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A screenshot of a McDonald's ad that separated the arches to promote physical distancing. The ad was criticized for being insensitive.

Courtesy of manufacturer

A significant number of Canadians want companies to stop advertising during the coronavirus crisis and redirect their marketing dollars to support communities most affected by the pandemic, new polling data suggests.

One in three Canadians outside Quebec and one in four in La Belle Province voiced their backing for such a charitable brand strategy, according to two separate polls this past week commissioned by boutique consulting firm Headspace Marketing and shared with The Globe and Mail.

More than half of those surveyed in the polls said they favoured a strategy where companies use advertising to promote physical distancing and the need to stay at home. Close to half also said they endorsed moves to thank and support front-line health workers in ads. Canadians also welcomed messaging from brands about relevant offers to support them in these challenging times, such as home delivery of restaurant meals.

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The aim of the surveys was to measure which advertising approaches Canadians would support most and asked respondents to rank the top three they preferred from a list provided. The results highlight that while there is ample room for companies to be part of people’s lives during the COVID-19 crisis, they have to tread carefully to find the right tone in their communications or risk a backlash.

“Simply splashing your logo all over the place with a clever twist on social distancing will do more harm than good,” Headspace founder Éric Blais said. “The real opportunity for brands should be to do public service advertising in a manner that really connects with people. Government advertising is informational. Brand advertising, if done well, can be inspirational.”

Companies around the world have taken different tacks with their marketing budgets in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Beverage giant Coca-Cola Co. opted to halt all of its commercial advertising activities in the Philippines and direct the funds instead to helping fight the pandemic. Nike Inc. encouraged people to “play inside, play for the world.”

In a move that was less well-received, McDonald’s Corp. presented a redesigned logo that split the letters in a bid to show solidarity with physical distancing. Critics including U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders blasted it as a stunt and called on the company to give its employees paid sick leave.

In Canada, Subaru last month swapped out its regular commercials with new ads in which the announcer says: “We originally paid to air our Subaru car commercial in this time slot. But instead, we’d like to use the next 30 seconds to thank those who keep us safe. Those who keep us fed. And those who keep us protected." The spot ends with Subaru’s logo and the tagline, “Stay safe Canada.”

The car maker’s spots were also posted on YouTube, where advertising haters are usually quick to react, Mr. Blais said. So far, the spots have generated only likes.

“Canadians are under no illusion that this is about commerce and not pure altruism. At the same time, and perhaps as a result of many brands’ more recent narrative about having a higher social purpose, Canadians expect those brands to take on a public service role in times of crisis,” Mr. Blais said. “So what if that generosity is also somewhat self-serving? It can be good for the economy.”

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The stakes are high for companies wanting to connect with consumers at the moment, said Jennifer Meehan, executive vice-president of consumer brand marketing at Edelman Canada, a communications firm. How they engage now and prove their relevance could cement their reputations for years to come, she said.

Edelman’s own survey research, published in a special report on brand trust and the coronavirus last month, found that one in three people have already punished brands that have not responded well during the crisis. That was particularly true in China, where three-quarters of people polled said they had persuaded others to stop using a brand they felt was not acting appropriately in response to the pandemic.

“Fundamentally if you’re looking at solving versus selling, you’re in a much better place,” Ms. Meehan said. Because of the scope and uncertainty of the COVID-19 crisis, there is a feeling that Canada as a government can’t do it alone so brands need to step up, she said.

Consumers are likely to remember brands whose behaviour is particularly responsive to this crisis, corporate consultancy McKinsey & Co. said in a report this month. That means marketers should tap into the elements of their brands that are relevant to the current situation and can make a difference with their customer base and larger society, the consultancy said.

McKinsey highlighted efforts by clothing maker Lululemon, which sent an e-mail message saying, “The community carries on,” and ways to tune in for at-home yoga videos on their mobile app and social media.

It also singled out Unilever and Molson Coors Beverage Co. for pledging money and products to charities. By stepping forward to help society in general, they have not only done the right thing but also have raised awareness about their brands and created beneficial connections with current and potential customers, the consultancy said.

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