With a new aesthetic fast emerging amid restrictions in production capabilities, advertisers are finding new ways to avoid the dreaded ‘Corona clichés’.  In this article we’ll take a look at the opportunities for brands to remain distinctive and get noticed.

As usual, Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson was quick to the punch here, describing the ‘flood of generic messages’ that hit our screens in April that threw out the usual rules of branding in favour of empty streets, tinkling pianos and webcam shots ending with a fuzzy ‘together with you’ conclusion.  This aesthetic echoes the wider shift towards the ‘left-brain’ in advertising and culture in recent years, that favours fast, bite-sized abstractions over in-depth stories set in a specific time and place.

However, the reality is that when Virgin Media aired an early version using most of these tropes on 2nd April, it absolutely nailed the format, while also appealing to ‘right-brain’ tropes such as empathy, humour and spontaneity.   It was fresh, inspired and featured the perfect piece of music, ‘Keep Your Head Up’ by Ben Howard.   Not only that, it was also bang in line with the brand’s values of keeping their customers connected.

It is a measure of how quickly the market zoomed in (no pun intended) on the UCG format that it now feels established and harder to make your own.  It’s not that there aren’t still some excellent executions out there, which have fun with the homemade look as this ad for Voxi shows.   But it’s becoming harder to standout with every subsequent Zoom mosaic ending.

There are three ways that brands can cut through this new aesthetic.  One is to focus on core product truths, particularly when the product in question helps people navigate uncertain times.   System1’s research shows that ads with a strong connection to place and community and ads showing human connection, self-awareness and ‘betweenness’ are connecting better right now.   This is something that recent ads for TSB and Pinterest share – showing how products help bring people together and offer solutions with human empathy.

The second is to build upon the brand codes they are already known for.   This may mean remixing and revamping existing assets in a knowing way.  System1’s research found that ads using established brand characters (so called ‘fluent devices’) and ads sets in the past are doing better than usual at the moment.  Budweiser have brought back their classic ‘Whassup?’ ad from 1999, which combines nostalgia with a famous set of characters and a memorable device, revamped for quarantine times. The Patak’s paste pot ads also use familiar brand cues to great effect, shifting from past to present and featuring the recurring fluent device of the founder as a boy.

The third approach is to use media in different ways to aid the chances of getting noticed. Most advertising still works via association rather than persuasion, and opportunities to associate are abundant right now.  With media owners eager to work with advertisers on new formats there are plenty of ways to achieve additional standout, from achieving extra SOV in underused channels (Emily Crisps brilliantly ran an OOH campaign pondering if they should have made a TV ad), to integrating brands into advertiser-funded programmes, breaking new ground in gaming and audio formats, and finding untapped contexts within the ‘new normal’, such as social distancing in retail queues.

Advertising is undergoing something of a metamorphosis right now, as we shift from left-brain to right-brain sensibilities.  It is under times of constraint that we are forced to get creative with what’s possible.  By leaning into product utility, building on existing brand values, and focusing media on standout channels and formats, advertisers can cut through the coronavirus clutter and increase their chances of getting noticed.