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Crisis? Don’t participate

This article perviously appeared on Frankwatching

When Walmart creator Sam Walton was asked about his opinion on the short American recession in 1991, his answer was surprising as well as fitting:

“I’ve thought about it, but I have chosen not to participate.”

If you’re sitting in the corner that isn’t being hit the hardest, it’s probably smart to adapt this same attitude to emerge stronger out of the crisis and upcoming recession.

Beginning of a recession

According to trade association DDA, nine out of ten agencies say that assignments have been (temporarily) withdrawn or put ‘on hold’. We have noticed this as well: more than half a million in revenue down the drain, disappearing like snow in the sun after prime minister Rutte’s press conference. Like many other companies, we are going to have to put our money where our mouth is. The quickly announced package of emergency measures for funding provides some relief, but unfortunately does not offer enough solace for many companies. Thanks to a good 2019, we are in the position that we have a healthy cash flow, and as of now there has not been a big reason to panic.

But still, shortly after most of our clients reported that projects are being postponed until further notice, there was a moment where we had to (remotely) put our heads together. Because how do you deal with this? Do we follow the example of a young icemaker that decided to produce disinfectant (instead,) and look for radical new opportunities? Our first reaction was yes, and we were considering focusing specifically on ‘corona niches’. However, to us it feels too much like panic football. A rushed reaction to the fact that many clients are pulling the plugs. Because at the same time, there are also existing and new clients that are finding us, because now, more than ever, there is a desire for strong stories. Partly due to this, we’ve made the well considered decision to ‘double down’ on our current proposition, we even decided not to withhold a scheduled job vacancy.

Invest and advertise

In the words of Quote-500 member Michel Perridon

“You have to invest a bit anti-cyclically at this time”

Times of crisis or a recession alone are not a reason – if financially responsible – to invest less.

This doesn’t only apply to real estate, which is where Perridon is currently investing his money. This certainly also applies to investments in your brand. Hence why I’m taking the time to write this article, a direct investment in our branding. Which is something we should do more often, but especially now.

Every euro that you can put into branding, yields more when you do it in times of crisis than in times when the economy is prospering.

We dare to make that claim. Because recessions are nothing new, which is why there is so much overwhelming evidence from the past 100 years (Vaile 1927; Biel and King, 1990; Kamber 2002; O’Malley et al.,2011). Check the scientific literature, and it will be difficult to not regard this as a law.

Excess Share of Voice

An important model that helps to explain this is ESOV’s ‘Excess Share of Voice’. ESOV is defined as ‘Share of Voice’ (SOV) minus ‘Share of Market’ (SOM). In other words, you have a positive ESOV if you, as a brand, make yourself heard more clearly than what ‘fits’ with your market share. If this is the case, if your brand’s visibility is greater than your market share, your market share will grow. According to (Binet & Field, 2013), an average of 0,5% market share a year for every 10% ESOV.

During the corona crisis, two things have become overly clear. Mediaconsumption has increased and advertisers are withdrawing. The most important effects of this are (that):

  1. Ad-buying has become relatively cheaper, so more visibility for the same amount of money.
  2. Continuing your normal advertising budget automatically means an increase in share of voice because competitors are withdrawing.

So it is now cheaper than ever to realize an Excess Share of Voice and grow your brand. After all, the knife cuts both ways. So to all brand and marketing managers of the Netherlands, don’t just work hard to maintain your budget, but try to increase it.

That last part is literally what Proctor & Gamble has been doing for years during every recession. They increase what they spend on advertising. They’re doing it again now. CEO Jon Moeller says the following:

“with more media consumption now than ever, this all ties back to doubling down, and moving forward not backward. This is not a time to retrench – and that is a service to our consumers, our retail partners and to broader society.”

Let’s go back to ESOV for a second. You can indeed simply buy share of voice. But there is a way to increase its effectiveness even further. And it is very logical. Good creative work has a greater effect. Content that arouses an emotion simply sticks better when it’s exchangeable. According to (Binet & Field, 2013), ‘highly creative campaigns’ are ten times more effective than lesser creative work.

We can’t handle the stream of trash anymore

It feels like tooting your own horn, which it is, but we still argue that it is wise to continue to invest in branding. But how? This question is raised by many brands. They have a difficulty finding the right tone-of-voice, or might even find that it’s inappropriate to advertise. Not or lessening your advertisement may seem like the easiest option. But don’t do that! Another danger is that it is precisely because of the need to stay relevant as a brand that you’re being forced to get involved in the corona crisis. As a result, the message can feel obligatory and interchangeable, and you as a brand aren’t breaking through the advertising noise. Watch this striking compilation by Dit Was Het Nieuws ‘Every commercial during Corona times’.

So what is the way to communicate right now? It’s definitely

“not a time to jump to generic blunt vanilla purpose wank”

like marketing professor Mak Ritson so greatly states. So, trash. The way you communicate depends entirely on the brand. Even though a lot of content creators – see the DWHN clip – seem to think so, there isn’t a single best way or a one-size-fits-all solution for your brand communication. There hasn’t been before corona, not during, and there also won’t be after.

Content during corona

So how do you make sure you’re creating the right type of content during corona? For this I would like to share a few insights, most of which we as content creators always try to take into account, but a few of these are extra relevant in current times.

Stay original

Make sure that you stand out for the consumer, while honoring the values of your brand. So no interchangeable – “these are uncertain times” – message. Really, stop that. What is the tone of voice of your brand? How do you integrate this in a new, changed by corona-like context in a way that is consistent with your previous expressions?

Be relevant

Put the needs of the consumer first, they decide what’s relevant to them. Not the other way around. Stay responsive to your consumer needs, but remain consistent in telling your brand story. Start with your brand strategy, this has been well thought out. Don’t let go of it in times of crisis, but provide relevance by adding new accents.

Be honest

A real purpose is beautiful. But don’t make your brand out to be bigger, more important or more spectacular than it is. As a brand you provide products or a service in exchange for payment. And that’s fine, better yet: that’s what’s going to pull the economy out of recession. Showcase how you can use your proposition to be an added value to your customers, even during corona times.

Invest in the dialogue

There is no more important time to know how the consumer is dealing with changing circumstances than during a recession. So invest extra in content that stimulates this dialogue. Valuable qualitative content can be hidden in the ‘engagement’ that this content creates.

More for less

Produce content as efficiently as possible. Find a production partner who thinks along about different channels and expressions. This creates synergy and positive economies of scale. For example, you could combine shoots for commercials and content. This is especially relevant when you’re being tighter with budgets.

Don’t hold back on quality

Don’t compromise on the level of quality of your content. Your customers will notice and may even worry. This is the moment you should be focussing on quality and durability.

Emotions make a brand

An analysis of 880 case studies showed that advertising campaigns with focus on ‘emotional engagement’ are more profitable than those who focus on rational communication. (Binet & Field, 2007) The key isn’t to promote offers, but to build some form of an emotional connection to the consumer. Keep this into account when making content. Also in hard times.

Make content coronaproof

Prevent the viewers’ first reaction from being “Where is the social distancing” because then you lose them and your message doesn’t stick. So pay attention to social distancing in your products. Modify existing content if possible, or invest in new content.

Not everything is trash

There are of course examples of brands that already make content that is good, who are responding to the pandemic while doing justice to their brand. Content with which they manage to stand out amongst the noise of advertising. A few examples of brands who don’t need to read this article because they already get it. Publicis Italy manages to hit the mark with their new Heineken (#2 BrandZ top 30 Nederland) corona commercial. In England, KFC (#85 BrandZ top 100 global) decided that everyone who has now been forced to make their own chicken to rate it with a grade, and as usual Wieden+Kennedy knew exactly how Nike (#21 BrandZ top 100 global) could respond best.

I think this is good content. A subjective statement, since I don’t have the numbers right now to back it up. The chance is however great that others share this opinion. Because good content adds to your brand. It’s not a coincidence that these three examples are from brands that consistently score well on the BrandZ ranking, an indicator of the strength of a brand. So objectively speaking, these are strong brands. And that gets rewarded. Strong brands perform well above average.

BrandZ™ Portfolios vs. the S&P and MSCI World Index
Strong Dutch brands are outperforming the AEX in the short term by 28%

To sum up

What can we learn from what we’ve mentioned?

  1. If you have to cut costs right now, then cutting your marketing budget is probably the path with the least resistance, but that doesn’t make it the best route to come out of this crisis strong. So if you are financially in the position to invest, do it. Advertise. There is 100 years of science that proves it pays off.
  2. Covid-19 is a deadly virus, not your new ‘purpose’. The world is changing, or is already different, so keep that in mind. Apply nuances, but stick to your core values and what your brand stands for.
  3. The most important advice; don’t make trash. Content that gets talked about and shared is way more powerful than content that is solely looked at.


  • Biel, A. L., & King, S. (1990). Options and Opportunities for Consumer Businesses: Advertising During a Recession. Dublin: The WPP Center for Research and Development.
  • Binet, L., & Field, P. (2007). Marketing in the era of accountability: Identifying the marketing practices and metrics that truly increase profitability (No. 2). World Advertising Research Center.
  • Binet, L., & Field, P. (2013). The long and the short of it: Balancing short and long-term marketing strategies. Institute of Practitioners in Advertising.
  • Kamber, T. (2002). The brand manager’s dilemma: Understanding how advertising expenditures affect sales growth during a recession. Journal of Brand Management, 10(2), 106-120.
  • O’Malley, L., Story, V., & O’Sullivan, V. (2011). Marketing in a recession: retrench or invest?. Journal of Strategic Marketing, 19(3), 285-310.
  • Vaile, R. S. (1927). The use of advertising during depression. Harvard Business Review, 5(3), 323-330.