By Jerry W. Thomas, President and CEO, Decision Analyst

Among the few brands that track advertising and brand awareness in today’s shoot-from-the-hip marketing world, many companies are seeing declines in brand and advertising awareness as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts normal patterns of human behavior. Let’s explore some of the possible explanations for falling brand awareness, although these will vary by market segment and product category.

Retail behavior

Traditional brick-and-mortar retailers, for the most part, have experienced huge declines in foot traffic. Walking down the store aisles, consumers see an array of products, packages and brands. Visits to retail stores tend to help maintain and reinforce brand awareness across a wide array of brands, even those that are not purchased. Traversing a store aisle is analogous to driving on a superhighway and viewing billboards along the roadway. We don’t normally think of visiting retail stores as exposure to advertising but those packages on the shelves are little billboards advertising the different brands.

Some might argue that shopping online makes up for the lower levels of retail store visits. It does to some degree but online search functions allow you to see only what you want to see – and that means exposure to fewer brands. Also, if the online purchases are repetitive (say, for groceries), you might use past purchases as a guide to the next cycle of purchases – again limiting the number of different brands you will see.

Travel behavior

COVID-related reductions in commuting and driving times have reduced consumers’ exposure to outdoor billboards and signage as well as roadside retail establishments. It’s obvious that brand awareness created by outdoor advertising would be negatively affected by reduced commuting and car driving. What might be less obvious is the downward pressure on retail store awareness. Retail sites along major highways are chosen partly for their advertising value. Highly visible retail sites tend to build and maintain store awareness. Lower levels of traffic reduce the advertising effect of these sites. So, reduced travel reduces awareness of restaurant brands, gasoline brands, food stores and most other retailers.

Media behavior

More time at home during the pandemic is leading to more time in front of the television and more time online. TV viewership is higher than it was before the coronavirus arrived, at least among those who can work effectively from home. The one-third to one-half of the population that work in the social-interaction portion of the economy (entertainment, travel, churches, restaurants, hospitals, etc.) or work in construction or factories are likely consuming media as they were before COVID-19. Online activity (not work-related) is likewise up since the start of the pandemic. So it’s likely that TV advertising and digital advertising are as effective – or perhaps more effective – as a result of millions of people working from home. The one counterpoint is the rapid growth of prerecorded shows and streaming of shows and movies, where TV commercials do not appear.

However, a massive shift of advertising dollars from traditional media (especially TV) into social media and online advertising over the past decade has in many instances led to reductions in brand awareness. The primary reasons: television is still the highest-impact media for most product/service categories and social media and other digital advertising tends to achieve high frequency but low reach (that is, digital often reaches fewer people).

Political spending

2020 was a very atypical year, as political spending on media advertising moved upward along with the number of COVID-19 cases. High levels of media spending (offline and online) on the presidential campaign, senate races, house races and state and local contests crowded out some of the normal brand awareness-type advertising. So the political campaigns reduced “share of mind” devoted to brands and eroded brand awareness across many product categories. Presidential elections only come along every four years, so the dilution effects of political advertising should diminish as we move through the first quarter of 2021.

Advertising effectiveness

The effectiveness of television commercials has declined over the past 20 years or so as major corporations have cut research budgets and the ad testing they fund. Advertising that relies on vetting via the “creative judgment” of marketing and advertising executives, rather than testing among consumers, leads to less effective advertising. These executives tend to have biases and hidden agendas (don’t we all have these weaknesses?) and possess too much industry, category and technical knowledge to be representative of the target consumer. Consistent testing of commercials and ads among the target audience can identify highly effective campaigns and executions and help companies and agencies improve the impact of all commercials and ads over time.

Digital ads suffer from the same “creative judgment” weaknesses but even more so. The cost to produce digital ads tends to be low compared to traditional TV commercials, so a smaller share of digital ads goes through any type of independent, objective research testing. The combination of shifting advertising dollars away from television to digital, combined with the lower effectiveness of digital ads, is contributing to the declining awareness numbers that many brands are experiencing.

There are a number of good advertising testing systems available from solid, reputable companies. The secret to success is choosing a system and sticking with it, so that you and your agency learn how to use and interpret the results from the system. It takes time to build up norms for your brand and your category and learn how to analyze the results from the advertising tests. To be successful, it’s important to set up standards so that every new ad or commercial is tested in exactly the same way, among exactly the same type of sample, using exactly the same system. It’s also important that all commercials be tested at the same level of finish. Rough executions yield different scores compared to finished commercials. Lastly, no one question can measure ad effectiveness. The scores from different types of questions must be modeled to yield an overall advertising effectiveness measure.

Swallowing pride

While the impact of declining awareness attributable to COVID-19 might fade away as vaccines become available, there are no vaccines for bad advertising and bad advertising doesn’t seem to produce any antibodies in creative minds. The only solution is consistent ad testing, swallowing one’s pride, accepting the results and learning from them. Hopefully, 2021 sees the arrival of low-cost, highly effective vaccines for COVID-19 and the return to something close to normal social behavior will uplift brand awareness across many product categories.