You probably don’t need to be told that what you are living through right now is not normal. Neither is this the “new normal” – a future state talked about so much you could be forgiven for imagining it to be a post-pandemic paradise. So, where do we find ourselves? We are firmly lodged in a period of loss, coping and temporary fixes. Our collective consciousness is like a 10,000-piece jigsaw upturned on the table, with only a handful of puzzle beginning to come together. What’s more, we have no picture on the front of the box to guide us. Anyone who thinks they are certain what the new normal will look like for them, their loved ones or their business needs to think again. In fact, we all need to think differently. The ways and mindset of the old normal will not be enough to get us to the promised land.
Do you remember the glory days of the old normal? Those heady days, only weeks ago, when a grocery trip didn’t require a mission plan. When you could dive deep into your work for hours at a time. Splash about in possibilities for the coming weekend. Stare off towards a distant shore, letting thoughts of a sunny holiday lap against your frontal cortex. Okay, the pace of life wasn’t this leisurely, but at least there were corners of your cerebrum that weren’t covered in contagion. The global pandemic has gotten under our skull. It is raging an information war within us.
TO GET AHEAD OF IT, WE MUST GET OUT OF OUR HEADS
It is do or die. For people. For the things we love. For businesses and brands. We need to traverse ground we never imagined having beneath our feet. We need to leave old ways of working behind. Embrace new possibilities. Reimagine our way forward. None of this is easy to fathom, while our brains are filled to the brim with thoughts of how this pandemic is impacting our personal and professional lives. The future is more slippery than ever.
It’s unprecedented how many times the word “unprecedented” has been used lately. Those who enjoy their contrary cleverness are quick to claim overuse. Semantics aside, there’s no denying seismic shifts have already reshaped the contours of our lives. Pains felt around the planet are playing out in our neighborhoods and homes. Reality is slapping us hard. We are living through the biggest crisis in modern history.
The speed and scale of change is mind-boggling. In what could’ve otherwise passed in a blur of working weeks, more than 3 million COVID-19 cases have carpeted almost every country on earth. The United States now has a third of all global infections and the numbers keep climbing. U.S. fatalities have already overtaken the nation’s death toll from a 10yrs+ war in Vietnam. A rollercoaster stock market, with sell-offs that outpaced declines of the Great Depression, now surges. Over 20 million jobs have been lost. Unemployment has shot up to 20%. A record-breaking $2.2 trillion stimulant is being injected into atrophying economic muscles. The virus can’t be bought. It won’t give in so easily.
Hyper-partisan media are turning minds to mash, too, fueled by misleading bullshit from politicians fighting to keep narratives, rather than people, alive. Fact-based media are oversaturated with contradictory information. The lack of centralized governance and coordination of a networked solution makes it worse. Without widespread testing for infections or antibodies, case tracking, or a near-term vaccine, there is no clear end game. We are adrift at sea on tiny rafts, each six feet apart, for an uncertain duration and with unknown outcomes. This is not like hunkering down until a tornado passes. Our mental world has been blighted by a Great Red Spot like that which ravages the surface of Jupiter. COVID-19 has set in. We are in a powerful and prolonged brain storm.
WHEN FEARFUL AND ANXIOUS, WE CLAMBER AT THE THINGS WE CAN CONTROL
To flatten the medical curve and keep cases from overwhelming our health system, we must choke the traditional lifeblood of many brands. Businesses are bleeding out. In the breaking weeks of this crisis, business leaders, for organizations somehow staying afloat, wanted the uncertainties packaged into something manageable. They needed plans and they needed them fast. The collective minds in the industry rose to the challenge. It was the marketing equivalent of wartime mobilization, right when we were improvising pop-up home office spaces. Factory lines that typically produced glossy trend reports, business strategies and brand manifestos were quickly converted to manufacture urgently needed COVID-19 decks. The volume of output was spectacular. Opinions fired in from every consultancy, research company and agency known to mankind, telling us exactly how this crisis would unfold and how brands should respond. This barrage occurred when we were desperately trying to work out how to secure toilet paper supplies without dying. Against the advice of any good therapist, we made critical decisions while a tsunami of raw emotions surged through our veins. Brand plans were essentially shell-shocked into place.
Behavioral psychology reminds that humans are incredibly poor at predicting the future, especially when deep in the fog of a war with an invisible enemy. We tend to be overly optimistic - World War I would only last until Christmas. We think bad things will happen, but not to us - the warning signs for 9/11 were overlooked, as were the sirens screaming COVID-19’s approach. We base our predictions on past experiences that are not good yardsticks for what’s to come – pollsters did not foresee Trump’s 2016 election win. We notice immediate changes, but not things that unfolding gradually – Global Warming can’t be happening if the Midwest experiences the coldest temperatures in decades. When complex, unfamiliar, variables are involved, people are prone to adopt extreme positions – Y2K was going to bring the earth to a standstill. We tend to think how we feel right now will be how we feel forever – before the 2008 financial crisis, we were riding a wave of cheap mortgages, corn-syrup credit, and greedy high-fives. The financial fun didn’t last.
Perhaps most dangerous about our rush to suture together COVID-19 plans in the weeks when life as we knew it was being torn out from under us, is the fact that we feel more confident just having a plan in place… whatever the plan. We ache for the reassurance it brings. Once we have our thinking locked and loaded, we are prone to confirmation bias. We become invested in our ideas and scan for new information that fits with what we already believe to be true. Sure, life will become more digital; the workforce will become more flexible and remote. Trends like these and others, already evolving before the crisis, now appear to be accelerating toward near-obvious implications for brands. But other trends are being disrupted and new demands are emerging. We risk missing the biggest implications for our lives and livelihoods.
There’s an important distinction to be made between knowing how to deal with the impacts of the virus, and planning for how it will change the game moving forward. We may have obsessed over the news enough to have a sense of how the virus itself will ultimately be beaten, but to what extent can we wrap our heads around how this pandemic will alter our world and the behaviors on which our businesses are built?
GLOBAL CRISES OFTEN CATALYST MASS BEHAVIOR CHANGE
Early last century, the end of World War I saw women achieve suffrage. The Great Depression of the 1920s led to both political extremism in Europe and the welfare programs of the New Deal in the U.S. The pains of World War II led to the birth of international organizations such as the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The HIV / AIDS crisis of the 1980s sparked social unrest and the eventual need for public health programs. Following 9/11, the War on Terror fueled mass surveillance and the steady erosion of data privacy. The paradigm shifts that resulted from these crises were not obvious outcomes. Change often unfolds in unexpected, non-linear ways.
How do we avoid the trap of the expected, especially when drawn by the gravitational pull of established practices and our longing for the old normal? How do move ahead? We have to start by not working towards strategic markers that were fixed in place in those early weeks of lockdown. Think beyond the predictable three-phase model that promises a hop, skip and jump back to business as usual. The road ahead is unlikely to be that smooth. It’s too soon to know our real destination.
We have to be willing to step outside the comfort-zones that have made us successful to date and adopt new ways of ‘being in business.’ We must become strategic hitchhikers - moving point to point, making the best decisions based on the information at hand, getting the most out of the journey, and ensuring we arrive at the best destinations in great shape.
HERE ARE SIX GUIDING PRINCIPLES FOR STRATEGIC HITCHHIKERS SEEKING THE BEST RIDE TO THE NEW NORMAL
Listen to the data
Hitchhiking exposes you to diverse voices, unique experiences, and different perspectives. Wave away the hot air and let the science speak. Embrace data from divergent sources, and avoid over-reliance on information that reinforces preconceived opinions, or a bias towards maintaining the status quo.
Use models to guide thinking. Understand the models and their relationship to the actions we can take as we move point to point.
Track the uncertainties
Hitchhiking avoids committing to a premature vision of the end destination and enables the journey to lead you to the most rewarding place. Define and monitor critical possibilities. Consumer shifts and new opportunities may be very different from what the majority predicts. Quantify cultural signals, so you don’t get swamped by long lists of quirky feel-good findings that, at best, state the obvious and, at worst, turn out to be flash-in-the-pan phenomena.
Continual tracking will enable early identification of emerging behavioral patterns on which future success depends.
Sense and adapt to changes
Hitchhiking allows you to adjust your attention and resources to best fit the demands of each leg of the journey. Continue to flex to meet changing business and consumer needs, as sensibilities and category behaviors shift. Most brands immediately pivoted, to adjust their communications in market, but created a sea of sameness in the process. Everyone read the same reports and clutched at the familiar. Now what? The months ahead will be critical.
Great brands will demonstrate courage and quickly rise up to differentiate themselves in unexpected ways.
Be ready to innovate
Hitchhiking connects all your senses to the undulations of a changing landscape you might have otherwise flown over – you learn what you are passing through and can connect dots. Spot the early warning signals and opportunities to innovate. Accept that the pandemic may have fatally disrupted your existing pipeline – many digital innovations that might’ve been differentiating, pre-COVID-19, may now be table-stakes – or irrelevant.
Adopt an agile mindset. The ingenious will be needed to escape the expected.
Stay tethered to human truths
Hitchhiking keeps you in tune with your people. Now is the time to end the lip-service and be truly consumer-centric. Over-index on empathy; people are dealing with a world of problems. They will remember the brands that help them. Alleviate and aid people on their journey. The pandemic is amplifying old pain points, presenting new problems to solve, and pointing to future opportunities. Don’t forget that, despite being subjected to a historic scale of change, we remain utterly human. Anchor to perennial behavioral tendencies, and unmet needs.
Identify how change is amplifying our inescapable psychology.
Remain faithful to your core
Hitchhiking allows you to stay true to why you embarked on this journey in the first place. Activate your brand purpose. There is no better time to prove your brand matters to the world; that it can play a meaningful role in our lives. Support the people on which the business depends. Serve your core customers. Keep these relationships healthy. Be relevant and authentic.
Remember the brand’s foundational story and its unchanging values. Use purpose as your compass.
We are facing the challenge of our lifetime. How we adapt to the changes ahead will determine our fates. Information shelling against our skull is unlikely to stop. The contagion will continue to consume our media. Politics will remain as poisonous as ever. Our homes, those final frontiers of privacy that have served as our sanctuaries, are now walled galleries of talking heads. We need to Marie Kondo our minds and focus on what matters; what will achieve real results and bring us joy.
Throw off the luggage of the past and use these guiding principles to evaluate your next move, so you can continue moving forward and ensure you arrive at the best destination, feeling enriched by your journey. Unprecedented times demand unprecedented ways of being and taking action in the world. The new normal is far from defined, nor is the road that will lead you there or the possibilities you could realize along the way. Hitchhike point to point. You’ll get to know this changing landscape and be better placed to leave your mark.
Leading brands won’t just be readying themselves for the new normal. They’ll shape it.