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By Imogen Watson, Senior reporter

March 26, 2020 | 13 min read

As governments and state media scramble to relay the public message that coronavirus isn't a walk in the park, a huge proportion of the world is continuing to do exactly that - filling up green spaces and mingling outdoors. Recognising they have a job to do in curbing this reckless behaviour, a number of brands have stepped up. But, will their efforts have any impact or fall on deaf ears?

As the world adjusts to its biggest behaviour change in known history, brands are finding they have a crucial role to play in hammering the message home that staying indoors is a matter of life and death.

“The government will always be the most important source of trusted advice at a time of crisis and brands have to act in complete support of that advice,” contends Neil Henderson, chief exec of St Luke’s. “However, brands can use their particular tone of voice to help their audiences understand the message."

Where Wetherspoons and Sports Direct have drawn scathing criticism for continuing with business as usual (and forcing their employees to do the same) other brands such as Coca-Cola to McDonald’s, Time Out and Nike have been using their clout to help and support people as they lockdown at home.

But will advertisers' effort have any impact or will it fall on deaf ears?

The need to stay home

At this moment in time, society (especially in the UK and US) is divided between those taking extra measures to stay out of harm’s way with their stash of toilet roll, and those continuing on with their day to day.

As it turns out the coronavirus is far more sophisticated and contagious than scientists first forecast. While one person infected with the common flu has the ability to pass it onto a further 40 people, with Covid-19 that number has the potential to rise as high as 59,000.

Though they're selling out, a bottle of hand sanitiser will do little to arm people against the saliva of a Covid-19 patient (which, by the way, harbours half a trillion virus particles per teaspoon).

“At a time like this people are looking for answers, solutions and help,” Henderson continues. “Brands that can provide any of these in a sincere and informed way will be welcomed and listened to.”

In a campaign shared widely on social media this weekend, the respiratory team at the Belfast Health Trust did an excellent job at issuing an impassioned plea to the public to socially distance to save thousands of lives. Sacrificing the rare time off they have during this hectic time, doctors, nurses and physiotherapists filmed a hard-hitting video that highlighted the potentially catastrophic effect of coronavirus on families across Northern Ireland.

Nike - coronavirus

It's not just health professionals issuing pleas to the public, though. Last week, Nike released its own ad push to express the importance of social distancing during this time. It read: ‘If you ever dreamed of playing for millions around the world, now is your chance. Play inside, play for the world.’ Between them, Nike’s leaders, the Nike Foundation and Nike have committed $15 million to Covid-19 response efforts.

Viacom, meanwhile, has used its vast array of talent to get the word out – teaming up with the Ad Council for an #AloneTogether campaign. The dive looks to educate audiences on the importance of social distancing and drives unity through entertainment. “It's really, really important that we provide entertainment, but that we leverage our platforms to educate, inform and help,” explains Jacqueline Parkes, chief marketing officer and executive vice-president digital studios for MTV, Comedy Central, Paramount Network, TV Land, VH1, PopTV, CMT and Smithsonian Channel. Concerned about the amount of younger generations ignoring warnings to continue going to bars, movie theatres and parties, Parkes explains: “We felt like it was incumbent upon us to really lead the conversation." "Our audience is very young, so we realised we could take advantage of this massive social following and create this digital-led campaign to really communicate the importance of social distancing and empower young people that they can actually be a part of the change to slow down the spread of this virus and slow the curve."

Time In

Where before its job was to get people to enjoy their time outside the house, Time Out has aptly rebranded to 'Time In' in response to the spiralling coronavirus crisis. Both the New York and London editions of the print magazine and website now sport the new branding in recognition of the far-reaching consequences of a policy of ‘social distancing’. Its global editor-in-chief, Caroline McGinn, claims beyond this temporary rebrand pivot, its "loyal audience has fully embraced the focus on city content around supporting local businesses, providing inspiration and reporting news and initiatives emerging in the city." Adapting to this 'new normal', new content strands have been created, including 'Time In Daily', 'The best of the city - straight to your sofa', 'Community inspiration - how city dwellers are helping each other', and 'Time In Festival', showcasing live venues and artists who are streaming their gigs, shows, exhibitions and cultural resources for free right now.

Coca-Cola Times Square

To ensure its message got across – Coca-Cola replaced its iconic billboard in Times Square, New York City, to spread health advice amid Covid-19. Standing out in iconic Coca-Cola red, the message reads: ‘staying apart is the best way to stay united.’

On Saturday (21 March) ITV paused live TV in the UK to bring a message of support to its socially distancing viewers throughout the coronavirus pandemic, with presenters Ant & Dec addressing the viewers to stay indoors, keep talking and look after each other. Using the hashtag #BritainGetTalking and tagging @itv, Ant and Dec encouraged viewers to share messages of love and support across social media. A selection of these messages will be played on ITV every day in an effort to keep spirits high across the country. "I think there's a real role for broadcasters and public service broadcasting," states ITV's director of social purpose, Clare Phillips. "We're a public service broadcaster, just like the BBC and Channel Four. "We all have an ability to reach so many people, and we want to use that scale and that platform to do some good." She explains that the initiative fell under the broadcaster's five-year mental wellness campaign – Britain Get Talking. While the next stage was due to launch in May, ITV felt the need to bring it forward and brought this all together in just over a week. "What I love about this campaign it's got the ability to flex," as Philips explains how it will expand during this time of isolation. "As time goes on, ITV will find itself reacting to how the nations feeling, and the issues that they want to talk about. I think that will all come through as a campaign take shape," she continues.

@gordonramsayofficial Not sure this is a recipe I can get behind @tillyramsay.....##happyathome ##lifeathome ##fyp ##recipes ♬ Cheryl - Yung Gravy

Given a large proportion of its users are Gen Z – a generation most likely to push back against staying indoors – TikTok has found it has an integral role in encouraging, and entertaining them while they do so.

It has therefore launched #HappyAtHome – a series of fun and educational live programs – that provide comfort to users as they embrace the responsibility of staying inside to stop the spread.

It has also set a number of hashtag challenges, including #LifeAtHome and #StayAtHome. TikTok has seen a significant increase in user engagement with videos and content creation during this time, with #StayAtHome garnering 600 million views and #LifeAtHome bringing in 2 billion views worldwide to date. TikTok has admitted that it isn’t paying creators to share it the hashtags.

“We see this as an unprecedented opportunity to come together as a community, understand how we are all still connected, and recognise the importance of helping to support, encourage and even uplift one another,” explains Doreen Tan, user and content operations manager at TikTok Singapore.

“We’re focused on supporting our users by providing accurate information and resources from public health officials, we well as continued support, encouragement, and uplifting videos that our community share with each other during this challenging time,” she adds.

Felt by all

In recent years, brand trust has been shoved to the top of many marketers agendas, as they figure out how best to get down with their consumers.

It's hard to name another time when there has been a cause that has touched every single person in society. Though brands have endeavoured to get into the mindset of the issue they're trying to help, whether it be for the LGBT+ community or black rights, the fallout of the coronavirus outbreak is one felt by all.

"There are lots of issues that coronavirus throws up, but it's an interesting time because we're all experiencing it at the same time," Philips explains. "It's not like you have to put yourself into someone else's shoes and have to pretend, for example, you're a first-time mum."

"I know we all have different experiences and some of us are in a much more fortunate position to cope with this and than others, but that's actually quite helpful in this situation because we're all going through it together," she continues.

But how to get the messaging right, when a lot of society turn off when they get told what to do.

“When Brewdog does sanitisers there is a particular audience that will pay attention in a way they may not have done if they saw a public information film or saw Boris on the news," St Luke's Henderson explains.

But he warns that the stay at home message needs to be backed up with education.

"This situation is not going to pass quickly and the temptation will be for people to relax and start to socialise, particularly when the weekend comes," he warns. "Maintaining people’s motivation to remain vigilant is something all brands could be thinking about now.”

“The most vital messages to be elevating right now are those coming from the UK Government and the NHS, who are working so hard to fight the virus," contends Clear Channel's UK chief marketing officer, Martin Corke.

Earlier this week, following UK prime minister Boris Johnson's stark televised address to the nation, the NHS unveiled the next phase of its expanded coronavirus public information campaign to reinforce his message.

As part of the media plan, the campaign is to appear across the UK via out-of-home (OOH).

"The audience that needs to see the ‘Stay at Home, Save Lives’ campaign right now are those who are ignoring advice and are OOH - right now, ours could be the most targeted medium for this PSA," explains comments Clear Channel's UK chief marketing officer, Martin Corke.

"We’re getting the UK governments messages live on screens as quickly as possible and we’ve been bolstering their campaigns with extra space to take the messages even further," he continues.

Taking into account Coca-Cola's Times Square billboard, the use of OOH has never felt more apt. It has a job to ensure the audience taking it in think twice about continuing their everyday outside.

“Now is only time in out-of-home’s (OHH) long history you’ll hear the industry actively saying stay indoors - don’t go out of home," says Corke.

Henderson agrees, saying that while "every media channel is relevant – we need to get to every single citizen and OOH seems particularly important. While brands are turning away from OOH as people stay home those spaces are available to address the people who haven’t yet understood the message.”

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