Marketing the Invisible

Marketing the Invisible

When it comes to building stronger brands in times of crisis, Simon Bird says there’s more to marketing than meets the eye.


A few weeks ago, I read a humorous post from someone saying that climate change should get a hold of Covid-19’s PR department, alluding to the fact that Covid-19 has garnered far more attention and action than climate change. This is interesting because whilst Covid-19 is a global pandemic it does not pose the existential threat to human existence that climate change does. 

Over the past two months there has been an exponential growth in people writing about epidemiology and economics. There’s been predictions about second waves, mutations, u-shaped recovery, v-shaped recovery and my favourite, a reverse square root recovery. In the short term no one really has a clue what will happen. There are too many unknown variables at play.

Nobody needs yet another article on Covid-19, and I’m not particularly qualified to write about epidemiology or climate change. However, I’m going to write about both, but only in terms of how they might be metaphorically useful when thinking about approaches to marketing across 2020 and beyond.

A lot of people in our industry are fond of saying that people make decisions emotionally and not rationally. It’s not really true. Ask someone if they want a pint of lager for $7 or $10 and you’ll get $7 every time. It’s when you ask someone if they want a pint of Mt Eden lager for $7 or a pint of Heineken lager for $10 that things get a little less clear. 

We are happy to use rationality when it is easy, but in decision making it is rarely so clear cut. So, we default to intuition, which is in part emotion, part gut feel, part mood, part recency, part situational and part whimsy. Intuition is useful because it’s fast. Speed of decision was clearly evolutionarily beneficial when confronted with predators, it’s also cognitively efficient, which is important as the brain is roughly 2% of our body weight and yet uses 20% of our energy. 

Our intuition has been baked in over the last 150,000 to 200,000 years of Homosapien existence. Along with a bit of luck this system has helped keep our species alive, but it is less well suited to the lives we live now. We used to live in groups of 50-150, now we live in groups of hundreds of thousands to millions. Our intuition is optimised for the visible feedback loops of small groups, but it doesn’t scale well. We are naturally empathetic when we can see the effect of our actions on someone starving or in pain but not always when we cannot. We naturally moved fishing grounds or hunting grounds when prey got less frequent but now we are prone to over fishing and over hunting.  

Which brings me back to Covid-19 and climate change, and lessons from the two for marketing. 

We care about things we can see, and we learn by fast feedback loops. The effects of climate change from week to week are invisible to us yet they are an existential threat. The effects of Covid-19, tragic though they are, are not existential but they are there for all to see. So, we feel much more threatened by Covid-19 than we do by climate change, even though it is far more threatening.

After the last recession marketing budgets were cut and, of the money left, more went into promotional/ and direct response style tactics at the expense of brand building. This is understandable. We can see the returns from this type of spend immediately and it can help drive much needed cash flow. In contrast the immediate effect of brand building is negligible but, like climate change, it is a much more powerful long-term force. Strong brands make people happy to (intuitively) pay more for your product, making business more profitable and they drive up share price as can be seen in the long running Milward Brown brand Z study. The chart clearly shows how much faster strong brand’s share prices bounced out of the last recessionary period.  

Covid-19 will help society be better prepared for the next pandemic but it won’t help us prepare or mitigate the effects of climate change. This will need ongoing analytics, science and effective communication. 

Similarly, promotional/ and direct response marketing will help get some much-needed cash flow going for companies affected by the current business environment. However, longer term, the companies that outperform the market will use analytics, science and effective communication to ensure they are as focused on the stronger, less visible, forces of brand building as they are on the easy to see but weaker forces of promotions or lower funnel activity. 

Despite all the evidence of the value of brand campaigns and stronger brands performing better in and out of recessions spending on brand campaigns is not going to feel intuitive, which is why many companies failed to do it last recession. Many will not do it during this one, some because they simply can’t, but those companies that can find a way to blend the visible with the invisible, promotional with brand will find, over time, that it is evolutionarily beneficial.  


This article was originally published in the NZ Marketing supplement ‘Marketing in Lockdown’. To purchase a copy of the supplement, click here.

About Simon Bird

Simon Bird is Group Head of Strategy & Measurement at PHD New Zealand.

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