NPR: In Crisis, Brands Should Spotlight Community and Contributions

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As the country battles the novel coronavirus, brands should step up with positive and inspiring messages. That's the advice from Gina Garrubbo, President and CEO of NPR's sponsorship subsidiary National Public Media and an advertising industry veteran. With Americans sheltering at home, media consumption is up, and consumers want information or distractions, creating opportunities for marketers to connect. Indeed, at a time when Americans are worried for their health, safety and economic security, research indicates what brands say is critical. According to a recent Jacobs Media survey, 86% of public media listeners want to hear more about how companies are treating employees, while 82% want to know how companies are involved in communities and how they're helping customers. Rather than heavy-handed sales pushes or hyperbolic messages, Garrubbo recommends companies highlight their reaction and contributions to the crisis and communicate empathy.

"Authenticity and facts are more important than ever," says Garrubbo, who is a long-time believer that partnering with a venerable media partner like NPR provides brands with a safe haven and creates a halo effect. "NPR is in a unique position because it's so beloved and so trusted. NPR is really providing an invaluable service to its audience, as are brands," she comments. "NPR is an environment where brands share, and, I think, during this crisis, audiences appreciate brands that are sharing, not selling," she said. Thanks to NPR's light commercial load, research has indicated brand messages across NPR programming are well-received and impactful.

With Americans' appetite for news and information running high, NPR's listenership is soaring. NPR.org is attracting about 100 million listeners per month, up from its usual 40 million monthly listeners, with 70% tuning in for COVID-19-related content. Recent Nielsen data shows at-home audio listening is up on mobile devices, smart speakers and computers, and radio offers them a trusted news source. To keep listeners informed (and offer brands more places to attach their messages), NPR recently launched two coronavirus-related shows, a new podcast "Coronavirus Daily", which provides the latest news on the virus and responses, and "The National Conversation with All Things Considered", a talk-show radio program airing weeknights at 9 p.m. and on-demand where hosts answer listener questions sent via social media and call ins, and experts weigh in. Also, for at-home kids, NPR's popular "Wow in the World" kids podcast, hosted by Guy Raz, is now publishing five episodes per week.

Garrubbo said a broad range of categories are looking to sponsor coronavirus-related content, including financial, healthcare, technology, online/distance learning, grocery stores, sanitizing products, publishing, consulting and streaming services. The roster includes a number of first-time sponsors. For brands that want to steer clear of COVID-19 related content, Garrubbo says NPR offers ample safe havens within music and entertainment programming, and it is growing. Entertainment podcast "Pop Culture Happy Hour", for instance, is expanding to five shows a week.

To help brand partners maximize their audio efforts, NPM's team helps determine the most appropriate creative and optimal placement, including the best NPR platform and type of programming. For instance, NPR's radio audience skews older, reaching c-suite decision makers, while the digital and podcast listeners are younger, influential and educated. Some sponsors want to be squarely in the news, while others prefer entertainment or music. NPM can also craft custom audio campaigns. One offering is NPM's Brand Soundscapes, which are custom audio vignettes created by NPM's in-house production team that tell a story or explain a company's goals, often featuring the voices of employees or customers. Garrubbo said these pieces convey authenticity, and thanks to an emphasis on storytelling and high production value, mirror the tone and style of NPR's own content. They're also timely. For instance, a custom Brand Soundscape for Comcast features Senior VP David Cohen explaining the digital divide in the U.S., where low-income residents can't access technology and the Internet, and how Comcast is helping. In its markets, the company's "Internet Essentials" program aims to lower barriers with a $10 per month internet service, and low-cost computer equipment.

In Chipotle's campaign, the audio vignettes spotlight family farmers who supply the quick-service chain, including the Kruse family, sixth generation pork farmers in Iowa. Siblings Kelsey and Dane Kruse explain their work as a family operation and the major financial obstacles to farming. To help, Chipotle offers partner farms grants, three-year contracts and scholarships. During the COVID-19 crisis, NPM producers have had to improvise, recording some interviews with sponsors who are working remotely from their homes.

Looking ahead, Garrubbo said the audio industry will benefit from increased listening and steadfast work during this pandemic. "I think brands will understand the value of the immediacy and the authenticity of audio," she noted. "Accessibility, mobility and the intimacy of earbuds has made audio an incredibly emotionally connecting experience for listeners."

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