The visuals are stock shots or mobile phone footage of people at home contrasted with empty streets.

There’s a sprinkling of the silly (people doing dumb stuff to stay sane or doing Zoom business meetings dressed from only from the waist up) interspersed with the serious (people looking sad, people missing their loved ones, key workers looking knackered). The VO refers to how there is a new normal but there will be a better tomorrow. It regales us with the amazing things they’re doing behind the scenes to continue serving us (just like they’ve always done since time began). The strap line is made up from phrases like “apart but together” and “we’re here for you”.

Not surprisingly, most of these ads look and feel like the sort of pap that gets played at annual conferences. They’re the video equivalent of peeing down the inside leg of your trousers (it might give you a nice warm feeling but no one else enjoys it).

And there’s so many of them that the ad breaks right now are an insipid, vacuous, derivative, and bland sea of sameness. It turns out there is something almost as contagious as COVID-19… faux corporate emotion. Sadly, unlike the coronavirus, this corporate virus can’t be killed by a disinfectant wipe and some elbow grease.

There’s lots of talk right now about whether brands should be going silent or spending to ensure awareness levels are maintained for when things pick up. The lessons of history tell us that brands should maintain SOV, especially now that we currently have the combination of reduced media rates and increased consumer reach with everyone locked down.

But, and it’s an important caveat, only maintain SOV if what you’re spending your money on is differentiated and meaningful.

So, please spare us platitudes and focus instead on some good old-fashioned advertising that explains why your product/service is better than your competition’s.

Advertising is not rocket science and although we are in uncharted territory it’s not hard to figure out what people want from brands and advertising right now. We want security, or at least a sense of normality and consistency. As well as calming us down we want brands and advertising to cheer us up. Humour always works and now is no exception.

In most cases, I suggest carrying on with existing campaigns. I don’t think brands need to suddenly throw the baby out with the bath water and introduce new content (let’s face it, fickle marketers need no encouragement to change things).

If you absolutely must create new content and really want to empathise with us, then at least get it real. And the reality is ugly: people not washing or shaving, people triple-tasking, frustrated sex lives, over-eating, domestic abuse, and crushing mental anguish from being locked up. A brand that manages to tap into those kinds of emotions in a branded and meaningful way will benefit.

Most surveys I’ve seen on the topic put the percentage of people who think brands should stop advertising in the wake of COVID-19 as somewhere in the single digit territory. But if you do decide not to advertise for whatever reason then think about how to use your marketing budget for public good. Focus brand energies on donating money or doing practical things to help customers or key workers.

Acts not ads can reap dividends. Breweries producing hand sanitiser, fashion labels producing PPE, tech companies producing ventilators. And no one will begrudge you a bit of social media about your corporate citizenship if you’re low key about it.

For more info on how brands can best navigate these uncertain times WARC has developed a dedicated content series to help marketers. Check it out, but above all please stay safe and remember (cue that bloody piano music) we’re all in this together and there will be a better tomorrow…