Standing Out in COVID’s Sea of Sameness

How to uphold coherent distinctiveness in your brand communications

We’ve all seen the ads – they start with sombre piano music, show images of friendly helpful staff, and close with an inspirational tagline like ‘now more than ever we’re here for you’. As YouTuber Microsoft Sam cleverly demonstrates in a Supercut of COVID-19 advertising, the market has become flooded with a Sea of Sameness and consumers are inundated with the same few cliché messages and motifs. While we’re sure that brands are sincere in their efforts to be supportive, it’s hard to tell their COVID ads apart – leading industry experts to characterize them as a ‘waste of time and budget’.

Why be Distinctive?

Byron Sharp’s ‘Rules of Brand Growth‘ posit that in order for a brand to increase penetration, it must not only build Physical Availability – how accessible the brand is across touchpoints for consumers to buy – but also Mental Availability – how easily the brand comes to mind as a buying option.

We at Hotspex (and Dr. Sharp) hold the firm belief that brands must be both distinctive and coherent to drive Mental Availability. Brands should work to remain top-of-mind and distinguishable from competitors – and reinforce this with relentless consistency across all touchpoints, from points-of-sale to brand messaging. With COVID-19 disrupting routine shopping behaviours but driving a massive increase in media consumption, it’s more important than ever to drive mental availability through distinctive advertising.

What we’ve learned about brand distinctiveness (amid COVID)…

Since the lockdown, our team (powered by the Dynata Consumer Panel) has been continuously tracking consumer emotionality for 8 weeks and tested several of the new COVID-19 ads running in-market. We’ve developed three principles to help marketers grow their brands in this critical time. To be distinctive and coherent, great ads (1) Show (don’t tell) the message in a distinctive way, (2) Strike an emotional chord that stays true to the brand, (3) Introduce balance to help empower consumers.

#1 – Show, don’t tell (in a distinctive way)

The Hotspex Human Motivation Framework allows us to track emotions evoked during this critical time. Across global markets, we have uncovered a near absence of foundational ‘core’ positive emotions (at the very centre of our map below) and overwhelming negative emotionality (around the outer ring). Consumers are very ungrounded and lost, driving a need for relevance to feel less alone through the isolation and uncertainty. Consequently, there is continued desire for brands to communicate crisis-relevant messaging around themes like thanking frontline workers, providing a sense of calm, adapting business practices, and keeping staff employed.

While this prudent strategy has served some brands well through the crisis, the ‘Laws of Growth’, and our understanding of Consumer Psychology and Behavioural Science propounds it will not be enough. The clutter of indistinguishable messages sets the stage for brand misattribution and as consumers become cognitively habituated, they will begin to ignore them or consider them as category tablestakes that all acceptable brands should deliver on. While our research suggests these ads have a slight edge on communicating Support / Care, the direct and cliché messaging misses the mark on salience and relevance to consumers.

Furthermore, consumers show early signs of wanting more balance – messaging around regular products and brand purpose is slowly becoming more acceptable. We believe that over the coming months, desire for very deliberate messaging around COVID-19 will lessen as consumers adapt to a new normal. With the wealth of very explicit messaging out there, brands can stand out by leveraging creative storytelling to ‘show, not tell’ a message that is still hyper-relevant to consumers’ current state of mind and fits more intrinsically with the category. Hershey’s recent Enjoy the Backyard feels relevant (without a cliché in sight) by subtly encouraging consumers to ‘Stay home’ with the call-to-action to enjoy a s’more in the comfort of their backyard. When tested, the story elements around a backyard treat enjoyed with family evoked emotions around Love and Comfort – the ad also achieved a superior level of emotional relevance compared to ads with more explicit messages of ‘Comfort’.

#2 – Stay true to your brand when evoking a sense of trust and stability Another major shift is that consumers have a much stronger emotional need for brands and advertising that provides them with feelings of trust and stability.

Our extensive brand positioning research at Hotspex reveals a trend in recent years: evoking feelings of inspiration and interest has become increasingly critical to motivating consumers across a wide range of categories, from Banking to Travel. COVID-19 has introduced uncertainty and it’s become important for brands to also lean into the ‘right-side’ of Hotspex’ Emotional Map (below) by making consumers feel Safe, Relaxed, and Comforted, as opposed to Excited, Alert, and Alive (on the opposite side).

We’ve all seen advertisers lean heavily on this emotional trope over the past few months. The common thread seems to be overleveraging motifs including sombre music, saccharine or austere emotional imagery, and overwrought narration. This Sea of Sameness violates ‘How Brands Grow’ and creates the perfect storm of category homogeneity. In this atmosphere there is a strong risk that a brand’s valuable marketing dollars may be misattributed to a competitor whose voice is typically more aligned with the trust and stability space. Further, by pivoting heavily into a new and unexplored tone, brands that resonate in completely opposite emotional territory will come across as incoherent and erode years of brand building.

A key challenge during COVID-19 is to avoid communicating so generically that a competitor could be imagined in your place. It’s important for brands not to lose their existing – and distinct – voice. While we need to adapt to evolving consumer needs, positioning should not be completely re-thought, especially if it was working well pre-COVID-19. Some experts have seen that older pre-COVID ads can be just as successful in the current climate, providing further permission for brands to continue ‘being themselves’.

Brands then should leverage their existing and distinct voice to speak to consumers’ missing ‘core’ emotions and satisfy the heightened need for Trust and Stability without veering into a completely new emotional space. Canadian supermarket and Loblaws affiliate No Frills is a great example of how a brand can lean in on their strengths to capitalize on the current climate. Their ad ‘A Cart Apart’ lives entirely within our new reality, describing how shoppers can maintain social distancing to a funky beat. Toronto hip-hop station Flow 93.5 recently aired the full length song – now, if that’s not distinctive for a grocery chain, I don’t know what is. The ad maintains the distinct voice from the brand’s ‘Haulers’ campaign, sympathizes with the new responsibilities that come with shopping in grocery stores (Hauling isn’t Hoarding!), all without coming across as moralizing. Our research supports that this ad is above the norm on salience and relevance, maintains the brand’s youthful and creative voice, and makes consumers feel No Frills is doing great at taking ‘appropriate steps during COVID’.

#3 – Introduce emotional balance that helps empower consumers

Another implication of Hotspex’ Human Motivation Framework is that too much of a good thing can actually be bad for a brand. Evoking emotions only on one extreme will erode those foundational ‘core’ emotions on the other side of the emotional spectrum.

Many brands have been focusing heavily on the trust and stability angle, telling consumers: ‘We’re here for you’, ‘We’re all in this together’, ‘Staying connected is now more important than ever’ – leaving consumers feeling passively supported, but ultimately powerless. Consequently, we see a growing desire for consumers to feel more actively empowered and engaged.

With so many ads focusing on how we are adapting to what we CANNOT do right now, brands that empower consumers with a unique call-to-action focused on what consumers CAN do should more effectively cut through the noise. For instance, Guinness’ ‘St. Patrick’s Day‘ ad plays off the brand’s cheerful and historically-grounded spirit to make people feel empowered to celebrate. Our research supports that Guinness still communicates a strong ‘Care’ message but with a lot more ‘Optimism’ and ‘Inspiration’ – this makes it much more salient than more traditional COVID ads and better able to break through the noise.

Taking it a step further, Burger King’s ‘Stay Home of the Whopper‘ opens with the line ‘Your country needs you!’ and implores consumers – fellow ‘Couch Potatriates’ – to fulfill their duty by enjoying a Whopper delivered to their home. The ad maintains BK’s distinctive sarcastic and outlandish tone, while empowering consumers to make an easy choice that feels responsible and rewarding.

In Conclusion

COVID-19 has disrupted consumers’ routines but also introduced a ‘tuned in’ audience for advertisers. Brands have responded by inundating the market with a Sea of Sameness. As a result, it’s more important than ever to drive mental availability through coherent and distinctive brand communications, calling for some important considerations for brands.

1. Show, don’t tell (in a distinctive way). There is power in leveraging creative storytelling to ‘show, not tell’ a relevant message more subtly.
2. Stay true to your brand when evoking a sense of trust and stability. Use your distinct voice to speak to consumers’ missing ‘core’ emotions and satisfy consumers’ needs without veering into a new emotional space that feels incoherent.
3. Introduce emotional balance that helps empower consumers. Focusing on empowerment with relevant and achievable calls-to-action will satisfy a consumer need and help you stand out from the wealth of passively supportive messaging.

Bottom line is – IN THESE UNPRECEDENTED TIMES (sorry, I had to) – it’s critical not to lose sight of whether your brand is distinct or drowning in the Sea of Sameness and we at Hotspex are here to provide the insights needed to helm your ship. Our award-winning human motivation framework and in-context behavioural ad testing platform will help understand how distinct your brand identity truly is – reach out to me at or on our website at to chat about how to future-proof your brand for success amid the new normal.

Tags: Insights

Nicole LeBarr