25 May 2020

Thoughts in Progress

Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer, John Shaw, offers thoughts for brands to consider during coronavirus. 

We are in the midst of an unfolding drama. There is very little agreement on how it will play out. Mark Ritson  believes that 'most things will go back to how they were.' The American stock market seems to agree with him. At time of writing, the NASDAQ is only 10% below its record high. But The Economist talks about economies falling into ruins and points out that so much is still unknown that investors cannot see clearly far into the future. The end of globalisation, the defining economic trend of at least the last twenty-five years, is widely predicted. Who's right? 

Any individual who knows the answer to this question with certainty will end up very rich indeed if they have the courage of their convictions. Any brand owner will be able to put in place the foundations of a successful future. But it's really hard to tell, right now. The GDP shocks are unparalleled in modern times. We don't even know how long infected people will be immune to COVID-19, how much it will mutate and with what effects, or when a vaccine will be available. 

So we are reluctant, at Superunion, to publish lists of definitive suggestions for brand owners as to how they can flourish during and after the crisis. It's still too soon to know. But that doesn't mean we're not thinking, and here are some of the things we're thinking about at the moment. Some may be important points. Some may be distractions that will look odd in a year's time. But if they help anyone else with their thinking at a turbulent time, that's great. Welcome to 'Thoughts in Progress.'

1. Provenance 

America's most iconic product, the iPhone, carries on its back a message that summarises the global business environment of the last quarter century: 'Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China.' Those eight words say a lot, even if they're written in tiny font. 

There's been an explosion of speculation that the era of globalisation is coming to an end, exacerbated by the crisis and its resulting blame game. Already, partly as a result of sustainability concerns, people were paying far more attention to provenance and its drier cousin, the supply chain, than ever before. 

However, the crisis has certainly shown that we're all in this together. Whether this results in a further reaction against globalisation, or alternatively results in a new, more responsible model of it, is yet to become apparent. What would these different scenarios mean for global brands?

2. Localisation 

In many cases the crisis has accelerated existing trends. One of these was an appreciation of our local communities, illustrated over recent years by the growth of local markets and community events. How large brands connect to this spirit is often a challenge which needs to be approached sensitively. It's made even more complex when the physical locations that connect communities are shuttered. Does that mean they lose their role? What does it mean to be a digital local brand?

3. Science

One trend that may have changed direction concerns science. For several years, in the battle between science and politics, science has been losing. The truth hasn't seemed to matter much, only what people think. Rationality, evidence, and fact have been forced to play second fiddle to the tidal flows of sentiment, perception, and votes. 

But viruses don't listen to rhetoric. Sensible actions based on good science - medical and behavioural - have made a difference. Reassuring communication and bluster have been exposed as just that. If there are silver linings to the crisis, one may be increased respect for truth and evidence. It's about time. How should brands deploy science in non-cliched ways?

4. Relationships

Brands and organisations that have depended on a physical location have mostly seen that asset removed. But that doesn't mean they've failed, at least as brands. It's been noticeable how stores, restaurants and clubs have maintained relationships with their customers with varying degrees of success. Some simply disappear. Others find a way to keep things going and even to build in new meaning. In the case of an individual customer, how the relationship develops may depend greatly on what boxes were ticked in some hastily completed sign-up process long, long ago. It all seems somewhat arbitrary. Will the crisis result in a greater focus on our data choices?

5. The Bifurcation of Consciousness

Although this sounds like the titile of a very pretentious book, we can explain. The virus is causing people to be more aware both of their very immediate environments, and of their long-term futures. (It's the bit in between that's been squeezed). 

On one hand, people are confined to small spaces during lockdowns, forcing them to appreciate (or get sick of) the stuff that immediately surrounds them - their garden, the local streets and buildings, their co-dwellers, local wildlife, their neighbours, etc. This can be quite rewarding. 

On the other, they're thinking about the future. It's a future that's suddenly become much more uncertain, and more threatening for many. Things many people have taken for granted - secure employment, safe relatives, global travel, are suddenly questioned. Scenarios are envisaged. Conversations are had. Plans are laid. The mid-term has retreated, giving way for the moment to the far-off future and the amazing things that are right in front of our noses. How will brands connect with this mindset?