RP3’s CEO Beth Johnson Interviewed About Marketing During Coronavirus

By Jonathan Capriel - Staff Reporter, Washington Business Journal

April 14, 2020

Please see the full article in Washington Business Journal.

We've all heard the same phrase hundreds of times by now in radio, television and internet ads as the novel coronavirus has taken hold. Matt White, president of Tysons-based advertising and marketing firm White64, has definitely noticed.

"The words you see more than anything is, 'now more than ever.' It seems like every ad starts off with that," White said. "You can only go with that for so long before people get sick of that too."

And yet, White and many of his counterparts are wrestling with their words as advertising takes on a pretty serious tone amidst a global pandemic. With thousands of people dead and millions unemployed, few want to see funny ads or marketing that would have seemed normal just a few months ago — at least that's the conclusion that many marketing firms across Greater Washington have come to.

Most industries and brands have had to rethink the way they provide their service or what message they should put out to their customers, said several advertising and marketing executives we spoke to.

That means, in many cases, agencies have had to totally scrap some ideas. The vast majority of marketers, 92%, have changed their messaging since mid-March, right around the time the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, was officially called a global pandemic, according to a survey by the Association of National Advertisers.

"Many people are having to revisit their entire campaigns and totally putting them on pause because it's not a time to be marketing or selling unless you have a critically necessary product or service," said Raymond Crosby, president of Annapolis' Crosby Marketing Communications. "Everyone needs to take a pause and a step back and ask, 'is it appropriate to be out there in the market right now.'"

Not a joking matter

Advertising firms are advising against humor and telling brands to tweak their messaging from simply pushing products.

Most ads just aren't funny right now, and that's probably for the best. Attempts at humor can come off as out of place. White described a television commercial he recently saw while in the Tampa, Florida area for cable company Spectrum, which showed a man ordered into a volcano as a sacrifice to end a drought.

"Months ago, you probably would have laughed hard, but now with people dying all over, boy, it really felt awkward," White said of the ad.

There isn't going to be edgy advertising for quite some time, said Cary Hatch, CEO of D.C. based MDB Communications Inc. She pointed to beer company Molson Coors, which halted plans to run ads during NCAA's March Madness calling Coors Light the "Official Beer of 'Working' Remotely," for fear of coming off as insensitive.

"People want to feel reassured right now," she said. "They want to hear that their brands understand them. It's become less about what the brand is and more about what the brand can do to help."

Addressing pandemic's pain head on

A commercial with a happy jingle showing a plumber, tools in hand, welcomed into a Greater Washington home would have made total sense in February. It's the exact style of television spot that Rockville marketing and advertising firm HZ had shot and was putting together for client Len the Plumber just a few months ago.

Now, with health and elected officials advising social distancing in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, an ad like that would be somewhat tone deaf, says HZ chief creative officer and founder Karen Zuckerman. The firm is recutting the ad to emphasize the safety precautions the plumbers will take when entering a house.

"It's got to be a different theme now because people are asking themselves if it's okay to bring a plumber into the home," Zuckerman said.

Some companies have pivoted messaging to add compassion in addition to purely selling a product, Zuckerman said. One example is Dormify, a college dorm room decor company and a client of HZ, which has been posting heartfelt messages on social media about high school seniors' — read: potential Dormify customers' — abrupt end to high school.

Students may head back to colleges and universities in person come fall, boosting Dormify's sales. But the company is using its Instagram profile and other platforms to commiserate about those missed proms or graduations in between marketing posts.

"I think it would be very difficult to come out with the same messaging during a time when people don't want to hear such promotion messages," Zuckerman said. "Many of our clients are looking at their messaging and speaking to their audience in a different way."

'Stand down' unless you have something to add

Advertising during the coronavirus era can be a minefield, said Beth Johnson, founder and CEO of RP3 Agency in Bethesda.

"Brands will be judged by the way they behave during this time," Johnson said. "Some will reap long lasting rewards, and missteps will be punished."

This week Giant Food, the largest grocery chain in Greater Washington and who is represented by RP3, will be releasing new ads thanking their grocery associates for the work they are doing, Johnson said. Highlighting the necessary work being done by supermarket employees is the right move, she said.

Quite a few brands now are leading their advertising with how they are helping during the crisis — like perfume companies making hand sanitizer, shoe companies fashioning face masks or automobile manufacturers producing ventilators. Those stories are appropriate to get out there, Johnson said. But, simply trying to push products right now can just come off as tone deaf.

"For some clients, we are advising them to stand down," Johnson said. "Unless they have an appropriate message or unless they are contributing in a meaningful way, it's probably not the best time to insert themselves."

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