COVID-19 has disrupted so many aspects of life, including entertainment options that take place outside of our homes. As a result, many of us are turning to TV to fill the time. Yet, it is easy to forget that the pandemic also disrupted long-planned marketing strategies that were carefully designed to meet specific goals. In other words, the TV commercials we’ve been seeing are not the ones marketers planned for us to see.

In the face of the pandemic, companies had to delay, modify or rewrite their marketing campaigns, often pushing aside months of planning. In this time, with people staying in and limiting their business activity, fitting television commercials have been a way for businesses to stay connected to their consumers, even if the end results weren’t what they planned. Darden Professor Kimberly Whitler, an expert in marketing strategy and brand management, having worked in GM and CMO roles earlier in her career, shares her insights into advertising during the pandemic.

Reimagine, Repurpose, Recycle

Whitler stresses that how companies could respond to the COVID-19 crisis was limited, so they had to get creative. “When the U.S. shuts down, it is not easy to produce a commercial. So what you see in the early stages of the ads: They’re repurposing old content that they have, they’re using video, or they’ll have a voiceover or words on a screen — what they’re doing is piecing together things that they already have or still shots that they’ve been able to capture during a shutdown. This isn’t something they necessarily created with a storyboard or went on location to shoot.” Over time, companies figured out how to create commercials with higher production values within the current constraints.

Amazon demonstrates this progression. In late March, the company released a commercial thanking its employees. The melancholy music and low-toned voiceover conveyed the gravity of the situation as Amazon recognized its heroes, yet all the footage could have been pulled from their archives. In April, they released a commercial, and the footage was pandemic specific: employees in face masks and temperature checks. Later that month, they released a fully produced ad entitled “Delivering Rainbows.” As the title suggests, this commercial — characterized by a cheerful little girl, the song This Little Light of Mine and a chalk rainbow — offered a sense of hope and sunny warmth to viewers.

Another example of repurposing comes with Smirnoff; the company reused the footage it shot for its summer advertising campaign. Smirnoff repurposed its patriotic ad for the Fourth of July to encourage people to “#HangOutFromHome.” “We will party together again, but for now, hang out from home for America.” This ad even provided a disclaimer in which it assured viewers that any party scenes were filmed before social restrictions were imposed.

Focus on Foundation

In a time of uncertainty, brands want to reinforce to consumers that they will survive the crisis, and they do that by focusing on their own ages. Whitler notes that “all the brands are talking about how long they have been around.” This isn’t limited to a single category of brands, but reaches across Guinness beer, Nationwide Insurance, Farmers Insurance, U-Haul moving and storage, Little Caesars Pizza and Nissan.

Less About the Brand, More About the Category

Coronavirus has essentially stopped some industries that rely on community, social gathering and face-to-face engagement. For example, both the marriage and dating industries have been significantly impacted. Whitler suggests that market-share leading brands in these industries are promoting category consumption rather than brand benefits. That is, they are advertising an idea that is important to their industry rather than a specific product. The objective is to help encourage consumers to purchase from the category, knowing that as market-share leaders, they will accrue the largest benefit. For example, Jared, a luxury jewelry chain, is leading a campaign for virtual weddings, claiming that “Love Can’t Wait.” The communication objective is to help those considering marriage take the leap. The campaign shows images of people getting married, reinforcing that it is possible. Similarly, released a commercial, “Dating While Distancing,” in which it encourages virtual dates during the lockdown period in hopes that customers will utilize the service even after social distancing restrictions ease. By focusing on enduring concepts, market-leading companies are able to lend confidence that they too will survive COVID-19.

Right Tone, Right Time

Just as there is a progression of production quality, there is also a progression in tone and feeling of the ads. Whitler identifies the importance of sharing “the right message at the right time.” At the beginning of the pandemic, there was significant fear. Consequently, most of the advertising was somber, reflecting both the uncertainty and the gravity of the situation. The commercials reflected on “unprecedented times” and stressed the connections between individuals. This was so true, there’s even a parody about how all the commercials are the same.  Another early trend in commercials focused on thanking essential workers. For example, Dove’s commercial “Courage is Beautiful” depicts the tired faces of medical professionals as it thanks them by offering donations to Direct Relief for frontline workers.

However, as consumers adapted to the new normal and there was more insight on the pandemic, the somber ads didn’t “fit,” as they became heavy. As consumers shifted, the ads shifted. Humorous ads started showing up, and some brands started presenting a hopeful, forward looking image.

For example, consider Jeep. In April, several weeks after the pandemic was declared a national emergency, Jeep aired a lighthearted revamp of its Super Bowl Groundhog Day ad, conveying understanding that every day is starting to feeling the same, but encouraging folks to stay home. However, as states are starting to open up, the company has begun airing another ad, “Drive Forward,” in which it encourages “shifting to drive.”

Coronavirus has changed everything, including the 60-second window between scenes of your favorite show. While many companies had to change or postpone long-planned campaigns, marketing teams still responded with intentionality, despite the “unprecedented times.”

This article was developed with the support of Darden’s Institute for Business in Society, at which Eeshma Narula is a research assistant and Megan Juelfs is associate director of research initiatives.


Strategic Marketing
Creating meaningful value for customers and driving growth: Darden's experts take a holistic view of the subject.
About the Expert

Kimberly A. Whitler

Frank M. Sands Sr. Associate Professor of Business Administration

Whitler is an authority on marketing, with expertise in marketing strategy, brand management, and marketing performance. Her research centers on understanding how a firm’s marketing performance is affected by its C-suite and board.

A prolific writer as well as researcher, Whitler has authored nearly 100 articles related to C-level marketing management challenges and is a contributor for Forbes and Social Media Marketing Magazine named her one of the Top 100 Marketing Professors on Twitter.

Whitler has held leadership roles, including GM and CMO positions, within the consumer packaged goods and retailing industries, including Procter & Gamble, David’s Bridal and PetSmart. She has helped build $1B+ brands, including Tide, Bounce, Downy and Zest.

B.A., Eureka College; MBA, University of Arizona Eller School of Business; M.S., Ph.D., Indiana University Kelley School of Business