Marketers Sift Through Pile of Uncertainty

August 17, 2021

By Matthew Schwartz

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Back to normal? Not so fast. It was just last month, amid the huzzahs at the White House, that the country seemed on the verge of delivering a knockdown blow to COVID-19. With millions of Americans getting vaccinated and infection rates falling rapidly, there was a palpable sense that the misery wrought by the pandemic was finally behind us. But it was fleeting.

COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are once again increasing in nearly all states, fueled by the Delta variant, according to the CDC. However, vaccination rates have picked up dramatically in the last few weeks, although they’re still less than a quarter of the peak in mid-April when nearly two million people were getting their first shot each day. Talk about mood swings.

For marketers, it’s a difficult terrain to manage. CMOs have to allocate budgets for ad shoots that might get scrapped due to new COVID restrictions and distribute creative with language or imagery that could come off as tone deaf, depending on the trajectory of the pandemic.

Amid all the uncertainty, brand managers must add more sophistication to their virtual programming. That’s because the return of in-person events will be gradual, with a lot riding on whether business travel budgets return to pre-pandemic levels. Marketers are also on the hook to create rich, non-ad content (blogs, videos, docuseries, e-books, etc.) that can help distinguish their brand and grow their audiences.

ANA Newsstand tackles these and other crucial aspects of marketing in an online series titled “Marketing in the Post-Pandemic.” As the last several weeks indicate, making predictions is tough sledding these days. At the same time, brands can’t afford to stand still. For a closer look, read the articles below.

  • Web Analytics Switch Tracks: Brands have long relied on third-party cookies via web browsers to track consumer behavior and gauge intent, interest, and potential for purchasing. It was a pretty good gig. But the fun is over, as Google prepares to sunset cookies in 2023. Brand managers now have to rely much more heavily on their own first-party data in order to understand shifts in consumer behavior (which are coming fast and furious). They’ll also need to establish new sets of KPIs, reevaluate their tech stack investments, and, perhaps most important, bolster their marketing attribution portfolio.
  • Striking a Positive Tone: CMOs and marketers are skating a fine line when it comes to developing ad creative in such a fluid environment. Feel-good ads about the pandemic ending — which dominated the advertising landscape earlier this summer — are under growing scrutiny due to the surge in the Delta variant. The onus is not only marketers to strike the right tone in their ad messaging but pay careful attention to the creative. Think inspirational and level-headed, such as a new spot from vacation-home rental firm Vrbo showing people checking into their place and being treated to a surprise reunion with loved ones they hadn’t seen since before COVID.
  • Marketers Bulk Up Their Content Marketing Efforts: Even before the pandemic, dramatic changes in consumer behavior were raising the stakes for brands to produce more relatable, cinematic-style content. The pandemic has turbocharged these trends, of course, but now you can add cultural relevance to the mix, with people gravitating toward content that will bring real meaning to their lives. Brands are adding more budget to the channel, with spending on content marketing expected to grow 42 percent this year, according to the ANA. One result of brands boosting their resources for content marketing: More in-house agencies, which can produce content a lot quicker and go to market faster than their agency partners.
  • As Offices Start to Reopen, Going Hybrid May Not Be Enough: Start constructing the “Nine-to-Five” museum display, portraying people dutifully working at their desk, eight hours a day, five days a week. The pandemic has rendered that model obsolete, with many companies now offering hybrid work arrangements. But that may not be enough for employees who got used to the flexibility of working from home the past 18 months and don’t want to go back to the way things were pre-COVID. They’re voting with their feet already, with more than half (52 percent) of full-time workers saying they will look for a new job this year, according to a survey released earlier this year by Achievers Workforce Institute, up from 35 percent in 2020. If they revert to a “The Before Time” mentality, CMOs and marketing managers risk alienating their teams even further. “We have the opportunity to redefine our workflows,” Nick de la Mare, managing director and North America design lead at Fjord, which is part of Accenture Interactive, told ANA magazine. “There are moments where it makes more sense for people to come together — ideation and synthesis — and moments where people are more effective apart (production work and documentation). Tailoring our interaction types to phases of work will serve both the business and employees.”
  • The Full Return of Live Events Remains Down the Road: The second half of 2021 for in-person, hybrid, and virtual event programming smacks of a major disconnect. More than three-fourths (77 percent) of vaccinated people said they would be willing to travel domestically for either personal or business reasons, according to an ANA survey of 1,458 brand marketers, agency employees, and nonmembers. However, 57 percent of responding companies are not allowing travel at all and 25 percent are allowing only executive travel. With companies skittish about business travel — and the Delta variant raging — brand managers are morphing what were once in-person extravaganzas into virtual and more intimate fare. For example, Allied Experiential partnered with Amazon to convert the Amazon Treasure Truck PupFest — an event for pet owners originally slated as a tour of dog parks — into an hour-long virtual livestream. Look for similar conversions to proliferate, and brands to create more immersive experiences online.

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