Welcome to the Next Normal:  Re-Learning Advertising through unprecedented disruption by J3’s Shreya Parker

By Shreya Parker: Media Director, J3 MENA.

In January this year, the advertising and media world was talking about the “new normal”. Little did we know that a month & a half later, the world would be entering the next normal. With latest consumer dynamics and no doubt, permanent shifts in consumer behavior, COVID-19 effects on the advertising industry are here to stay for the foreseeable future. With this comes a massive shift in how marketers need to the react to these new installed behaviors which are constantly impacted by new COVID-19 event markers.

With consumers staying at home and turning to digital for escapism, news & digital shopping, most industries that were putting digital transformation (including e-commerce) on ice will need to pivot and focus on digital now more than ever. A funny meme sums it up: “CIOs won’t be responsible for digital marketing transformation anymore, COVID-19 will be”.

Let’s explore how the industry will need to re-learn advertising by adapting to changes in culture and how brands will need to consequently react.

Re-learning messaging: a shift to rational communication

Nielsen identified several consumer behavior thresholds that have been impacted by different event markers such as government or public health announcements. These thresholds (such as pantry preparation, reactive and proactive healthy buying & restricted living) offer early signals of spending patterns, particularly for essentials.  However, while your consumer base is still interested in buying, they’re probably a little more cash-strapped than usual. Under usual non-COVID-19 circumstances, over-promotions might be detrimental, but these are not usual times. Now is the time for brands to prominently feature sales & more so value to customers who are looking for products that can fill a “rational” need state.

This in turn means that brands have to now balance quick wins and business transformational goals. We’ve already started to see some brands change their messaging & communication and most evidently, an acceleration of e-commerce & social commerce. Brands have had to quickly learn overnight about rational messaging such as focus on availability, product USPs (and even revisiting claims) where the ultimate goal is to result in a purchase.  However, for brands that haven’t completely played in this space, this can be daunting, but it’s about being pragmatic. An approach by McKinsey Digital indicates that rather than attempting to launch a full-blown digital business across all markets at once you could go to market fast with a limited offering and in limited geographies, gain strong traction, and then scale up and out aggressively.

Ultimately, by leading with a rational “I am available at X, shop here and here’s a value deal” you’re laying the groundwork for long-term relationships that will last beyond the current economic slump. If consumers buy your products now, it means you’re eventually on the track to building an all-important consumer connection, and right now, that’s worth a lot.

Re-learning your consumers: You Get me Right Now

While rational messaging is good for short-termism, brands need to also think about the context of what their consumers are going through in this next normal. The question brands need to ask is: How are you making your consumers feel currently?  How are you relevant right now? (and if you aren’t advertising, does it mean that you don’t care?). How can brands provide something that the customer will care about?

COVID-19 is the biggest demonstration of shifts in consumer culture – your consumers are probably watching a virtual yoga video, following Gordon Ramsay’s master classes, making Dalgona coffee, or watching John Legend at-home concert series. So how can a brand really tap into such consumer behaviors & trends and provide something of value that will make people say “this brand really gets me right now”? The answer is to go back to your brand values & proposition and re-aligning what you brand stands for in this time. While you might not have the “right to play” right now, this doesn’t mean communication with your customer base needs to necessarily be paused.

While the answers to the above questions will differ by industry, brands can look at a percentage of effort on continued brand building or social conversations, especially for sectors such as travel or automotive that have been impacted. Great examples of this are the latest comms released by Emirates “Do You Remember” or Nissan’s “Ode to Empty Roads”.  These examples show brands that have tapped into a consumer feeling right now and have not let the current situation stop them from still being top of mind.

The Long & Short of It: Balancing Right and Right Now

Both the above show the short (rational messaging) and long (brand building) of how brands can react to the current situation and finding the right balance between both will be crucial. While short-termism could be a winner right now, eventually behaviors such as online shopping (triggered by tech catalysts) will be installed as a new permanent behavior. COVID-19 is priming these behaviors with typical shopping behaviors being dislodged and therefore, this needs to become part of a bigger business transformation goal.

However, while the temptation will be to pivot towards performance-based messaging think about how you can support the cause and consumer which will ultimately benefit in the long term once COVID-19 has passed. Maintaining strong experiences for consumers (a simple “free delivery”) for customers can make a massive impact and can pay dividends in the long run. Binet, Les & Field’s “Marketing in the Era of Accountability” indicated that businesses that cut investments by 50% in a year of crisis, took up 2 years to recover their market share, while brands that maintained or increased exposure won up to 3 times more shares in the first 2 years of recovery. This indicates that going silent or dark in hard times, could ultimately negatively impact businesses.


Brands & agencies can work together to make an insightful “customer centricity in next normal” observation, either based on agency insights, media data points as well as the constant flow of research and COVID-19 updates and brand’s owned data. During this time, we will be re-learning advertising from the high speed turn around world of social media, e-commerce other tech catalysts that will no doubt emerge. For now, understand what your consumers are going through, work with agencies and power partners, exchange business and media insights. Brands that truly connect with customers in these times (seizing opportunities that make sense!) will come out as winners in the next normal.