I write on the day that the UK enters its second period of total lockdown. In a survey conducted in early March, 69% of people said they thought the crisis would be over by June. Not a single one of us will have experienced anything like the last year. And there is more to come. My former boss at Google, Matt Brittin, used to say: “Today is the day of least change you will experience in the rest of your life.” Even he will be startled by the pace of transformation.
When we look back on 2020, I suspect we will not think of it in terms of Covid-19 but as a year of radical readjustment. And I mean RADICAL. Starting with politics. Did the Chinese invent the virus? I don’t suppose we will ever know but right now, in November 2020, their economy is up 3.2% against 2019. By contrast and despite a recovery in the summer, the economy of the Eurozone is down 3.9%. The US economy contracted by 9.2% between March and June. The UK borrowed £173.7 billion between April 1 and August 1. This is going to have to be paid back. Certainly, China feels emboldened to suffocate democracy in Hong Kong, push warships into the Taiwan Strait, impose trade sanctions on Australia and attack and kill Indian troops in a Himalayan encounter in June.
People have described the pandemic as being “like wartime.” Let’s just hope there aren’t real wars taking shape. A Washington Post poll reported that 31% of US voters believe “it’s likely the United States will experience a second civil war in the next five years.” The revelation that Covid-19 is more dangerous to black people has further destabilised a country still reeling from BLM protests. The irony of the pandemic is that while entire countries have gone into isolation, the global village has never been more evident. On May 25, George Floyd was killed by a white policeman in Minneapolis. Violent demonstrations followed in all 50 American states. And in Berlin, Brussels, London, Madrid and Paris. In Australia and South Africa, indigenous peoples are demanding that ancient wrongs be righted. In Minnesota, Christopher Columbus has been pulled down off his plinth. In Boston he has been beheaded. In the UK, the statue of former slave-owner Edward Colston was pushed into the river. Even the monument to Winston Churchill has been defaced because he was an Imperialist.
Where are brands in all this? At first glance, Nike looks to be in the clear. In 2019, its ‘Dream Crazy’ campaign with Colin Kaepernick ended up adding six billion dollars to the company’s valuation. Clearly, having values has value. So it would not have been a difficult decision for Nike to pledge $40 million to BLM causes after the death of Floyd. Target, the supermarket group, pledged $10 million. Compare and contrast with what happened in France a year earlier. On April 15, 2019, Notre Dame Cathedral was consumed by fire. Within 24 hours, Francois-Henri Pinault of Gucci had donated €100 million. The next day, Bernard Arnault, CEO of the luxury brands group LVMH, declared they too would donate €100 million. L’Oreal matched the promise. One billion euros were raised within a week. No one died.
If the pandemic has done anything, it has raised the issue of brand purpose to the top of the marketing agenda. Let alone our relationships with brands, our relationships with each other and with society at large are being reset. Whatever the “new” normal is going to look like, brands need to be prepared for it to be very different. Because there is no manual on how to manage your brand in a pandemic (yet) and marketers are having to feel their way. As a result, many are doing and saying the same things. At first, brands were asking us to stay at home. Then they started asking us to maintain social distancing. Then they asked us to be careful. And wash our hands.
They said, “We’re all in this together. We’re a people business. We’re with you. We’re here for you. We’re here to help. You can count on us. We’ll get through this. Together.” And were mocked for their pains. YouGov even came up with a cliché leader-board. “All in this together” came top with 42%.
“Unprecedented” was number two, with 34%. Then, in April and May, brands started to join us in saying thank you. Thank you to health workers, thank you to store owners who stayed open, thank you to their customers. By June, even though overall volumes of direct mail were down, charities were using mail more. It was clear that the collateral damage inflicted by Covid-19 was huge. Domestic violence, up. Suicide rates, up. Mental health issues, up. Even the slaughter of tigers. David Attenborough has been busy trying to save London Zoo as well as the rest of the planet. In July, The Born Free Foundation ran a commercial saying: “If you think lockdown is bad, imagine what it’s like for animals in captivity.” And The Social Distance Squad, children with cystic fibrosis who have spent their whole lives having to distance themselves, set up a website to help other kids. “We’re experts at this.”
By August, brands were beginning to break out of the conventions of pandemic-themed messages and even have some fun. Mimicking government handouts to struggling businesses, Country Time Lemonade offered kids bailouts of up to $100 if their lemonade stalls had to close.
By September, brands were looking forward to a new world order. “Let’s not go back to normal” is the plea from Durex. “Open Like Never Before” suggests Coca-Cola. “We’re getting used to WFH” say Apple and Microsoft.
It is hard to say how the arc will continue, now that in Europe the pandemic is well into its second phase. One thing is evident. In times of crisis, the brands that stop spending come out damaged. Kantar suggests an average 13% decline in sales of brands that stop advertising. By contrast, BranZ data shows that companies that stay in touch will recover nine times faster. Meanwhile, e-consultancy has evidence to suggest that 88% of consumers globally will stick with the new brands they have tried in lockdown.
In other words, big changes are coming to every market you can think of, including the advertising market. While many (most?) network agencies twist and turn like speared fish, there have never been so many start-ups. New business models include reuniting media and creative, crowd-sourcing global talent and combining independent specialists within collaborative collectives. As Winston Churchill once said, never let a good crisis go to waste. Let’s just hope that Presidents Kim Jong-Un, Trump and Xi aren’t thinking that same thought too, otherwise new agency models will be the least of our worries. n
Patrick Collister is Editor, Directory magazine. He is former Executive Creative Director and Vice-Chairman, Ogilvy & Mather. firstname.lastname@example.org