Expert Insights

Earned Media's Role in an Evolving Marketing Mix 

May 21, 2020

By Paul Parton, Group Chief Strategy Officer

From distant ripples to stormy waters 

In many ways, the disruptions we’ve experienced in our business at Golin in the last few months are reflections in a pond that all of us in the earned disciplines are standing around. 

The first ripples, clearly, were in our Asian business. But, for many of us in North America, the manifestation of what was then a localized crisis was that we teleconferenced with our Asian colleagues in their homes rather than teleconferencing with our Asian colleagues in their office.  

But, as a regional virus grew into an international pandemic, the stance of our clients began to shift quickly.   

The first impact was the cancellation of their presence at any large-scale event. SXSW was first and before the main event was cancelled on March 6th, Twitter, Facebook, TikTok and Netflix had all pulled out. And with that level of high-profile nervousness, brands quickly began to cancel their own events. So, brand experiences and product launches were all shelved.  

Following that, the shape of the disruption was often dictated by the impact on our clients’ categories. 

Frontline categories like Travel and Tourism essentially stopped all spending.   

Others, like retail and tech, pivoted quickly from consumer-focused activity to employee communications and crisis preparedness.  

Categories like Healthcare and Alcoholic beverages which continue to perform well sustained their consumer-focused, brand-led activity but shifted support away from experiential towards digital and social. 

All of our client activity, regardless of category, has been supported by a Covid-19 response team who have been tracking the spread of the pandemic and its impact on earned-media activity on a daily basis. And now, by a global strategy team that are looking at the long-term trends and implications of ‘business as (un)usual. 

When the sun starts to shine again 

It’s clear now, to us and our clients, that we will be dealing with business as (un)usual for some time to come. All models predict that the virus will cycle in and out of our lives for the foreseeable future and we no longer expect a return to ‘normal’.  

We’ve drawn inspiration from Milton Freedman, who said: 

 “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” 

We aren’t expecting a paradigm shift to result from this crisis. Rather, we’re expecting an acceleration of underlying change. And specifically, a re-prioritization of the earned disciplines within the marketing mix. 

We’ve been tracking this shift for some time. 

In North America, we have become a nation of ‘cord cutters’ and ‘cord nevers’. Over 40 million of us now live without access to cable TV. And the number of cord cutters will likely increase significantly as we enter a new recession.  

The media industry now only generates $540 billion from advertisers compared to a mighty $1.89 trillion it generates from consumers. And these consumers are willing to pay directly for content because it’s better. 76% of the Golden Globe nominees this year were from ad-free networks or streaming services.  

And we’re relying more on streaming services now than ever beforeAccording to Ypulse, 54% of young consumers report watching more content on streaming services and social media as they self-isolate. 

When we consume content on digital platforms (which, once again, we are doing more and more of now) we’re skipping advertising at an alarming rate. On average, 47% of us are ad skippers. But in a prediction of what is to come, that number jumps to a whopping 82% of Gen Z who skip advertising.  

But while we’re avoiding advertising, we’re not avoiding media. We’re consuming more of it than ever. 11-hours per day for the average adult. 

So, our clients are going to find it increasingly difficult to rely on the paid disciplines to connect with their audiences and build their brands. And as their reliance on paid media decreases, their focus will turn instead to earning attention through the earned disciplines. 

And, in our new normal, what will be required of us is to pair rigorous brand strategy with the art of generating publicity. 

Brighter days ahead 

We believe that shift will require a greater sense of collaboration and orchestration between discrete earned disciplines. Whether we are talking about PR, or design, social or content marketing, sponsorship, experiential or influencer activation; all of us will be tasked with generating conversation, engagement and stories that highlight and enhance our client’s brand. And we’ll be tasked to do that in a more unified way. 

The output will be an integrated approach to storytelling that begins with the clients core brand truth and creates cultural relevance around it by employing a combination of the publicity generating skills we have at our disposal.  

A new normal 

The old maxim that, “You are what you do, not what you say.” Has never been more clearly evidenced in marketing than today. 

The brands that are enjoying positive engagement now are those that have acted in an empathetic way that helped the American people.  

Whether that was the early decision by New Balance to make masks instead of shoes, LVMH’s decision to shift the production capacity of its perfume division to manufacturing hand sanitizer or our client Allstate who announced a ‘shelter-in-place’ payback plan and gave their customers rebates on their car insurance payments, we have applauded the brands that have made a difference.  

And with equal passion, we have dismissed those that have paid for the opportunity to run messages of condolence or solidarity without the actions to back it up.  

Of course, this is where the earned disciplines excel. We create, or encourage, or popularize big, purposeful brand actions that create cultural impact. 

And, in the coming months, there will be no shortage of opportunities for brands to do things that help the American people; and help themselves in return. 

As we’ve heard from many of our State Governors in the last weeks, we are in something akin to a state of war right now. But make no mistake, this is asymmetrical warfare. Sadly, the people who are hurt most by this pandemic, and its economic aftershocks, will be the people who were hurting most already. 

We have read widely about the devastating and disproportionate impact Covid-19 is having on African American and Latin American communities. But the disparities don’t stop there. The pandemic is having an outsized effect on any economically disadvantaged community and also on people with disabilities, people with addictions, people with mental health disorders, people with eating disorders. Many, if not all, marginalized communities are going to suffer most. Disparities for the most disadvantaged will grow. And the way governments, institutions, individuals and brands address these disparities will define the shape of the recovery and the state of society in the aftermath. 

We all have the opportunity to help. And we, as marketers, have the opportunity to do more social good. And we think that by doing good we’ll do well in the end.  

The new rules 

There will be guardrails to those actions though as even well-intentioned efforts can fall flat if poorly planned. 

Proof positive of that was in the Draper James offer of free dresses for teachers. On one level, a timely show of appreciation for a group we have never appreciated more. On another, what ultimately seemed like a cynical marketing ploy; because although the offer was featured widely in broadcast news segments the details of a 250-dress raffle that required teachers to give up their iD and credentials were poorly executed. 

That example highlights a few of the most significant trends we’re seeing in how we engage with people now. 

Firstly, the altar of celebrity is burning.   

“We can finally see who the true heroes are; not Insta-stars but instead scientists, doctors, nurses, teachers, bus drivers, people working in supermarkets…All of the “unskilled workers” are the ones keeping our society functioning, putting their health on the line for the whole—these are the real heroes.  FORBES 

We got tired of star-studded thoughts and prayers’. And seeing celebrities at home without make-up artists just pulled back the curtain. And at the same time, new heroes started to emerge. In the short to medium term at least it’s going to require a fundamental rethink of our influencer strategy.  

Secondly, we’re seeing a return of the fact. The (re)embrace of science and the scientist. As many of those scientists are becoming the people we trust most as we’re exposed to a succession of governmental and institutional fails. We’re unlikely to fall for platitudes for some time. We’re going to want to know the facts about what we’re buying and who we’re supporting. And we’ll dig those facts out.  

And third, big data is going to get very personal soon. When we begin to see how much personal data that large corporations and government have on us and about us, we’re very likely to react to it. It may make digital marketing more challenging for some time and could well lead to greater (European style) data protection provisions making their way across the Atlantic. 

A time for optimism? 

Although it’s difficult to state reasons for optimism as we’re in the middle of a global pandemic and the beginning of a global recession. There are likely reasons for it. 

The situation we find ourselves in has forced us to reconsider some of the most fundamental aspects of our lives. How we live, how we work, how we shop, who we trust, what we value. And the answers to those questions are likely to lead us toward a brighter future on many levels.  

As the waters of Venice clear and the peaks of the Himalayas are visible from northern India, we’re also building closer bonds with our families and a deeper (if virtual) connection with friends. 

And as marketers, perhaps, we’ll develop a renewed sense of purpose and a belief that when we help others, we help ourselves. 

*If you have questions or are seeking counsel, email Paul at