How brands advertised during the pandemic—the evolution of Covid-19 ads in India

A timeline of how Covid-19 related ads have evolved in our country

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Over the last two years, brands around the world have been facing the challenge of effectively and sensitively communicating with their consumers. In India, businesses have seen significant shifts in their communication strategies. Insisting on covid appropriate behaviour, displaying solidarity with consumers, celebrating covid warriors—brand communication evolved rapidly in response to the pandemic. Certain opportunistic brands conducted themselves questionably and launched campaigns and/or products with dubious claims. Such brands raise valid doubts and questions about marketing and advertising in crises.

But unlike other crises, Covid-19 hit parts of the country in waves and varying intensity. Some regions witnessed high numbers of deaths and collapse of the overburdened medical system. Communicating the right message during such emotionally intense and delicate times required careful thought and consideration. Everything from the world order to consumer behaviour was drastically changed. With situations transforming so quickly, some brands could nail it and some couldn’t. But what all brands understood quickly is that they have to communicate with the people.

As soon as Covid-19 hit the world, brands in Europe and the US were quick to roll out advertisements that could barely be differentiated from one other. All of them relied on sombre music and similar vocabulary. Some bright and skilful people/person mashed these ads together, and you can barely differentiate one from another. The first line of this video’s description sums it well: Corporate Covid-19 response videos are eerily similar. *Cue somber piano music*

It was commendable that in India advertisers exhibited patience and took time to understand and grasp the situation. Communication for all brands wasn’t cut out from the same fabric, and the message evolved from ‘hang in there’ to building information systems and supporting local businesses that were drowning during Covid-19.  Here’s a look at how brand narratives evolved during the last two years in our country.

When Covid-19 hit India last year in March, a few brands tried to motivate people by focusing their communication on awareness and positivity. Asian Paints was one of the first few brands to release an ad featuring a montage of real home videos taken during the first lockdown. The brand revived their iconic ‘Har Ghar Kuch Kehta Hai’ campaign with a digital film that showed the different ways in which families could spend time during the lockdown.

On the other hand, Nescafe India rolled out a film that showed young boys and girls seizing opportunities amid the challenges. Both these ads were uplifting and resonated with people.

Several other ads also focused on the importance of hygiene and safety. A PSA titled ‘Kaano Par Zimmedari’ reminded us of the importance of wearing masks. The ad showed how each one of us has a responsibility on our ‘ears’ to wear a mask.

 

Around mid-last year, brands started commenting on the new social realities. Brooke Bond Red Label’s ‘Swad Apnepan Ka’ ad showed the importance of being socially connected while physically distant. The ad stood out for speaking up about being kind and compassionate towards Covid-19 patients and warriors who were facing stigma and ostracism.

There were also advertisements that held a mirror to the society and reflected the new normal in their campaigns. Leveraging their best icons like the pug and the ZooZoos, Vodafone India created a sense of familiarity and an instant connect with consumers in uncertain times. The ads spoke about relevant issues like fake news, social distancing, and hygiene.

 

Working-from-home accelerated the adoption of digital tools and techniques. Naturally, brands wanted to highlight products and services that could fit in the era of social distancing. WhatsApp’s ‘It’s Between You’ campaign captured how the app’s features can help replicate in-person conversations and bring people closer.


Facebook’s Nayi Shuruaat campaign highlighted real stories of how small businesses moved online during the pandemic while Vodafone India’s ‘Friendship uninterrupted’ focused on how friendships can weather the challenges of the lockdown through video-calling and staying connected.

Towards the end of last year, brand communication moved towards supporting small businesses. Axis Bank’s simple yet powerful ‘Reverse The Khata’ campaign urged India to support small businesses by paying them in advance for their services.

Cadbury released the ‘Not Just a Cadbury Ad’ campaign—a first-of-its-kind, unconventional concept designed to support local businesses.

In fact, Cadbury did consistent work throughout 2020. It first brought back its heartwarming jingle, ‘Kuch Khaas Hai’ in an ad featuring stories of people finding innovative ways to spend time at home during the lockdown and then also thanked the unsung heroes who had to go about their jobs during the difficult times, in its ‘Thank You’ campaign.

In 2020, brand communication mostly centred around lockdown, work-from-home and social distancing. But when the second wave of Covid-19 hit the country earlier in 2021, businesses had to hit pause button on brand activity and rewire their communication. As the situation got worse, IPL was postponed, corporate launches were held back, and brands diverted resources to augment health facilities. Hotel chain OYO offered rooms to healthcare workers to isolate, to prevent spreading Covid-19 to their families.

Dating app TrulyMadly used its match-making algorithm to connect donors with people who require plasma to treat Covid-19. During this phase, communication was seen to be mostly limited to only digital, with just messages about safety and hope. Pepsi used its digital assets to share messages around social distancing and encouraged people to stay at home. ITC posted Covid-appropriate protocols on its social media handles, including Twitter and LinkedIn. Dunzo used Instagram and Twitter to amplify leads for Covid-related emergencies. Quite evidently, communication evolved to reflect sensitivity, compassion, addressing anxieties and physical well-being, and brands wanted to be part of the solution.

When things got a little better, one of the first pieces of communication that grabbed attention was a series of posts by Mumbai Police. The city police came up with an innovative campaign by using names and dialogues of famous superstars. For instance, one of the posters read: ‘Big-B’ lunder—wearing your mask below nose,”, reminding citizens to wear their masks properly. There’s one with Kajol’s reference – “You can’t ‘Kajol’ us into thinking that getting chocolates is essential”. It was a quirky way to infuse information with witty content.

This year, narratives in brand communications revolved around celebrating frontline warriors and unsung heroes. Facebook’s ‘More Together’ campaign captured how social media aided a lot of people in searching, sharing, distributing, and amplifying health-related information during the pandemic. The ad highlighted our present-day hurdles while talking about vaccine hesitancy, especially among the elderly.

The messaging hit close to home for many. A separate ad, a long-format film by Facebook chronicled the true story of Dr Ranjani, who lost her husband to Covid-19 last year and started a support group on Facebook to help others like her cope with grief. Meanwhile, Amazon India released an ad that expressed gratitude to strangers who offered help during the pandemic. The theme was also taken forward by NGO HelpAge India, which highlighted the impact of the pandemic on the elderly and urged viewers to bring them back into the fold and support them, pushing for elder inclusion.

Towards the third quarter of this year, we finally started seeing communication from travel brands. Goibibo rolled out a campaign #WeWillTakeOffAgain, to re-instill hope and a sense of optimism while MakeMyTrip prompted people to #MakeTheTrip to the nearest vaccination centre.

And for this year’s festive season, we saw brands once again putting out messages to support smaller businesses and local retailers. Mondelez India’s Cadbury Celebrations roped in Shah Rukh Khan to help local retailers create their own unique Diwali ad as a continuation of their #NotJustACadburyAd campaign.

The larger theme of supporting local retailers was echoed by regional brands as well, this year. FMCG company Empire Spices and Foods released a short film in Marathi for its flagship brand Ram Bandhu that honoured kirana store owners who worked tirelessly during the pandemic. Indian Oil also came up with an ad highlighting how even a small gesture can bring a smile to someone who needs it.

Over the last two years, we also saw a few brands providing misleading information in their ads. Zodiac Clothing came under the scanner after it claimed that its new ‘Securo’ shirt range made of Heiq Viroblock technology kills Covid-19 virus. A number of textile firms such as Arvind Ltd, Siyarams and Welspun also launched anti-corona fabric which leverages different technologies to kill coronavirus on fabric surface containing its spread. According to Business Standard, ASCI reported that only 12 of 332 ads related to Covid-19 pandemic were found to be true. ASCI picked up advertisements of several other categories such as paints, apparel, detergents, skin care, ACs, fans, water purifiers, plywood and laminates, supplements and food—all promising Covid related benefit.

Moving forward, trust, authenticity, and empathy will stand at the forefront of establishing relationships with consumers. As the Omicron infections in India near the 650-mark and if there’s another nation-wide lockdown, brands will have to stay prepared and authenticate their messaging that will help strengthen consumer connect in the long run.

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Ritwika currently anchors and writes for Melt, a television show on advertising, marketing and media that airs every weekend on WION. She has also covered the global luxury market and the business of entertainment. Her stories have been published across print, digital and television. You can reach her on Twitter and Instagram @ritzdotcom.

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