By Mark Ritson
Budget Direct has a new ad to celebrate its 20th anniversary. The two recurring characters from its long-running advertising series, lead detective Sarge and his trusty sidekick Jac, are back on the case. And this time they are on horseback.
In a Braveheart-inspired scene, Sarge addresses a growing army of workers amassing on the outskirts of a large Australian city. “Employees of Budget Direct,” he exclaims, “Over 20 years you have become the country’s most award-winning insurer…”. As his rhetoric increases the army grows frantic and emotional. “Who are you?” asks Jac. And as hundreds of employees scream the company’s brand name, they charge towards the unexpecting city determined to save its citizens money on insurance.
It’s not going to win a single creative award. Detectives on horseback talking about insurance never do. In fact, it probably appears that the insurer has got things very wrong for a campaign launched in the age of coronavirus.
Where are the tinkling pianos? The empty streets? The worried woman looking out of her window nursing a cup of coffee. The unshaven dad playing with his children. The grandparents waving on the video conferencing app to their emotional family. The heartfelt “I feel your pain” from the CEO?
Why is Budget Direct launching a normal ad in these “unprecedented” times? Didn’t it get the marketing memo about needing a whole new approach because of COVID-19? The employees in its new ad aren’t even attempting social distancing as they congregate like that. What were its marketers thinking?
The short answer is that they know exactly what they are doing. Led by chief marketing officer Jonathan Kerr, Budget Direct has distinguished itself in recent years with a smarter than average approach to brand strategy and it has all the subsequent sales success to prove it. It might not be the sexiest brand in Australia, but it’s among the best run.
And while armchair experts might question the decision to run a very standard ad in this peculiar period, the data supports the Budget Direct approach. Researchers are starting to get data from advertising audiences that were studied during March and April and a consistent pattern is apparent.
In the UK and US, advertising research firm System 1 has been testing whether ads created before the pandemic are now performing poorly among coronavirus-hit audiences. The research should be on the desk of every marketing director and advertising planner in Australia because it shows, contrary to popular opinion, that pre-COVID-19 advertising is performing just as well now as it was in January and February.
That’s a finding confirmed by another research firm, DVJ. It also looked at the effectiveness of “normal” advertising created at any earlier date in the current abnormal market conditions. Ads created prior to the pandemic are performing better now than when they were originally created, according to the DVJ data.
The findings counter the growing belief across many Australian marketing departments that coronavirus demands a different kind of advertising. Existing campaigns are being scrapped or paused and replaced with new executions that overtly reflect the strange context that consumers find themselves in.
As usual, marketers are petrified that they might appear out of step with their peers or the broader community. And the desire to scrap a pre-existing campaign and create a new one taps directly into one of the most enduring weaknesses of many marketers: their fickle desire for newness.
Long before the coronavirus, marketing departments were infamous for pulling successful campaigns prematurely and replacing them with something new. Marketers are erratic and their ability to reiterate and reinforce is usually dominated by their more powerful attraction to the new and shiny.
To be fair, creating a demonstrably COVID campaign does make some tactical sense. Both the System 1 and DVJ research shows that ads with a coronavirus theme claim more attention and generate more positive emotions towards the ad — on average. But in terms of recalling the brand behind the ad, these new coronavirus campaigns perform no better than the pre-existing ones.
Marketers must weigh up the relatively meagre advantages of garnering more attention from a new campaign with the very large costs of embarking on that different path. Existing campaign trajectories with established themes and devices will be lost. And as so many brands jump on the COVID brand-wagon to feel your pain, point out how unprecedented things are and remind you they are there for you, they disappear into a mushy middle of indistinct advertising dross. The first rule of branding is that the consumer has to know that it is you. And that’s tough with so many brands saying the same thing in a similar way.
And as brands switch to COVID-19 themes there is also a significant risk that they forget about the product benefit they should actually be promoting. It’s a lovely but indulgent use of marketing money to emote with consumers. What brands should be doing is offering them value so that consumers have a reason to buy the product and companies have a continued revenue stream.
What seems to be emerging from the initial research on COVID advertising is that while a new campaign direction can work for a brand, the advantages of your existing advertising and continuing that trajectory should not be understated. While most marketers might think their existing advertising is broken, its almost certainly not in need of an expensive, hastily assembled and probably generic fix.