Coronavirus is forcing brands to rewrite their messaging and marketing plans as lockdown renders their previous efforts ineffective or offensive. They’re also having to produce new creative without the luxury of a studio. Here’s how Toyota and Saatchi & Saatchi managed.
Toyota, like the majority of car brands, plans its marketing campaigns around a cyclical calendar. It advertises sales events and launch events, and these are determined by the production schedule agreed upon months – if not years – in advance.
So when Ed Laukes, group vice-president of Toyota Division Marketing, watched as the coronavirus spread from China’s Wuhan province into his own market, he found himself making a call he’d never have to make before: stick with his plans, ditch them entirely, or create something completely new to fill the media space.
He chose the latter. Sticking with his plan for March – a sales event message – wouldn’t be appropriate. And not advertising at all could damage the short-term business of Toyota’s dealers, many of which are still open across the states.
“Most of their service departments are still operational for people who have needs relative to everyday car service,” explains Laukes. “First responders and all the other people who provide an essential service can still get their cars repaired.
“This [campaign] was developed for them as well.”
Laukes called Saatchi & Saatchi in LA and pulled a team together on a conference call; California was well into lockdown by this point. The initial meetings – the ones that ironed out an entirely new strategy – were tough, recalls Jason Schragger, chief creative officer at the agency.
“I remember getting to the end of the first week when we had started asking ‘should we change everything?’ and I was exhausted,” he says. “Just the mental preparation required to get everyone together was quite difficult.
“But it's 2020, and it's incredible what you can achieve in your pajamas. We stepped into a virtual chatroom and everyone left their ego at the door and said ‘what do we need to do?’ The discussion, creatively, was about finding the right sentiment – how to authentically and honestly speak to people in a time of extremely high emotions.”
Laukes asked for a simple message of reassurance. Crafting this was not so simple, however, given that the pandemic is moving around the States at such differing speeds.
A cool or humorous message would not be appreciated in an epicenter such as New York, for instance, while anything bordering on alarming would not resonate in mountainous Wyoming (death toll: 0).
“It was about choosing the right words, the right phraseology and double checking it with lots of different people who are in different parts of the country,” recalls Schragger. “Once we'd figured out the trajectory of the message, we really went deep into making sure the actual words were exactly right.”
Hitting screens and newswires on 27 March, ‘We Are Here For You’ set a reassuring tone for the campaign. The first commercial comprised archive footage combined alongside a friendly voiceover.
Phase two of the media buy was slightly more complicated.
For the first time ever, Toyota bought a ‘top and tail’ commercial format. This means the intro and outro of the ad is fixed, but the middle can be filled with localized content from different markets.
‘Jan from Toyota’, the recognizable actor who has a appeared in a number of the carmaker’s commercials, was selected to front the beginning and end of the spot. That meant shooting new content without a studio or set – all while the members of any ‘crew’ were self-isolating miles away.
“The first thing we had to do was find somewhere in her house that [Jan] could film in front of,” says Schragger. “So, a very small, easy-to-use camera was delivered to her and the location scout was done over Zoom. We followed her around her house and said, ‘That wall looks quite good - can you put the camera there?’ and we went around until we found the right place.
“She did her own hair and makeup and the whole commercial was directed via Zoom. And then all the footage was sent to an editor who was working from home. We would check in with the editor and see their screen – everything through to sound editing – via Zoom.”
And the Toyota mug, so perfectly placed in front of Jan? Shot on makeshift green screen and edited in.
Two new films featuring this DIY shoot have gone live today (6 April). One educates customers on open service enters and another introduces Toyota’s 90-day deferment plan for replacement vehicles.
The creative may not be visually dazzling but that’s not the point: they’re designed to inform and reassure, not entertain.
And, at the very least, week long process has taught Schragger something new about creative team management.
“You have to work out where the chinks are in everyone's armor and be accepting of those things,” he says. “Before, because everyone was in a room together, you were just pushing everyone through the same door. Now, you're really thinking about ‘casting’ – thinking about which members should tasked with what. And you learn how to better communicate, so when people go off, they know exactly what to do.
“For me, there have been a lot of learning opportunities. There have been positive things to think about in times when it's been really tough."