COVID-19 seems to be sticking around. Arrrgh.
As we are exhaustedly bracing for a third-wave, and seeing variant cases on the rise at a time when increasing vaccinations should be pushing the numbers in the other direction, it seems fitting that we are talking about public health restrictions and public safety marketing. And, unfortunately, the Government of Alberta’s ‘Covid Loves’ marketing campaign educating and normalizing younger Albertans’ behaviour around the risks of social interactions is as relevant today as the day it launched, on December 11th, 2020.
On March 9th, the Calgary Marketing Association hosted a webinar featuring Neil Simonton, the Government of Alberta’s Creative Director, and Kurt Beaudoin, ZGM’s Director of Storytelling, talking about the collaborative origin story of this iconic campaign.
In fact, as strange as it is to say, this campaign was one of the standouts in the sea of ‘we’re in this together’ homogeny that defined much of the advertising landscape in 2020. It isn’t often that public sector advertising is seen as being innovative or shifting the cultural landscape.
It was an interesting perspective to have the client and the agency talking about how they collaborated to create this campaign. We got a glimpse behind the curtain on how agency and client worked together to define the brief, share the insight, and shape the creation of the Covid character and the situations where he was placed. The audience also got an understanding of the frantic pace of communications and marketing within the Communications & Public Engagement (CPE) team during this stressful year. The volume and diversity of the work being pushed through their team, and the high stakes role of communications and marketing working together to save lives.
Neil kicked off the talk by explaining more about his role and his in-house marketing team within the Government of Alberta. Neil shared the early parts of the Covid-19 communications strategy – the shared roles of Dr. Hinshaw’s frequent public announcements with a fact-based informational ad campaign that could be geo-targeted to Covid hot spots throughout the province.
In November, a perfect storm was starting to emerge. New national research was published stating that Canadians were no longer placing as much trust in public health information as they did back in April. And they admitted their behaviourial compliance to health restrictions was slipping. And, here in Alberta, case numbers and hospitalizations were drastically on the rise, and small, social gatherings were identified as the cause of much of the community spread.
Albertans were tired. They had message fatigue. And while many weren’t setting out to deliberately break the rules, they were bending them by saying ‘just this once’ or ‘it’s only a small get-together’. We were on the verge and the Government of Alberta knew they needed a different message and media to breakthrough to younger Albertans and have them understand and identify with the risks of their behaviour. And the timing was critical as the holidays were quickly approaching, a time when social gatherings are typically at their highest.
And it all started with a billboard that Neil and his team created as part of the informational campaign – Covid Loves to Mingle. This billboard went live around the same time that Neil and his team briefed their creative agency, ZGM, on the new campaign challenge.
This is where Kurt Beaudoin came into the presentation and talked about the inspiration for the campaign. That one billboard, ascribing human characteristics to Covid, that the client wrote sparked the thought to personify Covid as a character. And to place the character of Covid into all of these ‘normal’ social situations that were happening across the province. Family (holiday) dinners. House parties. Birthday parties. Weddings. Wine Night. Sleepovers. And more. The campaign, once Kurt and Neil started thinking about the possibilities, became endless.
The campaign embraced humour. And while Kurt explained that it wasn’t because the Government of Alberta was taking the pandemic or their communications role lightly, but rather it was a technique to break through the clutter and disarm younger Albertans so they could self-identify with the message without getting defensive.
Kurt and Neil also talked about the challenge of pushing an important campaign message out, to a younger audience, during a global pandemic. Many of the typical channels available to talk to millennials weren’t relevant. So, the media selection became increasingly important. Like shifting out-of-home messaging to ski hills, one of the few activities that did not get shut down through restrictions. And the Government of Alberta taking a risk by launching an organic Tik Tok account for the Covid character.
The talk ended with Kurt and Neil sharing the results of the campaign. And, as a behaviour change campaign, the results were more than just shares, unique web visitors, earned media mentions and impressions.
Active Cases in Alberta dropped from 20,000 on December 11 to 12,149 on January 15, a decrease of 39%.
68% of Albertans did NOT visit with friends/family outside their household over the holidays. This was the highest of all Canadian provinces. The national average was 52%. This was even more meaningful as prior to the holiday, 60% of Albertans said their holiday plans had changed as a result of Covid. This was significantly lower than the Canadian average of 71%.
It was clear through the entire talk that Neil and Kurt had a strong working relationship built on a foundation of respect. And it sure felt like the lines between the in-house marketing team and creative agency partner were pretty blurred, and not just in the concept development stage. They shared stories of some campaign elements that were also shared across both teams.
So, while we all, I’m sure, would rather be talking about ANYTHING else right now, if we have to talk about Covid, this campaign is a good one to talk about.
About the Author
Rob Fairhead is an experienced marketer with experience on both the agency and client-side of the marketing game in Calgary, a board member at the Calgary Marketing Association and Partner and Chief Strategy Officer at ZGM Modern Marketing.