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The Ukraine Effect: How Companies Should Adjust Their Marketing and Advertising in the Wake of the Ongoing Russian Invasion

Recent surveys of the American public show that consumers are troubled and anxious by the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Here’s a look at how firms should best adjust their messaging to meet the darkened mood of their customers today.

By David WyldPublished 11 months ago 13 min read
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The Ukraine Effect: How Companies Should Adjust Their Marketing and Advertising in the Wake of the Ongoing Russian Invasion
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Overview

Seemingly everywhere you turn today, you can’t help but see images of war that are gripping - and tragic. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has just reached the two week mark as of this writing, but when one turns on the TV or logs into one’s social media platforms of choice, the scenes from Ukraine, of death…

…of destruction…

…of bravery…

…and yes, of the Ukrainian people’s resolve are quite gripping.

In what has been labeled as the truly first “social media war,” the Russia-Ukraine conflict has - like never before - put the whole world right on the front lines, not just with the Ukrainian military…

…and with Ukrainian civilians taking up arms to defend their homeland…

…but also with the faces of the now over 2 million Ukrainian refugees, many of whom are women and children.

Not unexpectedly, recent polling data on U.S. consumers from a leading market research company, CivicScience, shows that the mood of the American public is darkening today, and a large part of this shift in attitudes and outlook can be directly - and indirectly (due to rapidly rising gas prices brought on, in large part, by the uncertainty in oil markets today) - attributed to the conflict half a world away that is seemingly ever-present on our multiple screens!

In this article, we take a look at the current, troubled mindset of the American consumer. Then, we look at how companies, both large and small alike, can and should respond to this unique moment in time with their marketing strategies and their public messaging. Unfortunately, 2022 is shaping up to be one of those unique and important milestones in history that Vladimir Lenin spoke of in his day. This article will hopefully provide business leaders with a quick guide as to how to best proceed in the days and likely months ahead as the Russia-Ukraine conflict threatens - and alarms - the world.

Source: https://www.azquotes.com/quote/432875

The Darkening American Mood

If it were just for gas prices routinely going up 10 or more cents a day and reaching record levels, that alone would be enough to make American consumers anxious - and even depressed (especially when the rising fuel costs ripple through the economy and worsen the already bad inflation rate). However, according to CivicScience’s latest research, the darkening mood of the American consumer can be directly linked to the omnipresence of the human suffering brought on by the Russian invasion of Ukraine that we both see, and which are highly interested in, at the moment.

Many experts - along with just ordinary Americans - believed (and hoped) that 2022 would be the year that some degree of “normalcy” returned to American life. COVID-19 seemed to be receding as both the spread of the coronavirus and the measures (masking, social distancing, etc.) taken to prevent its transmission seemed to be on the wane. But then events intervened, and suddenly, 2022 became a year sure to be marked by fear and uncertainty as Vladimir Putin began his invasion into neighboring Ukraine in earnest on February 21, 2022, after months of building up his forces along the Ukrainian border.

CivicScience recently issued two reports that sought to capture the mood of the American public in the wake of COVID receding and the Russia-Ukraine War ascending. These were:

  1. Well-Being Index Falls, Americans On Both Sides Are Feeling Anxious
  2. COVID Concerns Continue to Wane, Attention Turns to Ukraine.

Based on their research into the mind of the typical American consumer, businesses of all sizes and sorts have reason to be very concerned about what lies ahead both for their organizations (and for their employees as well) and for their customers. This is because we have seen a marked - perhaps even a seismic - shift in the American public’s general state of mind - and it’s not a good one at all!

First, let’s look at how the American public, in the wake of the Delta and Omicron variants having run their course and with no comparable variant threat on the immediate horizon, seems to be more or less collectively “getting over:” the COVID epidemic. As you can see in Figure 1 (CivicScience: How Concerned Are You About Being in Public Spaces Right Now?) below, you can see that citizens across the United States were feeling as comfortable right now as at any time since the start of the pandemic with being “out and about,” mostly without fear of the coronavirus. In fact, just since the start of the year, Americans who said that they were “not at all concerned” about being in public spaces rose from 29% to 48% (approaching the pandemic-era high of 51% last seen in May 2021), while those expressing the sentiment that they were “very concerned” about being in public spaces fell from a quarter of the

Figure 1 - CivicScience: How Concerned Are You About Being in Public Spaces Right Now?

Source: CivicScience, COVID Concerns Continue to Wane, Attention Turns to Ukraine, March 2022

population to just 11% currently! Likewise, as can be seen in Figure 2 (CivicScience: How Soon from Now Would You Be Comfortable...?) below, more and more Americans are expressing confidence in resuming many of the normal activities of daily, modern American life: Shopping, traveling, going to public events, eating out, and yes, even going back to work in the office! Thus, while certainly we are all experiencing a “new normal” everywhere we go, the CivicScience research showed that Americans are becoming increasingly comfortable with - and yes, even looking forward to - a post-COVID environment!

Figure 2 - CivicScience: How Soon from Now Would You Be Comfortable…?

Source: CivicScience, COVID Concerns Continue to Wane, Attention Turns to Ukraine, March 2022

But then Mr. Putin invaded Ukraine, and Ukraine invaded our screens… and our minds! In their report entitled "Well-Being Index Falls, Americans On Both Sides Are Feeling Anxious," the CivicScience research team demonstrated just how powerfully even just the beginnings of the Russian invasion of Ukraine deeply and profoundly impacted the mood of Americans in general. The CivicScience Well-Being Index “calculates well-being as an estimated percentage of the population who report, at any moment, how strongly they are feeling positive emotions (e.g., happy or excited) and not so strongly feeling negative emotions (e.g., sad, stressed, afraid, or worried),... (and a) lower score suggests a lower overall sense of mental well-being.” As can be seen in Figure 3 (CivicScience: Weekly Changes in Well-Being of Americans, January - March 2022) below, the CivicScience Well-Being Index fell sharply when Ukraine was simply being threatened by Russia, and then it fell precipitously once the actual invasion began. The CivicScience research team anticipates that this measure of the “national mood” will continue to fall as the war in Ukraine is prosecuted by Russia going forward. In fact, the only recent parallel to the fall in the index caused by the Ukraine invasion would be that of the onset of the Delta variant in August 2021, which was largely perceived as a major setback in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Figure 3 - CivicScience: Weekly Changes in Well-Being of Americans, January - March 2022

Source: CivicScience, Well-Being Index Falls, Americans On Both Sides Are Feeling Anxious, March 2022

The nature of the decline in Americans’ perceptions of their well-being has been not just precipitous over the past few weeks, it has been oddly unifying as well. As the CivicScience researchers highlighted in their report, younger people have had a lower sense of well-being throughout the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. Today however, as can be seen in Figure 4 (CivicScience: Weekly Changes in Well-Being of Americans by Age, February 6, 2022 - March 2, 2022), in the wake of the often shocking, often depressing war news coming from Ukraine, people of all ages are now almost uniform in their ratio of having positive and negative emotional

Figure 4 - CivicScience: Weekly Changes in Well-Being of Americans by Age, February 6, 2022 - March 2, 2022

Source: CivicScience, Well-Being Index Falls, Americans On Both Sides Are Feeling Anxious, March 2022

sentiments. However, while those under age 35 report their overall mental well-being staying steady since the Russian invasion, there has been a significant decline in the overall happiness of those over age 35. Thus, older Americans see the war as a major factor contributing to a sense of unease and unhappiness today. And quite surprisingly, in an environment where political tensions divide Americans on almost every issue today, the reaction over the past few weeks to the news coming out of Ukraine has seen Democrats and Republicans well-being decline in a way that we have not seen correlate in quite some time. As can be seen in Figure 5 (CivicScience: Weekly Changes in Well-Being of Americans by Political Leanings, July 25, 2021 - March 2, 2022) below, people of both political persuasions have reached their lowest point in terms of their mental well-being over the past eight months in reaction to the Russian invasion.

Figure 5 - CivicScience: Weekly Changes in Well-Being of Americans by Political Leanings, July 25, 2021 - March 2, 2022

Source: CivicScience, Well-Being Index Falls, Americans On Both Sides Are Feeling Anxious, March 2022

Overall, as can be seen in Figure 6 (CivicScience: Weekly Changes in Well-Being of Americans [Emotional Markers], February 6, 2022 - March 2, 2022), Americans are increasingly reporting feeling stressed, worried, sad, and even fearful, with fewer reporting that they are experiencing happiness and excitement. According to the CivicScience research team, this negative shift in the mental well-being of the nation coincides almost directly with the onset of hostilities in Ukraine. And this should come as no surprise, as approximately 9 in 10 Americans are both closely following the events in

Figure 6 - CivicScience: Weekly Changes in Well-Being of Americans (Emotional Markers), February 6, 2022 - March 2, 2022

Source: CivicScience, Well-Being Index Falls, Americans On Both Sides Are Feeling Anxious, March 2022

closely following the events in Ukraine today (See Figure 7 - CivicScience: How Closely Are You Following News About the Russia-Ukraine War?)...

Figure 7 - CivicScience: How Closely Are You Following News About the Russia-Ukraine War?

Source: CivicScience, Well-Being Index Falls, Americans On Both Sides Are Feeling Anxious, March 2022

…and either very (70%) or somewhat (25%) concerned about the war (See Figure 8 - CivicScience: How Concerned Are You About the Russia-Ukraine War?). Specifically, as can be seen in Figure 9 (CivicScience:

Figure 8 - CivicScience: How Concerned Are You About the Russia-Ukraine War?

Source: CivicScience, Well-Being Index Falls, Americans On Both Sides Are Feeling Anxious, March 2022

Specific Concerns Regarding Russia-Ukraine War [%Very/Somewhat Concerned]), Americans report being fearful over not just the increased threat of cyberattacks (87%) from Russia due to the war, but also being worried about they and their family’s finances (71%) and personal safety (63%).

Figure 9 - CivicScience: Specific Concerns Regarding Russia-Ukraine War (%Very/Somewhat Concerned)

Source: CivicScience, Well-Being Index Falls, Americans On Both Sides Are Feeling Anxious, March 2022

Analysis

So, how should businesses respond today to a national mood that has changed dramatically - for the worse - since the Russian Army entered Ukraine in late February? As a strategic management consultant and professor, I believe that this may be a very unique time in modern business history, as it is the first time where a war in which the United States is not directly involved - as of yet - is dominating not just the news media and social media, but darkening the mood of many, many Americans today. The historical parallels are a bit tenuous due to the unique circumstances we are seeing today. It is not like 9/11 where America itself was attacked. It is not like the anti-war movement of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, as the protests are not against America, but against Russia (and even in Russia itself, which is indeed quite surprising, and even inspiring, to see).

The obviously right move for major global companies is to not do business with - or in - Russia as a way of protesting the Ukrainian invasion. I have written an in-depth look at how companies across all sectors of the economy are taking such actions, and why this makes perfect sense to do so both now and into the foreseeable future (See “Companies Around the World Are Saying 'Nyet' to Doing Business in Russia After the Invasion of Ukraine).

Domestically in the United States, there are specific changes that companies should look at making to their marketing and advertising immediately - and likely continue for some time - as the Russia-Ukraine war is likely to go on for some time (of course, due to the tenacity, patriotism, and innovativeness of the Ukrainian people!). These include:

  • Militaristic references and themes should be considered verboten in any advertising;
  • Appeals to calmness and serenity - and products and services that can help improve mood and well-being - should be well-received;
  • With rising gas prices and inflationary pressures on the minds of all Americans, advertising and promotions aimed at emphasizing value will be highly effective; and
  • Advertising that seeks to highlight how “we are with you” in this time - helping you out financially or just by providing comfort-related products or services - will have high appeal to American consumers today.

Companies should also work carefully with their advertising agencies to make certain that their ads do not appear adjacent to war coverage, as famously - or infamously as the case may be - happened to Applebee’s early on with an ad running split screen with video of the Russian invasion on CNN! Many advertisers are thus withdrawing from running ads during news coverage to avoid just such a situation that could not just become a viral video, but could actually cause damage to the brand.

Finally, in terms of tone, the most effective advertising and marketing in today’s unique environment need not be jingoistic or overtly patriotic - either for the U.S. or for Ukraine. However, there can be subtle, effective ways of matching the moment creatively. Take for instance the famous Budweiser 9/11 commercial, which only aired once during the Super Bowl in 2002, but helped build lasting positive brand equity for the brewer.

An even more apt comparison may be some of the highly compassionate ads aired in the wake of the initial stages of the COVID-19 outbreak here in the U.S., when companies such Dove (honoring health care heroes),...

Uber (reminding us to stay home),...

…and Apple (reminding us that creativity lives on) made memorable advertising campaigns in the most difficult of circumstances.

And so the challenge is present for businesses to respond with the right kinds of marketing and advertising to match the troubled times in which we live today. Certainly, we will see “hits” and “misses” as companies seek to hit the right note to match the mood of the American consumer in a time of 24/7 war coverage on every screen that only serves to heighten the fear and anxiety of much of the public. And out on the horizon is the specter of a very dark turn of events in Russia’s advance on Ukraine - including massive civilian casualties, the war spreading beyond Ukraine and/or the potential use of nuclear weapons. In that case, all the normal rules of advertising and promotion may need to be reexamined for how businesses could/should adjust their marketing thoughts and directions. In the meantime, every company should look at the immediate situation as both a challenge, and yes, an opportunity for building their brand’s image and standing in the minds of an increasingly anxious and even saddened American consumer today. Of course, you don’t want to be seen - or even risk being perceived - as trying to capitalize on the plight of the Ukrainian people and the tragedy of their situation. But if your marketing and advertising in this vein is done “right,” there can be both immediate returns financially and long-term brand building, even while showing compassion and concern both for Americans and for the Ukrainian people.

By Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash

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About David Wyld

David Wyld is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness. You can view all of his work at https://authory.com/DavidWyld.

Social Media Links to David Wyld:

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About the Creator

David Wyld

Professor, Consultant, Doer. Founder/Publisher of The IDEA Publishing (http://www.theideapublishing.com/) & Modern Business Press (http://www.modernbusinesspress.com)

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