The coronavirus is upending advertising. Top marketers at Toyota, Burger King, and Hippo reveal how they're changing their ad strategies to keep up.

Toyota Coronavirus

  • As the coronavirus spreads across the world, chief marketing officers are scrambling to pull and rework their ad campaigns.
  • CMOs are fearful that consumers will punish them if they appear tone deaf in a time of social distancing and economic uncertainty.
  • The exercise can mean combing through tons of creative and even scrapping ads, even if it means eating the cost.
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Toyota was going full speed ahead with a March sales campaign featuring TV ads touting extended financing and zero APR on its cars across dealerships nationwide. But when the coronavirus crisis intensified last week, it pulled the plug and replaced the campaign with a new spot aiming to reassure people during the pandemic.

"It wasn't appropriate to stay out there with sales event advertising," Ed Laukes, general VP of marketing at Toyota North America, told Business Insider. "We felt that it was time for us to reinforce the message of unity and the fact that we're here now and we're going to be here in the future."

Toyota isn't alone. As the coronavirus spreads across the world, chief marketing officers are scrambling to pull and rework their ad campaigns, in some cases launching entirely new ads. 

Along with Toyota, Hershey and KFC recently scrapped their ads in light of the pandemic. They deemed their ads, which showed people, respectively, hugging and bonding over chocolate and licking their fingers after eating fried chicken, problematic as social distancing and awareness of contagion become the norms. Burger King, known for its edgy ads, has toned it down and ran a free meal promotion on orders through its app.

"When the storm passes, brands that did something to help people instead of just talking or raising awareness about the crisis will have built a stronger connection with people," Burger King's CMO Fernando Machado said. "More people are craving actions rather than stunts."

Every marketer out there is trying to calibrate how to stay visible to consumers with the right message in the interim until the crisis abates, said Harris Diamond, chairman and CEO, McCann Worldgroup.

"The fear right now is that if you are tone-deaf, the damage could be significant," Diamond said. 

Fearful of seeming insensitive, CMOs are scrapping campaigns

Even companies that didn't have creative that could be easily misconstrued in the current environment are taking a more tempered approach. 

Hippo Home Insurance, a unicorn startup, is combing through every single message people see for anything atonal. Phrases that, say, urged people to act immediately when they might have more urgent concerns in the pandemic were toned down. Mindful that people are feeling isolated, people were encouraged to call customer service rather than email.

"I'm having to go through not just our advertising creative, but external communications — everything that a customer or partner could ever see. I have to make sure there's no insensitive information and that we're addressing the reality in some way," said VP of marketing Andrea Collins.

3D manufacturing startup Carbon scrapped a big brand campaign that was set to launch this week. It's also adjusting any creative whose tone was deemed out of step with the times, CMO Dara Treseder, said.

"Even though it's a sunk cost and we're taking a hit, this is not the time to launch a brand campaign," Treseder said.

Others are slashing their ad spending, whether because their industries — airlines, travel and hotels — have taken a massive hit, demand for their products has already skyrocketed, are wary of appearing too promotional right now, or just preserving capital in an uncertain economy.

Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson, for example, announced that the hotel chain stopped brand marketing and advertising, while meal subscription startup Freshly, which has seen demand "go through the roof," is pulling back on performance marketing and paid media in general, its CMO Mayur Gupta said.

"The consumer mindset right now is such that no one wants to be inundated by a bunch of ads selling products right now," Gupta said. "The focus is on how we share information that helps customers and builds trust."

The uncertainty is also changing not just what companies are saying, but where they're putting their messages. Hippo's Collins said the company stopped using channels that have to be planned weeks out, like direct mail, in favor of places where people are looking for news and updates, like Google search and Nextdoor.

"We're ramping down fixed-cost channels like direct mail because I can't write creative now that will land in someone's mailbox in three weeks and know it will resonate with them," she said.

Companies are using content to fill the marketing void

Freshly and WW are among companies that are doubling down on content, aware that people are increasingly confined to their homes with a lot more time to kill.

Freshly has started pushing recipes and nutrition-driven posts on its app, website and social media channels. NomNom, a pet food startup, has ramped up emails and content marketing and webinars with a focus on pet health, CEO and founder Nate Phillips said.

WW, formerly Weight Watchers, launched Live Virtual Workshops for its members last week, converting its member meetings into virtual hangouts. It's also launched a new daily newsletter called "WW Daily" with tips, recipes, and challenges to members to stick to healthy habits. It's also hosting Ask-Me-Anything sessions with coaches and nutritionists and programming on its app like a live stream featuring CEO Mindy Grossman cooking virtually with Curtis Stone, CMO Gail Tifford said.

And in a nod to the uncertain economic climate, the company is also changing the creative in its upcoming TV ads to highlight offers that let new members defer payment, Tifford said.

"We are a DTC subscription company but also a publisher of sorts — so it's an interesting time for us," Tifford said. "We actually feel that now is an important time for us to be around as people want to stay in control and healthy, but there's lots of confusing information out there."

For others, like Anheuser-Busch inBev and Vita Coco, the time seems right to step into community-helping roles.

While Anheuser-Busch is using its breweries to produce sanitizers to donate to hospitals and frontline workers, Vita Coco is donating $1 million from a sales spike to Feeding America and No Kid Hungry and is giving away drinks to health workers in the UK, CMO Jane Prior said.

"It's a crisis of conscience, so how we're thinking about it is, what is the right thing to do right now," she said.


SEE ALSO: 'Businesses will shut down': The coronavirus threatens to crush direct-to-consumer businesses' wild growth

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Tags: Google, UK, America, Trends, CMO, Diamond, Marriott, Toyota, Burger King, Kfc, Mindy Grossman, Arne Sorenson, Anheuser Busch, Gupta, Toyota North America, Fernando Machado, Hippo, McCann Worldgroup, VITA COCO, Ed Laukes, No Kid Hungry, Tifford, Dara Treseder, Treseder, Hippo Home Insurance, Andrea Collins, Jane Prior, Toyota Burger King, Toyota Hershey, Harris Diamond, CMO Mayur Gupta, Hippo s Collins, Nate Phillips, Curtis Stone CMO Gail Tifford