As we reach the beginning of the end of COVID restrictions and allow ourselves to hope for some sort of normality returning to our lives, it’s worth reflecting that in reality, little is likely to remain the same again and the brands that will win are the ones that can adapt the quickest.
According to YouGov, 67% of us believe we have learned a lot about ourselves during the pandemic and 60% of us don’t want things to go back to normal after lockdown truly ends. It will continue to be business as unusual.
It’s natural for societies to re-appraise things in times of upheaval and the changes that result tend to be both profound and long-lasting. In the aftermath of the Second World War, arguably the last upheaval as big as this one, we saw the birth of the Welfare State as the public began to demand a fairer society, while the erosion of deference and reaction to austerity began changes to our cultural fabric that resulted in the swinging sixties, the sexual revolution and the acceleration of gender equality.
There is no reason to assume that the post-COVID shift in tectonic plates will be any less profound. From new patterns of work, the shifting role of cities – as many visit them less, to potentially new social values built on community rather than individual responsibility.
On the business side, we’re already seeing the acceleration of e-commerce, direct-to-consumer brands, and the Darwinian natural selection of high street retail. And we’re only at the beginning of understanding what may be to come.
The discipline of brand strategy is further removed from the lives of real people than ever before
Now, we’re living in times that none of us have trained for, thrust into a business climate where uncertainty is the new norm, where long-term planning is futile, and agility and fleetness of foot are prerequisites. Basically, everything is up for grabs and the winners will be those who can slash through layers of conservatism and familiar process, to slingshot themselves into a new future.
This should be a golden opportunity for agency planners and strategists in agencies to add value to their clients like never before. As the mainstream motivations, habits and decisions develop; the core discipline of deep insight has never been more critical.
The problem is, despite the role of planning existing to put the consumer at the centre of campaign and brand development, the discipline is probably further removed from the lives of real people than ever before.
The 2018 Census of the UK media and advertising industry, titled ‘Who are We?’ found that agency employees are little like the very people our work seeks to influence. 50% are less likely to come from a C2DE background, while only 10% are over 45, compared to the 29% of the UK workforce who are over 50.
We are little like the people we need to understand
We are little like the people we need to understand, compounded by less and less planners having the skills to carry out their own focus groups or depth interviews. Less have a working knowledge of semiotics or ethnography and they are generally less likely to actually go out and meet the people they claim to understand. More and more, we rely on generalisations like ‘Millennials’, ‘Gen Z’ or ‘Boomers’ rather than developing genuine insight.
In an era when diversity is becoming a marketing norm, treating a target audience as one homogenous group just won’t cut it.
Of course, we have search and social data at our fingertips, but you simply cannot replace the rigour of actually talking to real people about their real lives where they actually live it. Strategy is not a desk job and when real life is changing faster than any time in recent years, it’s time to rediscover the planners craft of connecting to them.
However, while we need to get back to some craft skills, it’s also high time we abandoned slavishly following some other rules of thumb. To quote Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop to look around once in a while you could miss it”.
This approach needs to embraced by planners and strategists as budgets continue to be cut and the pace of change in both economies and culture is only moving faster. When people binge-watch a Netflix series in a single weekend, when they buy anything they want with a few clicks, life itself is becoming short-term. If the industry continues to insist on bemoaning the lack of investment in creativity and long-term brand-building ideas, then they are not only missing the point, they’re missing an opportunity.
Human nature always wins
Real people do not live life in campaigns, they get bored more easily and move on to the next thing quicker. So short-term thinking, that follows the flow and pace of real life, rather than works against it, could well be the most potent strategy you can employ. Planners need to help their agencies and the clients they serve become more agile, able to operate at the speed of today’s culture.
This doesn’t have to mean less creativity, in fact it should unlock more impact, finding new ways to capture the zeitgeist to cut-through with consumers, 74% of whom find advertising annoying (according to YouGov). It doesn’t mean having to be inconsistent either. You never know what Brewdog is going to do next, but their consistent tone and attitude knits their hit-and-run approach into one coherent story.
This approach can work because it follows human nature. Life really does come down to a few moments and we don’t remember most of them. Just the beginning, the end, turning points and moments that elevate the ordinary bits in between. Long-term consistency is actually wasteful because we forget most of it. Just plan for a few moments of magic – in other words, don’t be worry about being amazing most of the time, just be extraordinary some of the time, preferably in the moments of truth within your category.
This is nothing new by the way. Richard Branson built Virgin with a series of media stunts rather than advertising. Nike hasn’t done much traditional advertising in years, instead, continually tapping into cultural flashpoints, tactic after tactic, all adding up to the continued narrative of, “If you have a body, you’re an athlete”. PaddyPower generated rapid growth through tactic after tactic, giving a voice to what sports fans were really thinking in a way others could not, or would not.
Amazon originally built growth by simply getting into areas that competitors were not built or daring enough to do. From taking Barnes and Noble apart through making buying books online as easy as possible, to breaking into the Christmas toy market by buying all the stock from the big toy retailers, so they couldn’t meet demand come December. They didn’t advertise their way into markets, they didn’t plan for the long term, and they continually carried out unpredictable tactic after tactic.
Fortune will favour the agile post-lockdown
The companies who are willing to adapt to greater pace of economic and cultural change, capitalising on the emerging new ways the mainstream will live their lives post-lockdown, will build a greater share of the future.
There has never more been a need for the old-school craft skills of planners and strategists, something brands will need to re-learn, or get to grips with fast. But we too need to unlearn the slavish devotion to long-term campaigns, developing a more agile approach, to stay closer to the rhythms of modern life.
That is how strategists can help brands win in the post-COVID world, leaving slower competitors behind, keeping them guessing, simply by connecting them better with the changing lives of the people they serve.
Let’s seize this opportunity with both hands.
About the author:
Andrew Hovells is the strategy director at CreativeRace. He has 21 years of experience in developing integrated strategy across the entire customer journey, from TV advertising to performance media, from shopper marketing to performance digital. He’s worked on local and global campaigns for a wide range of brands including Castrol, Bentley, New Balance, ghd, Pepsi, Wm Morrison, Yorkshire Tea and Greggs.