When I originally concepted this article, I had intended for it to be an analysis of great campaigns in the first half of 2020. In the past, when I’ve written analyses like this one, I would focus on campaigns that drive direct leads or purchases, and I would talk about the takeaways that you could apply to your own customer acquisition campaigns.
In my role at FUEL, I’m often focused on the data and considering that data from a strategic perspective, ensuring that every digital asset we build, from a single ad to an entire website, is architected to drive results for our clients.
But marketing and advertising are more than just data and customer acquisition. They are about creating work that works. Both require understanding your audience, their thoughts, emotions, motivations, and the world they live in. And you have to analyze more than just data in a spreadsheet if you want to apply that understanding to your own efforts in a strategic way.
That’s why instead of focusing on campaigns that drive customer acquisition for this analysis, I’ll be looking at some of the best ads that brands have created that responded to the COVID-19 outbreak with emotion and empathy.
Ad campaigns do more than just build brand awareness and customer acquisition. Ads are also part of our culture. Ads of the past reflect our history and the world we lived in during those times.
To make the cut for my purposes, these ad campaigns had to:
1. Be reflective. The ads should be a representation of the moment in history that we are currently living in.
2. Be outwardly focused. The ads should capture the current mood and address it with a positive and constructive message. Ads that focus too much on how a product is helping you during these trying times didn’t make the cut.
3. Make me tear up (at least a little bit). This one might be a little more subjective, but it’s my list, damn it. You’ve got to make me shed at least one tear if you want props.
The Ad Campaigns:
1. Apple — “Creativity Goes On”
Apple is no stranger to culturally relevant ads, so it’s not a surprise to see them on this list. Apple’s message here focuses on how creativity and unity can help us to get through this crisis.
And they’re absolutely right. Every business, no matter what industry it’s in, has to get creative if it wants to survive.
Here in Greenville, we’ve seen resources like Bridge GVL developed to help the community support local small businesses. At FUEL we’ve partnered with the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce to get creative marketing strategy ideas into the hands of businesses, both big and small. We’ve also shared the digital strategy trends that we’ve seen during COVID-19.
COVID-19 may have turned our lives upside down, but creativity marches on.
2. Babyshop — “A World We Deserve”
As a DINK (dual income, no kids) household, I had never heard of Babyshop, a children’s luxury.
clothing brand based in the UAE. I found them while browsing The Clio Network’s Ads of the World COVID-19 Ads collection.
Babyshop got their inspiration for this ad from nine children, ages 5 – 9 years old. The ad focuses on what children from all around the globe have learned from the world’s reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While it can be disheartening to see people refusing to wear masks to protect others, or even claiming that the entire pandemic is a hoax, it’s very encouraging to realize that this moment we’re living through right now might help shape the next generation to value generosity, kindness, and the world around them more than those that came before them.
3. Blue Shield of California — “Tough”
Blue Shield of California’s ad focuses on the difficulties that healthcare workers have faced and continue to face during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us have someone in our lives who is on the front lines of this crisis. My wife is a medical social worker at one of the largest hospital systems in Greenville. Nearly every day, she is in the same room as people either confirmed or suspected of being infected with COVID-19.
Nearly 600 healthcare workers have died due to COVID-19 in the U.S. and 60,000+ have been infected. America’s healthcare workers are exhausted and overwhelmed, but as Blue Shield of California recognizes, they are also brave, tough, and resilient.
4. The Boston Globe — “Boston Is Still Running”
The Boston Globe’s ad juxtaposes images of eerily empty Boston streets with the sounds of crowds cheering.
They address the idea that some might see our quarantining as a sign of weakness or retreat, when it’s truly the most patriotic sacrifice that many of us can make to protect ourselves, those around us, and our country.
We’re fighting for something bigger than ourselves, together.
5. Dove — “Courage is Beautiful”
Dove has made waves for nearly two decades with their campaigns highlighting #beautybias, body positivity, and real beauty.
Their ad features healthcare professionals—women and men—with painful lines etched into their faces from their PPE, with a simple message: “Courage is beautiful.”
6. Facebook — “We’re Never Lost if We Can Find Each Other”
Facebook’s ad again uses striking footage of empty cities, schools, transportation, and gathering places, set to Kate Tempest’s “People’s Faces”.
This ad acknowledges the moment in history that we are all stumbling through right now. It speaks to the painful struggle that we’re experiencing as individuals and as a society, but it also delivers a message of hope. It addresses our collective strength and our ability to band together to survive adversity.
It also promotes Facebook’s COVID Support Hub, a page dedicated to connecting people who need help during COVID-19 with those who can offer support.
7. USPS — “Certainty”
We’ve all seen the impact that uncertainty has had on our nation’s supply chain — shortages in
everything from meat to toilet paper. COVID-19 has revealed how brittle our relentless charge towards efficiency has made our global and national supply chains and the value of having redundancies and buffers in place.
The United States Postal Service’s message is that while the supply chain might be breaking under the rigorous stresses of COVID-19, they’re still here to make sure essentials are reaching our homes — a comforting notion that we can be assured of in the midst of so much uncertainty.
8. Uber — “Thank You for Not Riding”
How often is it that you see an ad thanking you for not using the advertiser’s product or service? Uber is a company that has been embroiled in all sorts of controversies for many years, but it’s undeniable that this campaign is the right thing to do for a company in their position.
This is likely a difficult position for Uber to take, considering that like many tech startups looking to disrupt entrenched industries and practices, they’ve never turned a profit. And they had ambitions of finally turning a profit for the first time in 2020, after losing $8.5 billion in 2019.
Those rosy projections from a pre-COVID U.S. in early February seem far less likely to happen today. Still, Uber thanks you for not riding with them during the pandemic.
9. Jack Daniel’s— “With Love, Jack”
This Jack Daniel’s ad celebrates how we’ve used technology and creativity to stay connected and “make social distancing social.”
I think this one might have gotten to me because of the emotionally charged cover of “True Colors” (I love Cyndi Lauper and Phil Collins, but I think I like this cover better than her version). And also because I just watched eight other highly emotional ads about COVID-19.
While there might not be a powerful message of hope or striking social commentary in this Jack Daniel’s ad, it still does a great job of capturing the mood and experience of living through this moment in our history. And I might have gotten a little bit of dust in my eye while I was watching, so it makes the cut.
10. Walmart — “Hearts of Magic”
I found this ad while reading an article from Ad Age on how marketers have responded to COVID-19 during the first three months.
This ad features lyrical genius Terrell Myles (a.k.a., Trizz The Whizz), a department manager at Walmart store #3751, reciting a poem that he wrote called “Hearts of Magic.” Terrell shares a message of hope and solidarity, focusing on how even in moments of darkness, there is still light to be found. He encourages us to stay home and stay safe, and he reassures us that together, we are strong enough to face these challenges.
COVID-19 has turned our world upside down. It’s easy to forget while we’re in the midst of what is happening all around us that we’re living tomorrow’s history, today. We live in “interesting times.” And what has happened over the last four months, and the situation that continues to evolve throughout 2020 and likely into 2021, will change the world forever — perhaps in ways that we haven’t even yet considered.
The world is changing, and your advertising has to change with it. These ads are great examples of brands who have recognized this truth and shifted their strategies to align with it.
However, I also had to sift through many less-effective ads while I was researching this article. And I’ve seen more examples of the same in the wild, as well as marketing managers posting on Reddit’s r/marketing about how they could tie a product promotion into “a good-natured ad about the pandemic.”
For every great example of marketing during COVID-19, there are ten brands with tone-deaf responses or no responses at all. If this describes your brand, I challenge you to do better. Push yourself to find creative, strategic ways to respond to the world around you. Watch these ads, analyze what makes them successful, and determine what you can apply to your own efforts.
Because marketing is about more than just brand awareness and customer acquisition. It’s also about building trust, about persuasion, and speaking to the humans you are trying to sell something to. If your marketing doesn’t do that, it’s not working.