Don’t Sit This One Out, Warns Advertising Icon

As tempting as it may be to “sit this one out,” it’s important that brands remain visible and vocal during these challenging times. 

Going dark during this time really raises a question mark, says John Sculley, former Apple CEO and Pepsi president, as reported by John McCarthy in The Drum. “Are they concerned? Is there a problem in their company?”

Sculley participated in The Drum’s recent Can-Do Festival, and shared his thoughts on building a brand in crazy times like these.

His first piece of advice? Keep advertising. Cheap inventory and less competition make ad buys an excellent value right now. And we know that brands that advertise in down times do better in the good times.

Yet we know these are not typical “down times.” Brands are facing massive challenges in just trying to figure out the right message, both around the pandemic and more recently around the social disruption.

Great brands, Sculley explained, will be able to play a role in society greater than just selling a product. And that will likely pay off in the long-term.

“Companies that act that way will be looked upon as ones that have really helped us through the crisis. You pay attention to the brands that pay attention to you,” he continued.

Sculley knows what he’s talking about; he was a key part of the team that created the Pepsi Challenge back in 1970 that used authentic consumer responses to unseat Coca-Cola as the reigning leader in the cola wars. He insists they changed the ground rules in advertising by using consumer testimonial… not ad speak… to make their case. The strategy worked, with Pepsi overtaking Coke as the leading cola.

By the year 1983, he was working for Steve Jobs at Apple, when the iconic 1984 Super Bowl ad blew open public awareness of Macintosh computers in the most disruptive way.

Disruption has always played a role in reshaping society and consumer attitudes, and savvy brands have a history of leveraging these critical times and “never letting a good crisis go to waste,” said Sculley’s business partner and long-time friend David Steinberg who also spoke during the Can-Do Festival.

“One example [Steinberg] offered was the invention of the soap opera by P&G during the Great Depression,” writes McCarthy. “Few today remember that P&G’s cleaning ranges are why the genre is referred to as soaps. Branded shows were just as common back then as they are today.”

The pivot today could actually be toward a more empathetic approach to advertising. Even as we come out of “these unprecedented times,” the social zeitgeist tells us this kind of approach (if it’s authentic to a brand’s culture) builds lasting bridges with its audience.

“Companies that have more longer-term outlooks are going to look at this sort of pivot to empathy, and they’re going to continue with it,” Steinberg said.

As we look to what’s next, let’s keep in mind this advice of Sculley and Steinberg. This is a rare time for brands. You can sit it out and hope things get back to normal soon, or you can realize this is truly the opportunity of a lifetime to create a lasting connecting with your audience.