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Embracing a new sense of the possible

Recently our CMO, Sarah Shilling sat down with Kevin Pratt, Editor of Forbes Advisor – to talk about the challenges we’ve faced over the past year and those we’ll face in the coming year. Here’s a brief summary of the key points but, click here to listen in to listen in to their full and fascinating discussion. While you are there please subscribe to our ongoing Unthinkable Marketing podcast series.

The pandemic is driving polarisation and fluidity

While it is tempting to view COVID-19 as a pan-societal equaliser, a once-in-a-generation disruptive force that has affected everyone in the world, the truth is that it has had massively different effects on different people, different corporations, and even different countries. Here are just some of ways that COVID is dividing rather than uniting us:

  • Health: the human cost in terms of lives lost and potentially long-term life-changing conditions is profound but, many have, so far, remained untouched by the disease.
  • Finances: While those who have lost their jobs or had to cope with reduced hours may be struggling to get by, others have found themselves able to save or pay off debts because their incomes have remained stable, but their living costs have plummeted.
  • Work: the creative, middle classes may be moaning about yet another Zoom call, but for many working from home just isn’t an option and they have been forced to put themselves at risk by continuing to turn up at their shop, hospital, building site or factory.
  • Vaccinations: As the vaccination programme continues to rollout, the conversation is shifting to the idea of “vaccine passports” that may allow some to travel (eg IATAs Travel Pass Initiative), to shop or even to work (eg Pimlico Plumbers “no jab no job”) while preventing the unvaccinated from doing so
  • Digital readiness: businesses that were digital pre-COVID managed to survive and even thrive, while others were faced with having to pivot rapidly or go out of business.
  • Brand mindset: Public debate about pandemic life and the issues and causes it highlighted gave brands ample opportunity to contribute. Faced with this dilemma, many waded in only to be met with a social media backlash; others have stood back and are waiting for calmer times.

“One lesson I would draw from, it’s impossible to make generalisations because everybody’s experience of what we have been through tends to be different. So it’s not appropriate to have a single plan of action if you’re a brand or if you’re communicating with consumers.”

Keven Pratt, Forbes Advisor

The brands and consumers on each side of these various divides have reacted very differently. Rather than creating a culture of shared experience and agreed responses, the pandemic may instead be encouraging an individuality of response and a fluidity of thinking. In some respects, we saw this pre-COVID (as what we termed Flex Lifestyles) but what we are seeing now is taking this idea to a whole new level.

Fluidity will be the new normal

With the present challenging and the future uncertain, it is no wonder that attributes like adaptability, flexibility and fluidity have become drivers of success and pivot was one of the words of the year. Here are just some of the ways that we’ll see these attributes remain important over the coming years:

  • Working remotely and at pace: Industries achieved more under the pressure of lockdown than in years of previous activity. If we can keep up this pace of innovation and implementation, then we should be in for an interesting future.
  • The emergence of WFW: WFH was one of the big success stories of lockdown but some are now wanting to get back into the office and some, like Goldman Sachs are lobbying for a full-on WFO model. The truth is more likely to be the emergence of hybrid “Work From Wherever” models, though these too may create challenges.
  • Braver social media strategies: Social media examples like Burger King and the whole Weetabix/baked beans conversation show the value in rethinking how brands use social media as both content stream and proof of “normality” through not taking oneself too seriously.
  • Throwing away the rulebook: The way that innovative initiatives (like Morrison’s move to pay a minimum of £10 per hour to its workers) have been adopted around the rest of the businesses shows that there is a real first-mover advantage to be gained from being brave enough to reinvent business models in the name of social good.
  • Avoiding digital disenfranchisement: While lockdown definitely brought a new audience into the digital fold, there are still plenty excluded from online offerings, cashless living and branchless banking. This needs to change if rapid digitisation is not to leave large swathes of the population behind.

“What’s evident is that we won’t return to the way we were in terms of mass commutes between seven and nine every morning. And coming home between five and seven, or whatever it might be five days a week, I don’t think that we’re going to see that again.”

Keven Pratt, Forbes Advisor

“The challenge may be when you have 50% of your workforce at home and 50% in the office. How does that dynamic play out? You have to make people feel included and still belong to meetings and what is on the agenda to discuss.”

Sarah Shilling, UNLIMITED

The unthinkable as the new normal

Once-in-a-lifetime events leave their mark and shape a generation. COVID is our Kennedy assassination, our 9/11, and so much more: its global nature and its profound impact on not just health but the economy, lifestyles and mindsets mean that its legacy will shape the business and cultural climate of the next decade.

“Now we’re seasoned warriors, we’ve lived through a major jolt to our temperament and lifestyles. No doubt, there are things that happen in the future that we can’t foresee but we do now have the resilience and the experience to be able to manage them better. Last year the unthinkable happened for the first time. Now, we know the unthinkable can happen in the next five minutes, so we’ll be better prepared.”

Keven Pratt, Forbes Advisor

Unthinkable times call for unthinkable responses which demand flexibility of thought and action from businesses and consumers. The time for rigidity is over: the future belongs to those who can think the unthinkable and adapt to it.

This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at UNLIMITED.