"Not only was the science telling us it was time for a change, but our gut was telling us too," Mr. Charney said. Progressive shifted to its "Release" stage, bringing back funnier ads, including TV spots featuring Flo and her co-workers working from home and struggling to partake in company Zoom video calls. In one of the ads Flo struggles to connect to Wi-Fi and can't find where the camera is located on her computer. Chaos ensues. One team member is using a vacuum during the call and a co-worker complains: "Whoever is doing that, can you go on mute."
Mr. Charney worried about news reports that there could be a resurgence of coronavirus cases as U.S. cities and states reopened following lockdowns. In late May, he added the "Relapse" stage to the road map after he visited a local Mexican restaurant in Cleveland and saw about 100 people on the restaurant's patio who weren't wearing masks. "Everybody was trying to look in the rearview mirror" and act as though the pandemic was over, he said.
Anheuser-Busch in late June began airing " Reuniting with Buds," a feel-good digital ad intended to celebrate friends reuniting as stay-at-home restrictions were being lifted. The Clydesdales and a cute puppy race across their towns to reunite. Shots of bars preparing to open are seen throughout the ad. "We can't wait to see our buds," the screen reads, as the Queen song "Don't Stop Me Now" plays in the background. "But when we do, let's do it safely." The ad concludes: "Buds are back." However, just a few days after launching the spot, the company stopped paying to air it in states that saw rises in new Covid-19 cases and new business closures. "Sometimes it's one step forward and two steps back," said Mr. Marcondes, the U.S. chief marketing officer of Anheuser-Busch.
Progressive has tried not to be too optimistic in its ads, avoiding uplifting music that might convey the end of the crisis is in sight. The company is even creating an ad campaign that could air if a full-on second wave of the pandemic comes to fruition later this year. The company declined to share what the "Relapse" ads will look like but said the phase will focus on the psychological aspects of stopping, starting and then stopping all over again.
Mr. Charney has resisted putting masks on his characters in ads, saying that would remind people too much of the crisis at hand. Progressive hasn't received any formal complaints, though some social media users have questioned the company's approach.
Progressive debated cutting the end of an ad in which Flo high-fives a colleague after they alight from their vehicles, but decided it wasn't an issue since they were wearing driving gloves.
Brands were forced to navigate yet another new crisis in June. The upheaval over racial injustice that was sweeping the country following the killing of George Floyd caused marketers to scramble once again to make sure their ads didn't strike the wrong tone. Many paused ad spending for a brief time.
On a video call, Progressive's marketing executives reviewed ads the company had in its pipeline, including a radio spot featuring two men talking about switching to Progressive. The narrator says: "These days, nothing is normal and everything is weird. But you could still save big when you switch to Progressive." One executive said the word "weird" could be interpreted as a critique of the racial justice movement.
"I don't want to characterize what is happening with racial injustice with being weird," one of the Progressive executives said. Other executives said the word was intended to describe the climate during the pandemic.
The ad aired after the initial wave of protests died down.
Progressive is a major advertiser of the NFL. Mr. Charney and his team strategized for months on how to approach the 2020-2021 season: Was there even going to be a season? When? Could ratings take a hit? What marketing message would make sense, given all the uncertainty?
Progressive has committed to spend more than $100 million on TV time in NFL telecasts -- its largest ad push of the year, according to a person familiar with the company's media buying.
"Quite a lot of people were nervous about even going and taking a bet," said Mr. Charney. The company does have wiggle room under its NFL ad deals in case the season is disrupted, including the ability to shift ads to other programming or take back money and use it on other types of ads, he said.
"Anybody in the world today with this kind of uncertainty has options, especially when you're buying at the velocity that we do," said Mr. Charney.
The company settled on bringing back its "At Home with Baker Mayfield" campaign, which shows the Cleveland Browns quarterback and his wife living in an empty football stadium while partaking in household chores and activities such as bringing in the groceries, protecting his home from rain, and hosting a book club.
The hope was that it would be a relatable story line for viewers stuck at home while also plugging Progressive's homeowner insurance. A suggestion by some ad executives that the two characters wear masks was nixed since married couples don't usually wear masks at home.
Mr. Charney said he avoided showing Mr. Mayfield in uniform, in the locker room or even tossing a football, as protection in case the season is suspended. Progressive also filmed a few spots that will air if the season is canceled, including one in which Mr. Baker plays videogames on the stadium's big screen in the middle of the night.
The company filmed an additional campaign partly because it wanted something it could air if Mr. Mayfield got hurt or sick with the virus. Called "Sticking Together with Mark & Marcus," it shows two fictitious members of an NFL chain crew, the people who keep track of where first-down markers should be placed. The ads, which are currently airing along with the "At Home" campaign, focus on the duo at home -- doing ordinary things like showering or parallel parking the car, while being connected by a chain.
Mr. Charney and his team ultimately decided not to have his ad characters use masks in its upcoming ad that features a Flo helping the car owner whose vehicle was crushed by a basketball hoop. Still, the company shot the ads with the characters practicing social distancing.
"If you miscalculate the moment," Mr. Charney said, "it really undermines everything you're trying to do."
Write to Suzanne Vranica at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires