Advertising Essential Products: Is it Worth it when Sales are (Temporarily) up?

By: Melissa McKay, Director of Display 

With the COVID-19 crisis expected to hit its peak in the U.S. in the coming month, each advertiser is facing the challenge of how to shift its marketing strateg regardless if the product being advertised is essential or not. The approach most advertisers seem to be taking during the pandemic is to cut spend — and for good reasonIf you are selling an essential product, why would you invest in advertising if you are seeing record sales? On the flip side, if you are selling a non-essential product, why would you advertise when there is less foot traffic to stores, consumers are becoming more weary of spending during these times, and your overall sales are seeing a dip that are seemingly out of your control? 

There is no one-size-fits-all answer during times like we are in today, especially as consumer behavior is changing each day. Consumers are stocking up, utilizing more food delivery services, or cooking more, and spending more time at home with content, whether it be the news, entertainment, or gaming. We are seeing device usage up across the board, resulting in a growth against available digital inventory to buy. 

While reducing or removing advertising spend seems like the best decision today, life will go back to normal even though the uncertainty of when continues to loom. Before that happens, the surge of stockpiling will surely hit its peak with the potential for initial declines to be seen as consumers have more on hand than usual.  

For brands selling essential products, it is hard to navigate these times when the short-term revenue generated from those stocking up makes you question whether to invest in advertising or not. If sales are naturally occurring given current economic uncertainties, what is the point to continue advertising 

Let’s start with the facts. 

Sales are up for essentials — there is no question about this and if you are selling an essential product then this is an obvious statement. According to Aki Technologies, on Thursday, March 12th, the day after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, grocery store visits peaked +46%. That trend continued for days as consumers were stocking up to avoid how often they need to be out in public. 

However, as stay-at-home orders sweep the nation, we are now beginning to see foot traffic decline for essential businesses. According to PlaceIQ, the week of 3/23 is showing foot traffic around 15-20% below norms. While foot traffic is down and basket size is up, retailers and essential products should remain engaged with customers and provide them with the most relevant information to help them navigate the new habits they are adopting.  

Retail foot traffic: 

What happens next?


Many consumers are at the point where they are fully stocked in order to fully comply with stay at home orders – until they need to stock up again in two weeks. Many essential brands are seeing a surge in sales, and it is important to dig into why, and how long that will sustain. Understanding in-store stocking and consumer demand during this time is key. Are your sales up because your current customer base is putting you out of stock? Or is it that new consumers are turning to your brand as an alternative because their usual preference is out of stock or your product is cheaper? 

Many brands are faced with the latter. Understanding your consumer decision-making process today is key. Any brand loyalty seen from consumers before this crisis has gone out the window. They are looking to support and feed their families and are purchasing brands they have never purchased. 

Even though your 2019 advertising playbook is unlikely to work now, there are ways to adapt. Consumers want brands to engage with them on an authentic and emotional level – and this is the key to that long-term success. Seeing sales spike today is great, but ensuring those customers come back is important to growing your brand. Do not let strong conversion metrics get confused with your original strategy. Conversion metrics are not the sole indicator that you have a successful strategy, especially in an unprecedented and unique situation like COVID-19. 

Do not react – respond. 

Overall, advertising can be a powerful tool to continue to drive sustainable long-term sales even when it feels unimportant during times like we are in today. Many advertisers are reacting by pulling back spend because sales are surging naturally or because sales are declining when they could be taking advantage of it to speak with consumers 

Important Considerations: 

  • KPIs: Instead of looking solely at sales, consider using repeat customers to guide your strategy as you may be seeing a surge in one-time purchasers, which would be temporary organic lift. Brand engagement will also be a key indicator for consumers to remember your brand when this is all said and done. 
  • Messaging: Consumers are social distancing and are more fearful of the time we are in than ever before. Talk through any benefits your brand might offer to them during this time. Consumers, more than ever, are considering new ways of shopping through pickup and deliverypurchasing long shelf life products, and discovering new ways to stay healthy. If your brand is aiding in the fight against COVID-19, include that in your messaging, but please be sensitive to ensure it is informative and fact-based. Not sure what to say? Learn more 
  • Channel Mix: Consumer behavior today is different than pre-COVID-19. With consumers spending more time at home than ever before, they are spending more time online to seek out valuable content, whether it is written or video content. News, entertainment, and family & parenting content is seeing the greatest spikes. Native and video are important considerations to drive search demand. 

Action to take today 

For your day-to-day tactical approach with media that is currently in market, there are some key actions to take today: 

  • Pacing: With the increase in inventory, brands are maxing out budget faster than before. Lower your bids and adjust budget caps to combat this trend. 
  • Devices: Both desktop and mobile are surging. Consider breaking out campaigns by device if you do not have this structure in place today. 
  • Dayparting/Scheduling: Consider removing these targets or test new days or times. Daytime hours are surging, as well as weekends. 
  • Premium Inventory: Now is a better time than ever to take advantage of lower-cost, higher-impact traffic. If running programmatic media, consider adding PMP buys into the mix. 

Unprecedented Times Call for Unprecedented Solutions

While pulling back spend feels like the right thing to do, be sure to evaluate what is best for your business. Keep an eye on your day-over-day trends. Inspect the real driver behind a growth in your sales numbers. Metrics only tell one part of the story and may not ladder up to your overarching purpose and strategy. Now is more important than ever to begin measuring and understanding your consumers and attitudinal/behavioral change in real time. They will remember how you respond to them – not how you react. Contact us to learn about how we can help you navigate these uncertain times.  

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