If you watched a lot of TV in the past few weeks — something that’s statistically likely, for obvious reasons — you probably noticed a drastic change in programming. As soon as the commercial breaks kick in, it’s quickly apparent how much the tone of advertisers has changed. Brands have adapted to COVID-19 by releasing empathetic messages, inspiring vignettes, and celebrations of humanity. But although their messages can be individually reassuring, after a while, they have started to blur together.
Why? Many of these commercials are not addressing what consumers want or need to hear right now. It took most brands 3-4 weeks to respond to this crisis through advertising — but things are moving much faster in the shut-in economy. Consumers needed to hear supportive messages a month ago, when our current situation arrived as a global shock. Now, as the effects of this global economic shutdown are becoming apparent, consumers are looking for the direct help and resources that brands can offer.
Furthermore, as we look to the horizon, we need to prepare for the next stage: a complete reimagining of our capabilities as brands as we enter a new age of disruption.
A “new normal” is already forming as people adjust to isolation and create new routines, adopt new ways to connect and interact, form new media habits, and shift mindsets relating to their relationships with the world — including with brands. This new normal will emerge just as quickly as the virus took hold of our lives, but it won’t be “normal” in the ordinary sense.
See, for example, the Instagram account @tape_measures, which is documenting the increasing prevalence of tape markings in public spaces all over the world. Initially taking a foothold in Asia, these red-tape guides, markings, and barriers can now be seen everywhere — they are becoming “normal” parts of people’s lives.
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These are immediate responses to our mobility and social distancing problems, and they have radically altered the world we live in. But in the face of changes like these, we have to start thinking about what other kinds of problem-solving tactics will emerge. It won’t be tape markings that we’ll see on grocery stores, retail spaces, and public parks in two years. It will be a better, more clever solution — a better normal.
Just as the 2008 economic crisis heralded a decade of digital disruption, this pandemic is poised to open up new avenues for innovators, entrepreneurs, and fast-adapting brands.
This void opens up an opportunity to market better — and to return to marketing in the “textbook” sense — where it informs R&D and product design decisions that are made through interpreting consumer behavior.
McKinsey & Company has already given us some guidelines. Their economically and socially viable path to the next normal is composed of five stages: Resolve, Resilience, Return, Re-Imagination, and Reform. By all measures, we are at the tail-end of the Resilience phase today. We have overcome the initial shock, but are quickly adapting to the changing realities and consequences of an evolving economic crisis.
At this stage, people want brands to help, to show the true reach of their corporate social responsibility programs, to stand by them as they transition to a new way of life. We are past the stage of resolve and reassurance, and we need to be more practical and more nimble than ever.
What does it mean to be nimble in a time of crisis? It means planning 12 months out (as usual), but also having various scenario plans and the playbook to produce a TV spot in five days if needed. More importantly, if we want our work now to meet consumers where they will be two or three months out, we have to turn our focus towards the critical stage of Re-Imagination, which will come sooner than we think.
This summer, we have to be one step ahead in our thinking, and ready to build things fast.
Let’s find ways of letting go of the red tape that we’ve gathered up to this point, and create brands, marketing strategies, and products that provide original solutions to consumers’ needs right now.