‘Things can change quite quickly’: Marketers, agency execs keeping a close eye on regional changes due to COVID-19

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This story is part of ‘Now What?’ Digiday Media’s 2021 fall preview, a look at how media, marketing and retail have changed over the past 18 months, and what it means for their futures. Check out the rest of the stories here.

At the on-set of the pandemic in 2020, marketers were caught flat-footed. Unsure of what was to come, many briefly pressed pause on ad buying. That quickly gave way to the coronavirus response ads with a flood of “we’re all in this together” messaging, making ads indistinguishable and ultimately annoying people, as they didn’t need to be reminded of the pandemic with each ad they saw.

Those early days of uncertainty were followed by advertisers turning to data — i.e. tracking infection and unemployment rates as well as mask mandates, stay at home orders and, eventually, vaccination rates — to understand the impact of the pandemic in a particular region. That data helped advertisers understand consumer behavior, giving insight into where to buy ads as well as what to say. 

With the Delta variant on the rise, particularly in areas of the country with lower vaccination rates, advertisers are once again looking to regional data to understand how they should be tailoring messaging as well as ad buying to the impact of Covid-19 in that area. For example, when it comes to out-of-home ad placements and experiential, advertisers are leaning into digital OOH rather than billboards and steering clear of major experiential efforts as they are trying to avoid encouraging large gatherings now.

Indeed, hyper-focusing on regional data to understand changing consumer behavior has likely given marketers and agency execs an far better sense of how they can use that data to tailor messaging and ad buying to what’s happening in that area.

“We look at geographical data overlays to understand everything from restrictions, to relocation, travel, shopping, dining and delivery to understand people and patterns,” said Tina Allan, global head of data science and connections at FCB, adding that she expects the use of regional data to continue post-Covid. “‘Where’ is more important than ever in understanding ‘who’ is our customer today and tomorrow.” 

Building in flexibility into ad deals, having back-up plans in place and being able to retool messaging on a dime has become the norm. So too has accounting for regional shifts in consumer behavior due to Covid-19 rates in said regions. 

“Early Covid was a different beast,” Geraldine Szabo, strategy director at dentsu X. “It was extremely new and no one knew what to expect, so there was a halt [in ad buying]. While the Delta variant is bringing new challenges, we (both agencies and clients) are a little more confident in what to expect moving forward, and it has gotten easier to prepare accordingly.” 

Tracking infection and unemployment rates, as well as various state and county regulations, helps marketers understand consumer behavior in those areas, and how to tweak advertising to account for that. For example, touting curbside pickup or delivery options for retailers or the availability of streaming versus in-person for entertainment clients, in areas where infection rates are on the rise.

“We can see how various mask and social distancing mandates are affecting consumer behavior and ultimately category sales,” said Tracy Chavez, evp, director of investment operations at PMX. “With the resurgence of certain mandates by state due to the delta variant, understanding and leveraging data to create different messaging approaches will be essential this fall to deliver the right message to these consumer groups.”

Understanding cultural nuances of different population segments are also factoring into messaging with another worsening wave of Covid-19. 

For example, in ads for Walmart Health the company put “their pharmacist front and center in all of their Hispanic communications in 2020 and 2021 and urged consumers with pre-existing conditions (like diabetes) to visit the pharmacy,” explained Szabo. “The reason why? First, Hispanics have one of the highest indices of Diabetes in the nation, which puts them at a higher risk for complications from Covid. And second, in Latin America pharmacists treat huge segments of the population (similar to RN Nurses here), and as a result, Hispanics trust and respect pharmacists immensely.” 

Overall, marketers and agency execs say that rather than focusing on political affiliation and how that may impact how someone is treating the pandemic, marketers are looking to cultural nuance. 

“Political affiliation tends to correlate with race and ethnicity and in such cases, culture tends to trump political affiliation,” said Szabo. “Even in more conservative-leaning states, like Texas or Florida, it is important to tailor messages based on cultural nuances as it will likely resonate better and more holistically to these audiences.” 

Szabo continued: “In other instances, hyper-localization allows one to reach audiences in specific markets (e.g. New York City or Chicago), for that, we should hone in on local insights that are irrespective of political party. It is easier to find commonalities than differences. This then makes it easier to message and relate to consumers who are simply on different wavelengths.” 

Should infection rates continue to rise in certain regions, it’s unclear whether or not brands will have truly differentiated messaging strategies — i.e. touting a “return to normal” in one region and an e-commerce message betting on a lockdown for another — for regions where Covid-19 rates are low and vaccination rates are high and vice versa. That being said, it’s likely that marketers will approach messaging with caution to avoid being seen as tone-deaf, according to marketers and agency execs. 

Overall, marketers and agency execs are hesitant to make predictions about what the next few months will look like other than to say that the muscle they’ve built when it comes to flexibility and agility in plans and adapting messaging will be key. 

“As we’ve seen in the past year and a half, things can change quite rapidly,” said Szabo. “However, there is still a lot unknown when it comes to the future, therefore it’s important to remain agile at this point in time and for marketers to continue to build campaigns with flexibility in mind.”


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